This article was written by a clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor based in Sydney.
Does your teen struggle with focusing and paying attention?
Do things get tense at home because your teen has trouble with listening to and following instructions?
Does your teen often get distracted midway through tasks, leaving them unfinished?
Has your teen always struggled with school and with staying focused when working on difficult or mundane tasks?
Is your teen forgetful?
Do you find that your teen has trouble sitting still and often interrupts others?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, it's likely that things are pretty challenging at times for you, your family and your teen. Symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity could indicate that your teen has ADHD. Thankfully, there are plenty of options for getting support for symptoms of ADHD.
This article will cover:
- What is ADHD?
- Does my teen have ADHD?
- What practical help is available to support my teen at home?
- What clinical support is available for my teen?
- Should I seek a formal assessment for ADHD?
- How do I get support as a parent/carer?
What is ADHD?
ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (previously known as ADD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that the brain of someone with ADHD is different (neurodivergent) from that of the average person (neurotypical). Compared to a neurotypical person, someone with ADHD will have greater difficulty in paying attention, sitting still and/or not acting on their impulses. Symptoms of ADHD first appear in childhood and impact upon the person’s ability to engage with daily tasks at home, at school and within their friendships.
Not everyone who gets an ADHD diagnosis will experience the full range of ADHD symptoms. Here are the different types of ADHD:
- Inattentive type. People with ADHD (inattentive type) have trouble with attention and concentration. Completing tasks, such as school work, household chores, projects and assignments, is tricky due to difficulty in maintaining focus and being easily distracted.
- Hyperactive/impulsive type. People with ADHD (hyperactive/impulsive type) have trouble with fidgeting and sitting still, as well as difficulties caused by acting on their impulses, such as doing things before thinking them through and interrupting others.
- Combined type. People with ADHD (combined type) have trouble with both attention and concentration and with hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Does my teen have ADHD?
Lately, a lot of young people have been ‘self-diagnosing’ ADHD after learning about it on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. Many teens who are struggling with school and feeling like they don’t fit in with their peers may relate when hearing about the unique struggles of ADHD, and labelling themselves as having ADHD might offer an explanation for their difficulties. It’s also great that information is much more accessible than it used to be, so more and more people are learning about wellbeing and mental health conditions.
However, as ADHD is a complex disorder, it’s important to get an assessment for ADHD from a trained specialist. Symptoms such as inattention, poor concentration or hyperactivity aren’t always due to ADHD. These symptoms are fairly common, especially in teenagers, and can appear due to stress, boredom, insufficient sleep, too much caffeine, and low or high blood sugar, or they can be side-effects of drugs or medications.
Sometimes these symptoms can be caused by an anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions. Therefore, it’s important to have the right diagnosis so that your teen gets the right advice and treatment plan.
What practical help is available to support my teen at home?
Getting clinical help doesn’t always have to be the first step in helping your teen. It can be a long and expensive process, and it may not even be possible for some families. Luckily, there are practical strategies that you can use to support your teen to manage their ADHD symptoms at home, at school and in their relationships.
To learn about ways your teen can manage symptoms of ADHD on their own, and for ideas on how to support them to manage their own symptoms, check out our article here.
What clinical support is available for my teen?
Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist
Your teen’s GP or paediatrician can provide a referral to a psychologist, if appropriate. A psychologist can work with your teen to manage their ADHD symptoms. They can help them to:
- learn time management skills
- improve their communication and listening skills
- improve their attention, focus and memory
- improve their impulse control
- learn skills for overcoming procrastination
- gain skills for managing their emotions
- get some support at school (see “Special provisions and learning support at school”, below)
- improve their mood and their self-esteem.
Special provisions and learning support at school
Getting a diagnosis or supporting documentation from a psychologist, psychiatrist or GP will mean that your teen can access special consideration and learning support at school. Schools can organise for your teen to take breaks in tests and exams, and to sit in a different room from other students so that there are fewer distractions.
These provisions are particularly helpful for kids who struggle with paying attention in their final years of high school, and might make all the difference so that your teen achieves the results they need for whatever post-school plans they have.
One benefit of seeking a formal assessment is that if your teen has ADHD, the doctor can trial some medications to help them manage their symptoms. Many people with ADHD find that they are better able to manage their symptoms when medication is combined with therapy and self-management strategies. Chat with your doctor about whether medication is appropriate for your teen.
Should I seek a formal assessment for ADHD?
To get a diagnosis of ADHD, your teen will need to complete a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment with a specialist psychologist or have an assessment appointment with a psychiatrist or paediatrician.
This assessment will determine whether or not your teen meets the criteria for a formal diagnosis of ADHD. In addition to opening up the option of medication, if your teen has been struggling with their self-esteem related to difficulties at school, getting a diagnosis of ADHD might also be a validating experience for them. A diagnosis might offer a helpful explanation for their difficulties and help to challenge any negative beliefs they might have developed, such as ‘I’m dumb’ or ‘I’m bad at school’.
How do I support my teen to get an assessment for ADHD?
In Australia, only paediatricians and psychiatrists have the specialised knowledge and training both to diagnose ADHD and to prescribe medicine to treat it.
While there are some ADHD assessment clinics around, and certain clinical psychologists will have completed the necessary training to be able to assess and diagnose ADHD, only a medical doctor (e.g. a paediatrician or a psychiatrist) can prescribe medication to assist with the management of ADHD symptoms.
Depending on the age of your teen, they might still be able to see a paediatrician for an assessment. However, if they are too old to see a paediatrician, you can ask your family doctor for a referral to an ADHD specialist clinic or a child and adolescent psychiatrist to complete the assessment. Unfortunately, there are often long waiting times for these services and the cost of a comprehensive assessment is significant.
If you are seeking an assessment, you can chat to your family doctor about other options or call around to other clinics as a way to get your name on a couple of different waiting lists. It is also worth noting that many universities offer reduced-fee (and sometimes free) ADHD assessments via their psychology clinics, and the report they provide as part of the assessment could be helpful supporting documentation.
How do I get support as a parent/carer?
Parenting a teen with inattention or hyperactivity can be frustrating and challenging at times, and emotions can run high. It’s very likely that at one time or another the ADHD has put a strain on family relationships. It’s important to ensure that you, too, are getting the support you need. Here are some options for accessing support for parents and carers:
- ReachOut One-on-One Support, to book a free chat with a family professional.
- ReachOut Parents Online Community, to connect with other parents and carers. Read about other people’s experiences, comment on a post to show your support or give advice, or make a post of your own.
- Parentline Australia, which offers free telephone counselling for parents and carers. Find your state’s Parentline number here.
- Talk things through with your own psychologist or a family therapist for some support and advice on managing the tricky situations that arise at home.
One of the best ways you can support your teen is by being kind to yourself as a parent and making sure you are being well supported yourself.