ADHD in Teenagers: Symptoms, Treatment, and Diagnosis
Much like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adults, the symptoms of ADHD in teenagers include difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. It can impact school performance, social interactions, and self-esteem. Effective treatment typically involves a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral strategies. Early diagnosis and tailored support are crucial for improving mental health and daily functioning. Understanding how ADHD impacts teens is essential for parents, educators, and healthcare providers to provide the right support and interventions.
Teenage Chaos: Is it Me or ADHD?
Ever feel like you're stuck in a whirlwind of forgotten deadlines, messy rooms, and volatile emotions? Yeah, me too. Turns out, that wasn't just teenage angst (although there was plenty of that, too!) - it was undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that made my teen years an adventure of disorganization and confusion.
I wasn't diagnosed until my late 20s, so my teenage years were a blur of lost homework, forgotten appointments, and feeling like I couldn't catch my breath. But hindsight is 20/20, and if I could travel back in time with the knowledge I have now, this is what I’d want to know. 👇
- Internal hyperactivity can feel like your brain has ten browser tabs open at once, even when you're trying to focus on one thing. Concentrating on anything becomes a challenge, especially in a classroom environment. This can also lead to problems sleeping. 😴
- Procrastination, forgetfulness, and time blindness mean that work is often either done moments before class or not at all. You’re constantly trying to keep up and avoid yet another missed deadline, all while telling yourself you have plenty of time.
- Sensory overload and struggles organizing can mean your room looks like a hurricane zone, despite your best efforts. 🌪️
- Impulsivity might be why all your teachers tell your parents that you talk too much or tend to blurt out answers without thinking.
- Emotional dysregulation can be a wild ride for you and those around you as you can switch from intense joy to crushing sadness, all in the blink of an eye. If this wasn’t enough to deal with, rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD) can make it difficult to make and maintain friendships. 👩❤️👩
If you’re a teenager living with ADHD or you’re looking to understand and support a teen who is struggling, this blog post is your survival guide for those turbulent years.
Understanding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Teenagers
Even today, there’s still very limited information about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. We do know that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), ADHD is a neurodivergent, developmental disorder that appears to be something you have from birth, or develops in early childhood.
When most people think of ADHD, they picture young, hyperactive boys. And while ADHD children may seem more common, ADHD affects adolescents and adults, too. With increased awareness, more and more people of all ages are discovering that they or their children meet the criteria for ADHD.
As a child matures into a young adult, they’ve already got a lot of changes happening, so they need support. Imagine facing the challenges of ADHD and puberty. 😵💫
As a young adult living with undiagnosed ADHD, a lot was going on with both my body and my brain; everything was changing all at once. Plus, for those of us with a menstrual cycle, ADHD symptoms can get worse during the menstrual cycle, which can really make things even more tough for teens.
Oh and let’s not forget that we’re supposed to transition from being a child into a young adult and prepare for more responsibilities - all while trying to overcome the challenges of day-to-day struggles that come with having ADHD.
The main thing to understand is that compassion, and especially self-compassion, are essential.
Now, before we get into what an ADHD teen’s life looks like, let’s look at the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. 👇
Official Diagnosis for Teens with ADHD
Everyone, at any age, goes through the same process to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) created by the American Psychiatric Association to reach an accurate diagnosis. 📚
During the assessment, you’ll be checked for the symptoms listed in the DSM-5.
Here are some of the guidelines to be considered for an ADHD diagnosis during your teen years:
- Six or more symptoms of Inattentive ADHD until the age of 16. Five or more symptoms at the age of 17 and up.
- Six or more Hyperactivity/Impulsivity ADHD traits. Five or more symptoms at the age of 17 and up.
- When a teenager has enough symptoms under each type, they can be categorized under the Combined ADHD type.
- These struggles should affect two or more settings (home, school, work, or social skills).
- The symptoms should have started before age 12.
There is clear evidence of substantial struggles in at least one major area in life (social settings, academic expectations, occupational performance)
Take our fun online quiz to visualize your ADHD traits and learn more about your brain!TAKE THE FREE TEST
The Reality of Life for Teenagerss With ADHD
ADHD can manifest differently in everyone, but for ADHD teens, these challenges often impact academic performance, social skills, and emotional development the most.
Let's explore five key ways in which ADHD can significantly impact their lives:
Inattention and Hyperactivity
ADHD is divided into inattentive, hyperactive, and combined types. Often, inattentiveness arises from the overload caused by hyperactivity, which scatters focus across too many stimuli. 🤯
Imagine trying to study with ten browser tabs open in your head, each demanding your attention. This constant internal chatter, fueled by hyperactivity, was my daily reality, and it’s a common experience for those with ADHD.
Prioritizing and focusing on a single task can feel impossible; it can make it difficult to absorb information, complete assignments, and stay organized. This can lead to academic struggles, missed deadlines, and feelings of frustration and inadequacy. This is especially true when you’re actively trying to do these things. 😞
While others absorbed information effortlessly, I struggled to stay on track. I flitted from one thought to another. When focusing feels overwhelming, it can trigger stimming behaviors like doodling, skin picking, or impulsive behaviors like chatting too much and interrupting.
When I struggled to focus as a teen, it wasn't just daydreaming; whilst it appeared that way, it was actually due to a neurological mismatch. My brain's wiring didn't align with what my environment demanded from me. 🧠
Teenagers have erratic sleeping patterns at the best of times. They need more than an adult, and yet rarely get to bed on time.
For someone with ADHD, this can be a bit of a vicious cycle. After all, how can anyone sleep when, as soon as your head hits the pillow, your thoughts start to race and ideas start bouncing around for hours? It’s great for creativity, but terrible for your energy levels. 💤
On particularly bad days, this can turn into rumination and dwelling on negative feelings. Since most teens with ADHD tend to suffer from emotion dysregulation, this can escalate to catastrophizing. This is where you convince yourself something is far worse than it actually is.
It;s important to note here that If this becomes a regular thing, getting help from a professional like a clinical psychologist is super important. It might be linked to deeper mental health issues like depression or anxiety, especially for teens dealing with ADHD's emotional ups and downs.
So what do you do? Scroll your phone, watch videos, read - anything to make the time pass as you wait for your brain to be quiet, and hope that you manage to get a few hours sleep before your alarm goes off.
When this used to happen to me, I’d wake up exhausted and my ADHD symptoms were even worse. Sleep is essential for good brain function and I simply didn’t have enough most days.
Executive dysfunction is the culprit behind your procrastination, forgetfulness & disorganization.
Do you wonder why many people with ADHD struggle to organize their thoughts and even belongings? It's common for many teens with ADHD to have their school supplies, clothes, and personal items in a disorganized mess.While other young adults may already seem like they have their lives all figured out, teens with ADHD often struggle with executive functioning.
Executive function is the brain’s self-management system and gives us the ability to plan, organize, and get things done.
Executive dysfunction is one of the core symptoms of ADHD. It can make it tough to do everyday tasks that involve organization, time management, and maintaining friendships.
You might easily forget deadlines 📅 or fail to turn in a project on time because you can't organize your thoughts well. When I was younger, I hated any kind of home organization or chores. That meant I was constantly living in a room full of chaos with no urge or motivation to clean up.
This was one of the many things I’d get told off for. My parents would tell me how lazy I was and tell me I needed to start taking more responsibility for things. 😢 I always heard these kinds of comments about my ‘lack of willingness’ to do routine tasks. They didn’t understand, but then again, neither did I.
Everything is Boring, Except That One Thing
An ADHD child, like any curious child, grows up with a lot of questions inside their brain 🧠. I always wondered why we had to constantly find x in mathematical equations or go through the history of how the World War started (multiple times).
What’s different is that, as a child with ADHD, I felt that these lessons weren’t worth my time, yet they always took forever. The boredom and under-stimulation almost felt mentally painful. And with my poor concentration, I’d get easily distracted and stop paying attention to ‘uninteresting’ subjects.
But with subjects that interested me? That was an entirely different story. I was engaged and motivated to participate in class. If I had those classes that day, I’d get to school earlier, excited to turn up, no matter how long the class was. But if it's a lesson about history and mathematics, it was a different story. 😆
Research indicates that ADHD impacts the brain's dopamine production, which is crucial for feeling good. When faced with dull activities or lessons, our brains struggle to generate these feel-good neurotransmitters, making it harder to stay focused.
It was the same with my hobbies and interests; I’d impulsively start plenty of extracurriculars with passion and enthusiasm but would lose interest just as quickly. Any challenge or inconvenience and I was done.
Impulsivity & Recklessness
Let’s talk about impulsivity. Teenagers already often act impulsively and test boundaries thanks to puberty and a lack of self-control; this is due to the part of the brain that controls decision making (the prefrontal cortex) isn't fully developed until your early to mid twenties. But for teens with ADHD, this can be even more extreme.
In my teenage years, my hyperactivity and impulsivity were more heightened than ever. I was prone to many careless mistakes, lived for wild adventures and spontaneity, and always gave in to peer pressure. During this phase of my life, I felt the most alive when I acted impulsively, not thinking about the consequences of my risky behavior.
Risky behaviors are more common for teenagers with ADHD, especially when they experience peer pressure. Unfortunately, impulsive ADHD behaviors can lead to academic underachievement, overspending, use of drugs and other substance abuse, unsafe sexual activity, or exposure to accidents. These can also be coping mechanisms to quiet the mind or get a quick dopamine hit.
Emotional Dysregulation, RSD & Mental Health
ADHD is an emotional rollercoaster.🎢
Research suggests that we are likely to feel emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and anxiety more broadly and intensely.
I often worried that my friendships and peer relationships would fade or end because of the emotional and impulsive way I reacted to things. This was one of the main reasons it was hard for me to make and keep friends as a teen with ADHD.
I imagine this is when I first started to mask my ADHD to fit in. My social skills were tested, and I was constantly trying to appear like everyone else, despite everything going on in my brain.
I reached a point when, because of my low self-esteem, I didn't want to go out. I'd spend my days in my room alone, dealing with everything happening to me, completely confused.
Mood swings are the norm for teens, but I had them so frequently that I was struggling. If a friend wouldn’t join me on my impulsive adventures, or my suggestions were ignored, I’d feel rejected.
I now know that I was experiencing Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD). RSD isn’t officially recognized as a symptom, but anyone with ADHD will tell you how painful rejection feels - even if you weren’t actually rejected.
The good news is that there’s plenty of research and help available to help with the emotional side of ADHD. Talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are a great option for teenagers as they teach emotional regulation skills they'll use for the rest of their lives.
Getting an Early Diagnosis
Treating ADHD is not impossible, and treating teens is no different. You should start as soon as possible. 🕒
There are plenty of options to manage ADHD symptoms.
- Behavior therapy gives you actionable tools and healthy coping mechanisms to manage the ADHD brain.
- Stimulant medications boost certain neurotransmitters, improving your ability to concentrate, filter distractions, and regulate your behavior. Taking medication isn’t for everyone, but it can help.
- Talk to a mental health professional about any mental health issues you’re facing.
But before you can seek treatment, you’ll want to get a diagnosis. Without an official diagnosis, you’ll be experiencing all these changes simultaneously, with no idea why it’s so much harder than other teens.
I know my life back then would have been so much more understandable and manageable if I’d known what I was dealing with.
Getting an official diagnosis early on is best to get the proper treatment and support you need. When you're younger, it can be hard to manage everything alone, especially when you're still trying to figure out who you are and what you want in life. That’s why a sound support system from people who understand what you are dealing with can make all the difference. 🥰
If you think you or your teenager might have ADHD, don't hesitate to consult a mental health professional to get an accurate diagnosis. It could be the best thing you ever do for yourself or your child.
Feeling like life's a whirlwind? You're not alone. ️Teenagers with ADHD often face unique challenges:
- Internal Hyperactivity: Feeling overwhelmed by constant mental chatter, making focusing in class (and life) a struggle.
- Procrastination & Forgetfulness: Time blindness and executive dysfunction lead to missed deadlines and messy rooms. ⏰
- Emotional Dysregulation & RSD: Intense emotions and sensitivity to rejection can make social interactions tricky.
- Impulsivity & Risk-Taking: Heightened impulsivity can lead to careless mistakes and risky behavior. ⚠️
- Sleep Troubles: Racing thoughts and hyperactivity make getting enough sleep a battle.
But here's the good news:
- You're not broken! ADHD is a neurodevelopmental difference, not a personal failing.
- Diagnosis & support are key: Getting diagnosed opens doors to treatment options and understanding.
- Treatment options are available: Behavior therapy, medication, and healthy coping mechanisms can help you manage your ADHD. ✨
- You're not alone: Embrace the ADHD community and find support from those who understand. ❤️
- Self-compassion is crucial: Be kind to yourself, you're navigating a lot!
- Focus on your strengths: ADHD comes with unique talents and superpowers!
- Early diagnosis makes a difference: Don't hesitate to seek help if you suspect ADHD.
Visualize and assess 25 ADHD traits and understand how they affect your life.Learn more
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can ADHD appear in teenage years?
Yes, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can appear in teenagers. In fact, ADHD symptoms tend to intensify during adolescence. However, the symptoms already started before the age of 12.
As a teenager, how can you tell if you have ADHD?
It's not easy to tell if someone has ADHD because the symptoms are encompassing and might overlap with other mental health conditions. But there are some symptoms that can be helpful in diagnosing this condition:Inability to concentrate on things for long periods of timeFrequently misplacing school supplies and homework materialsPartaking in risky or impulsive behaviors
Is it okay to get an ADHD diagnosis while you’re still an adolescent?
It's normal to feel worried or nervous about getting an ADHD diagnosis while still a teenager. But don't let those feelings keep you from seeing a doctor right away—it could mean the difference between living a happy life and struggling through years of frustration and failure!