How is ADHD in teenagers diagnosed?

In this article we’ll cover:

What are the symptoms of ADHD in teenagers?Do symptoms vary between the sexes?How is ADHD in teenagers diagnosed?How can I support my teenager if they receive an ADHD diagnosis?Look after yourself, too
A teenager with pink hair is sitting on the couch with a book. The book is open but they are looking at something else in the distance.

Exploring an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis might feel intimidating, but it can be beneficial for teens who are experiencing ADHD symptoms. 

Receiving a diagnosis can be validating for a teen who is questioning why they find it more difficult than their peers to do certain things. It can give them a better understanding of what they’ve been going through and open up opportunities for managing their  ADHD.

What are the symptoms of ADHD in teenagers?

There are three different types of ADHD.

Hyperactive and impulsive ADHD

These symptoms involve having a lot of energy, moving around and talking a lot, and acting without thinking.

In childhood, this type of ADHD is the most noticeable, especially in classroom settings.

Inattentive ADHD

People with this type of ADHD have trouble paying attention. It is often less likely to be noticed than the hyperactive and impulsive type, especially in classroom settings, because it is less overt.

Inattentive ADHD in teenagers can start to become more noticeable as they face more expectations at school, at work or in relationships. As they get older, teens are expected to handle more responsibilities on their own, which can be a challenge for those who struggle to pay attention.

A combination

Some people experience a mixture of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention.

Do symptoms vary between the sexes?

ADHD symptoms can differ between sexes. So far, the research has focused on ADHD in males and females, but not across the sex or gender spectrum. It has found that males are more likely to be diagnosed with hyperactive and impulsive ADHD, while females are more likely to be diagnosed with inattentive ADHD. However, a teen could be diagnosed with any type of ADHD, regardless of their sex.

Here are some ways in which the symptoms can typically vary between teenagers who are assigned male or female at birth:

Typical symptoms in teenage boys

  • Fidgeting, tapping their hands, or shaking their legs

  • Getting up and walking or running around at inappropriate times

  • Talking a lot and interrupting other people who are speaking

  • Difficulty waiting their turn in line or during activities

  • Physically aggressive behaviour, such as fighting and hitting

Typical symptoms in teenage girls

  • Hyperfocusing on things that interest them but having difficulty staying focused on other tasks

  • Being easily distracted and appearing not to listen

  • Daydreaming or zoning out

  • Trouble with time management, completing tasks and staying organised

  • Often losing their belongings

  • Fidgeting by doodling or wriggling in their seat

  • Verbally aggressive behaviour, such as making fun of others or name-calling

Because females tend to be diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, it can take longer to realise that they might have a medical condition. Even females who have hyperactive and impulsive or combined ADHD don’t necessarily have the same behaviours as males with the same diagnosis. Psychologist Rashida Dungarwalla explains some other reasons why females tend to be diagnosed later:

There was a time when women and girls were not getting as many diagnoses or even being considered for ADHD because they’re able to hide or “mask” their symptoms. Or they’re not being seen by the people around them as having anything to do with neurodiversity, and their symptoms might be misjudged as personality traits.

If your teen connects with some of these ADHD symptoms, you can share with them this article from our website for young people, so they can learn more about ADHD.

How is ADHD in teenagers diagnosed?

Maybe your teen has done an ADHD test online or seen something on social media that has made them question whether they have this condition. Or perhaps they’ve been having a hard time lately, and you’ve noticed that their behaviour matches some of the ADHD symptoms in teens. The first thing to do is to chat to your GP about it. They can listen to what’s been going on and provide you with a referral to a mental health professional with experience in ADHD diagnosis, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or paediatrician. 

It could take up to three sessions with a mental health professional to get an ADHD diagnosis. This is because there is much to understand, involving having conversations with your teen, and getting you, your teen and maybe even their teacher to complete a questionnaire. The mental health professional will then assess this information against a set of criteria to work out whether your teen has ADHD or not.

How are parents and carers involved in diagnosing ADHD in teenagers?

In their later teen years, such as 17 or 18, your teen might complete the ADHD assessment independently, but up until then parents and carers are usually involved. This process includes:

  • completing questionnaires 

  • having a one-on-one session with your teen’s therapist

  • joining your teen at their sessions, if that’s what they want. 

Including parents and carers in this process helps to give the mental health professional a full picture of what’s going on. Rashida Dungarwalla explains:

Parents and carers are often so involved in their child’s life, they’re going to be seeing things from a different perspective. If the teen doesn’t feel confident straight away to share everything, their parent or carer can share things on their behalf. The teen can always share their version of their experience later on.

Your teen may also need your support before and after the sessions. Here are some ways to support them.

  • Plan some down time or an activity before the appointment to help your teen relax. For example, instead of going straight from school to the appointment, you could stop for a snack somewhere on the way.

  • Your teen may feel drained after their sessions, so having something planned afterwards can give them an activity to look forward to and help them decompress. This could be anything that you know they would enjoy, such as going for a walk, watching a movie, playing a video game or stopping for ice-cream.

  • Your teen may feel anxious or intimidated before meeting their therapist. Rashida Dungarwalla suggests framing it as an exploration phase. ‘There’s no pressure in what’s expected of these appointments. The therapist is just there to get to know you and support you.’

How can I support my teenager if they receive an ADHD diagnosis?

If your teen is diagnosed with ADHD, it’s natural to worry. Some questions that might run through your mind include: What’s going to happen now? Will my teen be excluded by their peers? Are they going to struggle? But once they have their diagnosis, they will be able to start exploring different ways of managing the challenges they were already experiencing.

Aside from providing a diagnosis, mental health professionals can provide ongoing support. A psychiatrist or paediatrician can prescribe medication if they think it will help in managing your teen’s symptoms. There are different types of medication that can be prescribed for ADHD and they work by changing the messengers in the brain that influence hyperactivity, impulsiveness, memory and attention.

A psychologist can also help both you and your teen learn new tools and strategies for managing their ADHD. Not only will your teen learn about what they can do to help themselves, but the psychologist can help you to work out what can be introduced at home and done as a family to support your teen.

These things might include:

  • creating a consistent daily routine

  • experimenting with different approaches to homework and studying

  • finding an extracurricular activity that helps your teen to practise being focused and that will build their confidence.

There are also lots of positive aspects to having ADHD. Remind your teen about the upsides of being diagnosed with it by sharing these articles: Learning to love having ADHD and 5 ways ADHD affects your life that you might not expect.

Look after yourself, too

Supporting your teen through this process can be quite a journey – financially, physically and emotionally – and receiving an ADHD diagnosis can be a big shift for your family. Make sure that everyone in the family, you included, takes time for self-care. This will help to boost your mood and your energy.  

For some parents, helping their teen get an ADHD diagnosis may change how they view themselves and their memories. Rashida Dungarwalla explains:

Some people, when their child gets diagnosed, start to reflect back on their own experiences from when they were a child or teenager. They might connect some dots and realise that their own experiences might have been signs of ADHD.

In this case, you can follow the same initial steps as your teen and see your GP for a referral. You would need to see a different mental health professional to your teen, and the process for diagnosing ADHD in adults is slightly different. You can even see a counsellor or psychologist if you’re not wondering whether you have ADHD yourself but are finding things stressful or hard to deal with and want to talk to a professional.

There are several other support options for parents and carers. They include support groups and helplines where you can talk to others who have been through similar experiences with ADHD in teenagers. You can find them through these resources:

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