Teens with ADHD

Teens with ADHD Need Scaffolds and Structure: How Not to Helicopter Parent

ADHD symptoms in teens may contribute to challenges in school when they collide with adolescent milestones. The solution is not being a micro-managing, helicopter parent but encouraging independence with smart scaffolding strategies like these.

ADHD in Teens: Illustration of a group of high schoolers


ADHD in Teens (13 to 17 Years): Challenges and Solutions

Developmental Milestones in Adolescence

In middle and high school, students’ thirst for independence grows much faster than their executive function skills. Complicating the picture are ADHD symptoms in teens navigating this stage of life at school, with friends, and internally:

  • Independent organization skills and systems become more important as students begin navigating complex schedules, using lockers, changing classrooms, and logging (and completing! and handing in!) homework for several subjects.
  • Conducting and organizing research in order to write long academic papers is a task that requires sustained attention, prioritization skills, and the ability to estimate time accurately to meet a deadline.
  • Self-motivation and self-regulation are necessary to strike a healthy balance between academics, activities, and friendships — and to resist the temptation to stay up late texting or gaming.
  • Metacognition, or the ability to reflect on one’s past experiences and strongest principles to plan and make smart choices. This skill may be derailed or delayed by impulsivity, which leads to risky behaviors involving cars, substances, and sex.
  • Students need self-advocacy skills to effectively communicate with their teachers about accommodations, with their clinicians about treatment successes and challenges, and with their caregivers about mental and emotional health issues.

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

ADHD in Teens: Scaffolding Strategies

1. Ask your teen to make a to-do list, estimate the time needed for each task, then track the actual time required to complete it. This helps students learn to estimate and budget their time more effectively. Have your teen keep her to-do list and time allotments in the world’s most universally useful organization tool: a paper planner.

2. Ask, “Are you procrastinating or are you avoiding?” Then, talk it through to figure out what your teen is avoiding and why. When shame gets in the way, acknowledge your child’s feelings and draw attention to his strengths and gifts. Research famous people and role models with ADHD, and continue to praise effort, not outcomes.

3. To stem procrastination, it is important to have a defined space for work. Students must learn to find a quiet place in the house, and to create a get-started process with a list that breaks down the tasks ahead.

4. Teach your child how to create a mind map, using sticky notes or flashcards to log and organize the main ideas or topics of a big writing assignment. Explain how to edit a first draft, and how to move sentences and paragraphs around, instead of scrapping a draft. This is an important skill set to have in middle and high school.

[Read: Abandon Your Pre-Conceived Notions of ‘Success’ (and More Advice for Parents of Teens with ADHD)]

5. Work with your teen to devise a system for recording and prioritizing assignments. Even if the homework is listed on a school website, the physical task of writing it down makes it real. An orderly approach improves executive functions, and provides an opportunity for positive reinforcement when he completes a task and crosses it off his list. Paper planners are proven tools, but digital systems are OK if they work for your child’s brain.

6. Create a collaborative plan for screen use by first agreeing on a baseline amount of screen time. Your teen may earn more screen time as he completes chores, homework, and other tasks. Provide reminders to ease the transition off screens, and don’t allow tablets, phones, or computers in his bedroom at night. They interfere with sleep, which is critical at this age, and encourage a dependence on screens at all hours.

7. Explain the concept of pills and skills. Medication helps a student focus on the task in front of him, but he must use that focus boost to put in the work and practice skills. By the same token, do not give up on medication if the first prescription doesn’t work; it rarely does. Describe the value of nutrition, exercise, sleep hygiene, and structure. Balanced meals, 30 minutes of exercise, and taking medication at the right time make a big difference in cognitive ability.

ADHD in Teens: Treatments

The natural desire for independence sometimes throws ADHD medication adherence into a tailspin. At this stage, monitor your child’s medication schedule closely, and discuss her concerns openly. If your teen begins “cheeking” her pills (not swallowing them), ask your clinician about switching to a liquid formulation. Also discuss whether adjusting your child’s medication type or dosage is needed with the onset of puberty. To encourage autonomous medication management, see that your teen works closely with his clinician on these changes.

The transitions to middle and high school stress executive functions. Students need strong brain skills for planning, organizing, prioritizing, and executing work. School accommodations should be re-evaluated and revised annually (or twice annually) to ensure they’re meeting the demands of higher education.

ADHD Symptoms in Teens: Next Steps

The Ages & Stages of ADHD

Access more articles from ADDitude’s 5-part “Ages & Stages” series exploring common ADHD-related challenges through the lifecycle, along with strategies and treatments for each:

Download the Full Ages & Stages of ADHD Booklet

These strategies for teens with ADHD were derived in part from Meg Leahy’s, MS, NCC, BCC, work and expertise as an educator and ADHD coach. Read more about her recommended ADHD strategies through the ages in “The Life Coach Guide for ADHD: Strategies for Every Age and Stage.” 

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