How to help your teen with ADHD

teenage boy using laptop on bed

If your teen has been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or you suspect they might have ADHD, or they come to you saying they have ADHD symptoms, you’re probably wondering how you can help them. With the right support, teens with ADHD can learn how to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

This article will cover:

  • How can I help my teen manage their ADHD symptoms?

  • How is ADHD in teens diagnosed?

  • How is ADHD in teens treated?

  • How can I look after myself so I can best support my family?

How can I help my teen manage their ADHD symptoms?

ADHD symptoms can generally be managed using a mix of professional help, self-management strategies or medication. What works for one person will likely be different from what works for another. Here are some ways that you can help your teen manage their ADHD symptoms.

Manage ADHD symptoms at home

These strategies can support your teen’s independence and help them take more responsibility for their own behaviour.

  • Be patient with your teen. They might feel frustrated and like they’re struggling alone. They need to know that they’re loved and supported.

  • Help your teen set up consistent daily routines. It can help to establish regular times for sleep, exercise, mealtimes, chores and homework.

  • Involve your teen in making decisions. Together, agree on rules and consequences of behaviour. This can make them feel more empowered and help them to take responsibility. If you have other children, enforce rules consistently for everyone, so your teen with ADHD doesn’t feel like they’re being treated unfairly.

  • Praise your teen for positive behaviour. When you acknowledge that they’re making good choices and behaving in positive ways, you’re encouraging them to keep behaving that way.

  • Involve the whole family in having a balanced diet and lifestyle. Like all children, those with ADHD will benefit from getting enough sleep and exercise, having a balanced diet, and reducing their consumption of sugar and caffeine. Learn more about reducing stress through lifestyle choices here.

Manage ADHD symptoms with friends

Teenagers with ADHD might experience issues with others and need some support with their social skills. Here are some things to try:

  • Practise what to do if there’s a problem. Talk about what they could do in challenging social situations, such as when there is a disagreement with a friend or a teacher. By talking through options and solutions ahead of time, you can help your teen respond to a problem more effectively in the moment.

  • Encourage your teen to try an extracurricular activity. Joining a team sport or a music class, or taking up a martial art, can help your teen to build confidence, practise their social skills and stay focused. It can also help bring out their strengths, such as their creativity.

  • Demonstrate what positive behaviour with others looks like. Treat your teen and other people with respect and kindness. Teenagers, and most adults, respond much better when they see desired behaviours being role modelled, rather than when they are just told to do something. Learn more about being a positive role model for your teen.

Manage ADHD symptoms with school and homework

Teenagers with ADHD can have trouble with school. They might struggle to be prepared for class, forget to do their homework or find it difficult to concentrate in the classroom. Here are some things to try:

  • Help your teen find different ways to focus. They could break up tasks into smaller parts and find tools to help keep them engaged. Try Habitica, which works like a game and rewards you for getting tasks done.

  • Break up learning activities with rest breaks or physical activity. It’s often easier to finish tasks or to stay focused when you have 25–30 minutes of ‘work time’ followed by a 5-minute break. Try using Pomodoro to set your work and break times.

  • Find alternative ways to learn. For example, if your teen is finding it hard to learn something by reading, they could try watching a YouTube video about it instead. This might not be ideal from a parent/carer’s point of view, but it’s what your teen needs to do to adapt and to learn effectively.

  • Work out how to help your teen concentrate. You might help them remove distractions and agree that they give you their phone when it’s homework time. Help them figure out how they like to work; for example, some people prefer silence when studying, and some prefer having some music on.

  • With your teen’s knowledge, discuss considerations with their school. You might ask for your teen to have extra time to finish tasks and tests, or to have one-on-one help wherever possible.

You can discuss your teen’s needs with someone at their school, such as the school counsellor, their year coordinator or their homeroom teacher. You and your teen can then work with the school to come up with a learning plan that suits their needs.

How is ADHD in teens diagnosed?

ADHD can only be diagnosed by a trained health professional, such as your teen’s paediatrician or an ADHD specialist. If your teen doesn’t have a paediatrician, the first step is seeing your GP so you can get a referral, if needed. There’s sometimes an overlap between ADHD symptoms and other health conditions such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders or learning disabilities, so an ADHD specialist will go through extensive testing with someone before giving an ADHD diagnosis.

The process usually includes physical exams, neurocognitive testing and filling in questionnaires that ask about how often the teen shows symptoms of ADHD, such as being easily distracted, being forgetful or having a tendency to interrupt others. Interviews with the teen, their parents/carers and teachers are also conducted so that the specialist can get a full picture of what’s going on. To learn more about which specialists can diagnose ADHD, read our factsheet on ADHD and teenagers.

How is ADHD in teens treated?

If you think your teen has ADHD, or if they’ve previously received a diagnosis, the best way to support them is to get the help of a mental health professional. It might take some time to find the right treatment, or combination of treatments, to help your teen, so it’s important to keep trying.

Getting all the right tests and treatment can be time consuming and expensive. If your teen is eligible for Medicare and you have a referral from a GP, Medicare will cover part of the cost. Check with your GP or ADHD specialist about what’s covered.

Medication for teens with ADHD

Medication can be an effective way of managing ADHD symptoms. There are two main types of medication used to treat ADHD:

  • Stimulants: these increase the amount of dopamine in the brain, which can reduce hyperactivity and distraction. They can cause side-effects, such as loss of appetite, issues with sleep and feelings of frustration.

  • Non-stimulants: these are often used when stimulants cause too many side-effects. They take longer to start working, often up to a few weeks.

Psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medication, and this only happens after a diagnosis is received from a specialist. Teens under 18 may be able to get help for ADHD from a paediatrician.

Do all teens with ADHD need to take medication?

Many people with ADHD have found that using medication is helpful but isn’t a complete cure. Some people try many different medications before they find the one that suits them, and others stop taking medication as the side-effects outweigh the benefits. For many, the best solution is a combination of professional help and self-guided management strategies.

Everyone is different, and it may take time to figure out what combination of treatment works for your teen.

Mental health support for teens with ADHD

Mental health professionals such as psychologists, social workers, counsellors and peer workers can’t prescribe ADHD medication, but they can help your teen manage symptoms of ADHD. They can:

  • use therapeutic treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) to help your teen manage their symptoms

  • help with experiences with stress, anxiety and depression, which can worsen ADHD

  • listen to any thoughts and challenges your teen might have and offer their professional advice

  • support your teen with anything they might not be comfortable sharing with you or someone they know. Try not to take it personally – there are things that teens just don’t want their parents/carers to know about.

How can I look after myself so I can best support my family?

Supporting your family and a teenager with ADHD can take a lot of work. While it’s easy to prioritise the needs of your family, it’s important to take care of yourself, too. If you’re healthy and well, you’ll feel less stressed and be better able to help others. Try the following:

  • Give yourself time off. Whether you watch an episode of your favourite show, meditate or just sit in the sun, it’s important to recharge.

  • Connect with other adults. Having a chat with another adult, whether it’s about what you’re going through or something unrelated, can help you feel connected with your support network and the world around you.

  • Get extra support if you need it. There are people who care, so you don’t have to go through it alone. Reach out to other family members, friends, community leaders, or a GP or mental health professional. Check out the ReachOut Parents Online Community to anonymously read about other parents’/carers’ experiences, or post about your own.

Learn more about making self-care a family priority so you’re better able to support yourself and your teen.

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