Teens with ADHD: The Difficult Years

Health Writer

I often get emails from parents of teens with ADHD asking what to do and how to institute discipline for their budding young adult. Many parents wonder if and how their teen with ADHD is going to make it in the "outside" world. They see the impulsivity, the inability to get school work done, the lack of following instructions and worry that their teen will never "grow up." The good news is, teens with ADHD do grow up, many go to college, find careers, get married and raise a family. The bad news is, you have to make it through the teenager years first.

Why the Teen Years are Difficult

Raising any teen is hard, parents try to balancing holding on to their child while teaching independent skills and preparing their teen to enter the adult world. Teens feel the same conflict; part of them want to hold on to being a child and having parents take care of them but another part wants to be independent and can fight fiercely for that independence. Conflicts between teens and their parents often arise and both navigate this new time in their lives.

But when a teen has ADHD, these years are often even more complicated for a number of reasons:

Emotionally immaturity - Children with ADHD are often more immature emotionally than their counterparts without ADHD. Some experts indicate that this discrepancy can be as much as 30 percent, meaning that an 18 year old may have the emotionally maturity of a 12 year old. Many parents of children with ADHD will agree that maturity levels fluctuate; one day their teen may act like an 18 year old and the next day seem as if he is 12. Because of this, consistent behavior is nearly impossible and many don't yet think about the consequences of their behavior.

Discipline methods  - Parents   of children with ADHD learned that traditional discipline methods rarely work when their child was still quite young. They don't learn from rewards and punishment and have a difficult time connecting discipline with behaviors unless the punishment is immediate. Methods that may have worked when children were younger, such as behavioral charts, stars for good behavior and time-outs are not effective during the teen years. The emotional immaturity and a low frustration tolerance can lead to frequent blow-ups and angry outbursts.

Mood disorders -Because children, teens and adults with ADHD frequently have mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, finding the right treatment plan can be difficult. These problems only add to a teens frustration at not being able to grow independent and a parent's frustration at not feeling their teen is ready for steps toward independence.

Learning disabilities - While ADHD is not a learning disability, it can cause difficulty in learning. Some teens may also have additional learning disabilities, causing problems in school. These problems increase a teen's feeling of "being different" or not being accepted by their peers. Parents may feel they may still need to be hyper-vigilant in keeping up with schoolwork, homework, tests and projects. They may still communicate with teachers on a daily or weekly basis. All of this makes your teen feel like a child. While your teen craves independence, being so dependent on a parent's help can create frustration and resentment.

High risk behaviors - Low self-esteem, impulsivity, the need for stimuli and frustration can all contribute to a teen participating in high-risk behaviors. This can be substance abuse, reckless driving or illegal activities, such as shoplifting. All of these cause parents sleepless nights and worry filled days.

While the teen years are frustrating, they don't need to be impossible. Remembering the positive sides of ADHD, teaching your teen advocacy skills and working with the doctor to refine your teen's treatment plan can all make these years a little more bearable. Next week, we'll go over tips on what you can do, as a parent, to help your teen become independent and successful.


"ADD Teenagers and Parents: The Get-Along Guide for Coping with Anger, Fights," 2011, Colleen Alexander-Roberts, Additude Magazine

"ADHD and Teens: Information for Parents (WWK20B)," 2008, Staff Writer, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)