Supporting teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might need support to increase independence, develop friendships and learn.
Support works best when it makes the most of teenagers’ existing skills and ways of doing things.
Support plans for teenagers with ADHD
If your teenage child is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), their paediatrician, psychologist or occupational therapist or another health professional will develop a support plan for them.
The support plan should consider all aspects of your child’s life, including your child’s strengths, needs and responsibilities at home, at school and in other social settings.
Your child’s support plan might include:
- help to build independence
- help to develop friendships
- adjustments at school to support learning
- help to study at home
- medicines to help improve focus and attention.
The support plan should also consider what works for your family.
It’s a good idea to discuss your child’s support plan with other members of your family and your child’s carers and teachers. This helps people understand your child’s strengths and areas where they might need more support.
Your child’s professionals will regularly review your child’s support plan as your child grows and develops.
Your child’s professionals will help you understand how to support your child and put the strategies in your child’s plan into action. They might also help you learn more about ADHD and neurodiversity.
Building independence for teenagers with ADHD
Independence for all teenagers is about trying new things, taking on more responsibility, making decisions by themselves, and working out who they are and what they want to be.
Achieving independence is an essential part of your child’s journey towards adulthood.
Here are strategies that can help your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) develop independence:
- Work with your child on goals for home, school, friendship and activities like sport. For example, your child might have goals like finishing homework before dinner or replying to messages from friends. Help your child think about how to get motivated and work towards their goals.
- Involve your child in making family rules. This can help your child feel heard and valued.
- Work with your child on consequences for breaking family rules. Apply these consequences consistently. For example, you and your child might agree that they lose access to the PlayStation for a day if they behave aggressively.
- Help your child build organisational skills. For example, work with them to develop daily routines for things like bedtime, chores and homework. This can make it easier for your child to complete these activities.
- Praise your child for attempts at independence – for example, when they remember to follow a family rule like hanging up their jacket. This can encourage your child to keep trying.
Developing friendships for teenagers with ADHD
Close friends and friendships are important for all teenagers, including teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These friendships involve complex social and emotional skills, and most teenagers need some help to develop these skills. For teenagers with ADHD, friendship skills might need more practice.
Here are ideas to help your child build and navigate friendships:
- Encourage your child to try an extracurricular social group or activity like a team sport, gaming group, martial arts or drama class. This can be a way for your child to meet people with shared interests. Also, structured activities with routines and rules can help your child feel confident.
- Encourage your child to show interest in others. For example, they could set phone alerts to help them remember friends’ birthdays, or you could remind them to regularly contact a friend.
- Help your child to recognise strong emotions and calm down. For example, if your child feels criticised or rejected by a friend, your child could try going for a walk, listening to music or breathing slowly.
- Encourage your child to use problem-solving strategies if they have a challenging social situation like a misunderstanding with a friend. For example, your child might brainstorm solutions and decide to talk to their friend face to face about what happened.
Good parent-teen relationships help children have positive relationships with peers. So being warm and supportive, staying connected and actively listening to your child can help them with social relationships and friendships.
Adjusting the school environment to support learning for teenagers with ADHD
Teachers can make adjustments at school so your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can learn in ways that work for them.
Here are adjustments that might work for your child and help them thrive at school:
- Offer choices for assignments – for example, a written essay, online quiz or hands-on project.
- Give your child extra time to finish tasks, especially tests, and allow breaks during tests.
- Divide learning tasks into smaller chunks.
You and your child’s health professionals can discuss these strategies with your child’s teachers, the year coordinator or the school’s learning support officer. You could also ask about developing an individual learning plan for your child.
Helping with homework and study for teenagers with ADHD
You can use strategies at home to help your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) get organised, manage energy levels and maintain focus when they’re completing homework, learning or studying at home.
Here are strategies that might work for your child:
- Make a weekly or monthly planner that shows when assignments are due and what tasks need to be done.
- Build rest breaks into homework or study activities.
- Break up learning tasks like reading or homework with short physical activity sessions.
A healthy lifestyle is an important part of development and wellbeing for all teenagers. It’s good for your child to get at least 8-10 hours of sleep each night, make healthy food choices and balance screen time with other activities.
Your child’s doctor might prescribe medicines to help your child with focus and attention.
Doctors will sometimes prescribe stimulant medicines for teenagers diagnosed with ADHD. These medicines can help teenagers with attention and self-regulation.
Methylphenidate is the most commonly used medicine of this type. It’s sold under the brand names Ritalin 10, Ritalin LA and Concerta.
Other stimulant medicines are dexamphetamine or lisdexamfetamine. Lisdexamfetamine is sold under the brand name Vyvanse.
Your child’s paediatrician or psychiatrist will work out with you which drug and dose will be best for your child.
Here are a few questions you might want to ask your doctor:
- How long will each dose last?
- What are the side effects of the medicine?
- Does my child need to take the medicine every day, including weekends and holidays?
- How long does my child need to keep taking the medicine?
- Can my child stop taking it suddenly?
Stimulant medicines can cause some side effects. These might include:
- loss of appetite, which can affect your child’s weight gain
- reduced final adult height – this might be reduced by 1-2 cm after long-term use
- anxiety or agitation
- worse tics, if your child has tics to start with.
If your child has been prescribed a stimulant medicine, your doctor should be monitoring your child closely. If there are side effects that are causing problems, your doctor might change the type, dose or timing of the medicine to help with this.
Occasionally teenagers with ADHD find that stimulants don’t suit them. For example, stimulants might make teenagers feel too quiet or just not themselves. If this happens, you should contact your child’s doctor so your child’s medicine can be reviewed.
Taking stimulant medicine doesn’t increase your child’s risk of developing alcohol and other drug abuse problems. In fact, it can protect them from this in the future.
There are some non-stimulant medicines for ADHD. These include Strattera (atomoxetine), Catapres (clonidine) and Intuniv (guanfacine). These are sometimes used for teenagers who get side effects from using stimulants.
Some teenagers find that they don’t need medicine as they get older, but most do use medicine in the long term.
Teenagers taking responsibility for ADHD medicine
As children get older, they often want to take more responsibility for their medicine and become more independent. Some children also go through a period where they don’t like the idea of taking medicines.
Either way, if your child can share their feelings about taking medicine, you’ll be better able to understand where they’re coming from. Listening to your child will also help you understand how the medicine affects their daily activities.
It’s also good to encourage your child to discuss things with their GP, paediatrician or psychiatrist. You might suggest they have part of their appointments alone with the doctor.
Supporting teenagers with ADHD can be a big job, but it's an important one. Looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally helps you give your child what they need to grow and thrive.