As children become teenagers, they face new and challenging life stages such as puberty and high school. They gain a bit more independence at a time when they’re trying to figure out who they are. The increased responsibilities and expectations that come with being a teenager can be hard to manage, and especially so for those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms or diagnosed ADHD.
Whether your teen already has an ADHD diagnosis or you’re wondering whether they could have ADHD, this article can help.
This article will cover:
- What is ADHD?
- Is ADHD different in boys and girls?
- What are the signs and symptoms of ADHD in teenagers?
- How can ADHD affect my teen’s life?
- Does my teen have ADHD?
- When should I take my teen to the doctor?
- How is ADHD diagnosed?
- How can I support my teen with ADHD?
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a condition that affects 1 in 20 children in Australia. ADHD affects the brain’s executive functioning, which is the ability to self-regulate and control our words, thoughts, actions and emotions. Children and teens with ADHD may find it hard to focus, or they may become hyperactive, to the point where it affects their schooling, family life and relationships.
There are three types of ADHD:
- Hyperactive: Teens with this type of ADHD often experience symptoms such as fidgeting and restlessness. They might also find it hard to wait their turn in conversation (i.e. they constantly interrupt others).
- Inattentive: Teens with this type of ADHD often experience symptoms such as forgetfulness and distractibility. They might also find it challenging to listen to or follow a conversation.
- Combined: This is the most common type of ADHD, where a person experiences a mix of symptoms including hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity.
Having ADHD doesn’t mean that your child is any less capable or intelligent than those who don’t. It just means that their brain works differently and they need your support to figure out how to manage it.
Is ADHD different in boys and girls?
Some studies have reported that ADHD is more common in boys than in girls. However, this research only reports on people who have been diagnosed. It doesn’t mean that girls and women are less likely to have ADHD.
Girls are more likely to experience ‘inattentive’ ADHD, while boys are more likely to experience ‘hyperactive’ ADHD. The ‘inattentive’ type is less visible to teachers and parents because it isn’t as disruptive as the ‘hyperactive’ type. This might explain why fewer girls are diagnosed than boys.
What are the signs and symptoms of ADHD in teenagers?
ADHD symptoms tend to appear early in childhood. In order to qualify for an ADHD diagnosis, some symptoms must be present before the age of 12. How noticeable symptoms are can depend on the situation and may change over time, so sometimes these symptoms might not be obvious until your child is a bit older.
There are three main groups of symptoms of ADHD.
Trouble concentrating or focusing
A teen with ADHD might find it hard to concentrate on certain things. They might have trouble:
- following instructions
- focusing on things
- ignoring small distractions, such as someone moving, sounds, their thoughts, or phone notifications
- getting things in order or doing things on time
- focusing on conversations with friends and family.
But there are positives, too! Inattentive symptoms can also mean your teen does well at things that require them to think ‘outside the box’ and be creative, such as coming up with new ideas and brainstorming.
Finding it hard to stay organised
People with ADHD are less likely to think about the long-term positive or negative results of their actions. A teen with ADHD might often:
- have trouble with or forget to finish chores or homework
- be late for or forget to show up to appointments or meetings with friends and family
- lose things such as schoolwork, keys, their phone or headphones.
But there are positives, too! Hyperactive symptoms might mean that your teen is able to do things that others spend time overthinking, such as trying something new, because they’re less likely to think about what will happen in the long term.
Thinking and acting in the moment
People with ADHD are often influenced by whatever thoughts they’re having at a given moment. As a result, they might:
- feel bored or restless
- interrupt others or talk a lot
- use other people’s things without asking
- fidget with objects such as keys and pens
- be unable to sit still at school or the dinner table
- fixate on one thing (e.g. an app, game or activity) without realising how much time has passed
- engage in risky activities.
But there are positives, too! Impulsive symptoms in your teen can mean that when they find something interesting, such as a subject at school or a hobby (e.g. a sport or a musical instrument), they dive deep into it and are dedicated to learning and practising. In everyday life, your teen might also be inclined to think and act ‘in the moment’, so there’s never a dull moment when they’re around.
How can ADHD affect my teen’s life?
ADHD can affect many areas of a teen’s life:
- Academically: Symptoms of ADHD include trouble concentrating, focusing or staying organised. Without the right guidance, a teen with ADHD might find it hard to keep up at school.
- Friendships: About half of adolescents with ADHD have problems with peer relationships. This is often due to the symptoms of impulsiveness, as a teen with ADHD might interrupt others, be disruptive, or not pick up on some social cues such as when a friend gets annoyed that they’re being interrupted.
- Emotionally: Adolescence is an emotional rollercoaster for all kids, but teens with ADHD may have trouble with regulating their emotions due to symptoms of impulsivity. This can make it tough for them to cope with feelings of anger, frustration and sadness, which can also impact on those around them.
- Risk-taking behaviour: As teens with ADHD are less likely to think about the long term, they might engage in risky behaviours earlier than other teens. This may include drinking alcohol or taking other drugs, or engaging in unsafe sex.
- Driving: Teens with ADHD may have challenges learning how to drive or to stay safe on the road because of inattention or impulsivity.
With the right support, your teen can have fulfilling relationships and thrive at whatever they choose to do.
Does my teen have ADHD?
Because of all the information available online, teens, young people and parents/carers are gaining greater awareness and understanding of mental health conditions such as ADHD. Many people are turning to the internet to ask whether they or their child might have this disorder. As a first step, it’s great that we’re able to access information so easily, and that we’re taking the time to learn more about mental health and trying to do the best for ourselves and our families.
However, ADHD can’t be diagnosed online. In fact, even GPs and most psychologists aren’t able to diagnose it. That’s usually left to ADHD specialists. Learn more about what to do when you think your teen might have ADHD, including the different types of doctors that can help.
When should I take my teen to the doctor?
It’s normal for teens to get distracted and restless occasionally, but if the inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive symptoms persist and have been around since before they were 12, they might have ADHD.
If you have concerns, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible so that they can refer you to a specialist, if appropriate. A diagnosis can only be made after a detailed assessment of your teen’s behaviour and history, which might include interviews with you and your teen’s school. Seeing a professional will give your teen the support they need and give you the tools to best help your child.
How is ADHD diagnosed?
If you’re looking to get an ADHD assessment for your teen, here’s how the process generally goes:
- ADHD assessment clinics and certain psychologists are able to assess and diagnose ADHD.
- Only a qualified doctor, such as a paediatrician or psychiatrist, can prescribe medication for ADHD.
- Most GPs can’t diagnose or prescribe medication for ADHD, but they may be able to give you a referral to someone who can.
- If your teen is under 18, seeing a paediatrician is the best way to assess and treat them for ADHD.
- If your teen is over 18, they’ll need to visit a psychiatrist or ADHD specialist clinic. Unfortunately, there are significant waiting times and comprehensive assessments can be expensive.
If your teen has been diagnosed with ADHD, or they’re on a waitlist for diagnosis, check out some practical things you can do to help manage their symptoms in the meantime.
How can I support my teen with ADHD?
Most people find that a mix of seeing a psychologist and using self-management strategies or taking medication helps with their ADHD symptoms. Everyone is different, so you and your teen might have to work together to figure out what’s effective for them. Check out some practical tips and next steps to support your teen with ADHD.