“Normal” Teenager or ADHD

by Andrea Wackerle

“My teenager is driving me absolutely crazy!  Is what I’m seeing normal behavior or is something else going on?” As we travel the country each year hosting workshops and meeting families, this question is posed to us countless times.  As the mother of two teenagers, I can absolutely relate to the frustration that many parents feel with the behaviors they sometimes see from their kids.  And while it is common for teenagers to drive their parents a little nutty, what behaviors are within the range of “normal” for that age and what behaviors might indicate a deeper problem?

Undiagnosed & Driving Me Crazy!

If your child has never been diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability but you have always suspected it, you may be onto something. According to the official diagnostic tools for ADHD, there are 18 different symptoms related to attentional, behavioral, social and organizational challenges:

If you read some of these and think “That’s my kid!”, you might want to follow up with some questions to ask yourself (and your physician or guidance counselor):

  • Does my kid get a little antsy in class or are they truly disruptive to the learning of other kids?
  • Does my kid occasionally forget to turn in assignments or do they have a litany of zeros due to “the dog ate my homework” syndrome?
  • Does my kid have a few solid friends or do other kids avoid them because of their antics?
  • Does my kid respond to my requests after only a couple of attempts or do they only respond when I’ve blown my top and scream at the top of my lungs?

If you find that your child is better represented by the latter half of each question, you might want to consult with your physician or school guidance counselor to determine if further testing might be in order.  And remember, you are not alone!  There are a multitude of resources that you can access with advice, ideas, and strategies to help you and your child improve how they function in the world.

Already Diagnosed & Driving Me Crazy!

The average age of ADHD diagnosis is 7 year olds. More severe cases may be diagnosed even earlier.  If your child was diagnosed at a young age and is presenting some new or unusual behavior, you may be wondering, “Is this the ADHD or do I just have a teenager on my hands?” Here are some common areas that most teenagers struggle with at times, but could also mean that your child could benefit from additional support.

  • Executive Functioning: We all struggle to get things done sometimes. For kids with ADHD, it can be even harder. Does your child often have grand ideas but can’t seem to organize their thoughts let along take the steps to execute the idea? If this is a common area where your child struggles, a new approach to school projects, homework assignments, chores, etc. may be beneficial. The National Center for Learning Disabilities recommends these steps to help your child with goal-directed tasks:
    • Prevent overload
      • Provide structure and support new learning
      • Observe for symptoms of overload and ensure downtime
      • Minimize and preview changes in educational environment
    • Keep work periods brief and provide frequent breaks
    • Allow extended time for assignments and tests
    • Keep oral directions brief or accompany them with a visual reminder, such as a checklist

Be sure to discuss these with your child’s teacher to help provide understanding for some of the challenges they may be going on in the classroom and to gain support for your child’s learning needs.

  • Self-Regulation: As kids get older, they begin to pay more attention to the world around them and alter their behavior based on where they are and what is happening. This skill is more difficult to master for most kids with ADHD, so inappropriate behaviors are more likely to happen. Here are some tips to help improve self-regulation at school and at home.
    • Keep your daily schedule in a visible place at home, and cross things off as they are completed. This helps everyone feel in control of their day and stay aware of any changes.
    • Structure & Responsibility! When you deviate from routine and structure, you are opening up doors for impulsive behaviors. They are going to happen, but giving your child specific responsibilities helps hold them accountable and helps them stay focused on being self-controlled.
    • Use natural and logical consequences. If your child does behave inappropriately, always use a natural or logical consequence to help them better learn for the future. It’s kind of like the old, “If you keep slamming that door, I’ll take it off the hinges” rule. A more likely example might be, if your child continues to put down their siblings, each time will require three “put ups”.
  • Poor Self-Confidence: It’s normal for teenagers to feel low at times as they are growing and forming their own identities. However, in the long-term, low self-confidence can negatively impact so many areas of your child’s life—academics, peer relationships, family relationships, and more. It’s important to help your child see their strengths as soon as you begin to their confidence sliding. Here are some ways to instill confidence in your child.
    • Encourage your child to develop an expertise in an area where they already have interest such as photography, computer programming, music, etc.
    • Always distinguish between your disapproval for your child’s action and your love for them. As a parent, you will have to discipline your child at times, but kids can often confuse these two aspects, especially when their desire is to please you.
    • Praise your child’s efforts just as much as the end product. The steps toward the goal are often the hardest, so be sure to praise these efforts equally!
    • Always highlight your child’s successes!

No matter which situation you find yourself in, there are resources available. The first step is evaluating your child’s most immediate needs and advocating for those. Understand that as a teenager, there will be times when your child is simply just driving you crazy, but sometimes it may be a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. As an organization that was built around the needs of youth with attention and learning issues, we are here to help!