Closing the Gap Between Expectations and Abilities in Teens with ADHD

Teens with ADHD are just as different from one another as teens without ADHD. Some are outgoing and some are more shy and introverted, some are perfectionistic while others are happy to rush through their work to get it done, some are creative and some are athletic, some are leaders and some are followers. However, there is one thing that all teens with ADHD have in common – they all struggle more than their classmates at school and in their social life. Some teens with ADHD may hide the struggle well, and compensate for their difficulties by working twice as hard as their friends or by being the funniest, most entertaining student in the room. But even those who succeed at covering-up their challenges on the surface continue to struggle behind the scenes.

Teens with ADHD often feel like they are different from their friends but don’t know why. They have a tendency to make impulsive decisions that lead to bad outcomes, or talk too much and tend to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they almost always have difficulty navigating the high school social scene – both in-person and online. In addition to dealing with ADHD, they are also coping with the typical challenges of adolescence – developing their identity, struggling for independence, dating, riding emotional rollercoasters, handling increased academic pressure, facing tough choices about alcohol and drugs, and feeling the pressure to prepare for life after high school. When you think about it this way, it seems like a lot to manage, right?

Adolescence is one of the most challenging times in our lives. During childhood, the structure and support provided by parents and teachers, coupled with relatively low social and academic demands, help make ADHD manageable. Once a child becomes a teen, the social and academic demands increase dramatically, and the high level of support and structure present during elementary school falls away. Teenagers who are cognitively and emotionally equipped to handle these changes ultimately develop healthy coping skills and strategies that allow them to become more independent over time. Unfortunately, most, if not all, teens with ADHD do not have the cognitive or emotional resources to manage increased demands and expectations without additional support.

The difference between the cognitive and emotional abilities of a teen with ADHD and the expectations placed by parents and teachers at this age creates a virtual gap. On a day-to-day basis, this gap shows up in arguments between teens and parents about lack of motivation and effort, poor social choices, and failure to keep track of important items. Left to their own devices, teens with ADHD use ineffective coping strategies in an attempt to fill the gap between their abilities and the expectations they face. Not surprisingly, these ineffective strategies do nothing to build independence and only serve to widen the gap over time. Fortunately, with the help and support from therapists, teachers, and parents, as well as ongoing treatment of underlying ADHD symptoms, teens with ADHD can develop the skills and coping strategies that they need to succeed.

As a parent, how to you start helping your teen close the gap between their current abilities and real-world expectations?

  1. Take a few minutes to reflect on the number of times you find yourself thinking or saying, “My teen should be doing ___ by now, but instead they still need help with this.” Make a list of these things that you think they should be doing. Chances are they are going to be things like getting their homework done each day, getting themselves out of bed or out of the house each morning, staying organized, keeping track of their phone or other belongings, planning ahead for projects or events, helping out around the house, joining activities at school, or making new friends.
  2. Think about your expectations for each of the items on your list. Are the expectations what you would reasonably expect for an average teenager? If you’re not sure, then ask for input from a counselor or teacher at your teen’s school, or someone who has experience working with a wide range of teenagers.
  3. For each item on your list, the space between the realistic expectation and your teen’s current behavior represent the gaps that your teen needs help closing. Helping your teen close these gaps doesn’t mean continuing to do things for them, and it also doesn’t mean lowering the bar. What is does mean is making sure that your teen:
    • Understands why they are struggling
    • Receives treatment for their ADHD symptoms and learns the necessary skills and healthy coping strategies for building up areas of weakness
    • Receives academic assistance that will help them learn the material that they have struggled to grasp and develop the academic skills that they need to succeed.

Adolescence is a challenging time for all teens with ADHD, and none of them should have to cope with the challenges alone. As a parent, you can help by identifying the gap areas where your teen needs help the most, and providing the support and resources that will help them close the gaps and succeed over time.

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