Spotting Signs of Stress in Teens with ADHD

Teenagers might not be faced with many of the situations that adults consider to be stressful, like financial concerns, parenting challenges, long commutes, a demanding career, job instability, etc., but the middle and high school years come with a set of challenges that can be highly stressful in their own right. In fact, in a 2013 American Psychological Association survey teenagers reported experiencing unhealthy levels of stress at higher rates than adults. Teens cited school as the number one source of stress, followed by worries about getting into a good college and figuring out what to do after high school. Other sources of stress included social pressures, worrying about family members, and worrying about family finances. When a teen has ADHD, their risk for unhealthy levels of stress goes up even higher. ADHD symptoms make school more challenging, both during the school day and in the evening during homework time. Friendships and dating can be harder with ADHD too, especially for teens that have difficulty picking up on subtle social cues or who tend to impulsively say things that they regret later. If your teenager is like most, then their afterschool and weekend schedule is packed with extracurricular activities that leave little room for down time. The time management challenges and impulsivity that comes with ADHD much more likely that a teen will get in over their head with too much to do and too little time. But like most teens, those with ADHD may not recognize that they have bitten off more than they can chew. They don’t necessarily know that their stress level is higher than it should be, or that they can ask for help.

Parents can usually identify unhealthy levels of stress before teenagers are able to do so themselves. Parents can also see the bigger picture, focus on long-term goals, and access help in ways that teenagers with ADHD often cannot. However, as a parent spotting signs of stress in a teenager with ADHD can be tricky. Many of the signs of teenage stress overlap with symptoms that typically accompany ADHD or are known side effects from ADHD medications:

  • Poor concentration
  • Sleep problems
  • Anger outbursts
  • Anxiety
  • Poor appetite
  • Headaches or stomach complaints
  • Social withdrawal
  • Taking longer to complete schoolwork and/or missing deadlines

So, when your teenager seems highly irritable, their grades are lower than you think they should be, they are complaining that they never have enough time to finish their homework, and talk about not being able to focus in class, is that stress or is it ADHD? Every teen is different, but there are some signs that will indicate that unhealthy levels of stress may be part of the picture:

  • Differences in personality during school breaks vs. when school is in session. Many teens will be less irritable, angry, or frustrated when school isn’t in session. However, if the change is dramatic, to the point where during breaks or summer vacation you find yourself thinking things like, “I’m so glad to see my child finally starting to act like her usual self again,” then that is a sign that your teen may be experiencing unhealthy stress during the school year.
  • Loss of interest and enthusiasm. If your previously energetic, enthusiastic, and curious teen has started to seem uninterested in things, especially things that they usually enjoy, then that may be a sign of stress. It’s typical for teens to shift their interests and become less enthusiastic about things that they may have enjoyed when they were younger; but they should still be interested in something, even if it’s a new activity or subject in school.
  • Hinting at being overwhelmed. Some teens will actually tell you that they are stressed out or overwhelmed, but many don’t think about themselves in these terms. Instead you may start hearing them say negative things about their ability to get things done, or their life in general. Things like: “I can’t do it.” “I’ll never get everything finished!” “It’s too much.” “I hate school!” When you try to help or problem-solve they may simply shutdown and refuse to try, not because they don’t care but because they are overwhelmed.

If you think your teen may be overly stressed, then start by having a conversation. Pick a low-key moment with your teen and start off by simply acknowledging that you’ve noticed that they have a lot on their plate right now. Ask them what it feels like to have so much going on, and if they ever have moments where it feels like too much. Many teens will open up and will talk about themselves, but don’t feel pressured to get them to talk about everything in a single conversation. It’s okay to simply use the first conversation as an icebreaker on the topic. Sometimes shorter conversations with parents are all teens can handle when the subject matter is intense or serious. Therapists in your area or at your child’s school can also help you figure out if stress is having a negative effect on your teen. So, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help if you’re worried. You’ll be getting the support that you need, and you’ll be serving as a great role model for your teen by showing them that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

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