Taking a Summer Break from Anxiety for Teens with ADHD

Summertime typically provides a much-needed break from the academic and social pressures of school for kids with ADHD. Elementary school kids can spend their summers involved in activities that play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They have an opportunity to focus on making new “summer friends,” forming friendships that aren’t complicated by school anxiety and stress. In an ideal world, teenagers with ADHD also have the chance to take a real summer break from high school pressures. However, as competition for college admissions and career success grows, many high school students are increasingly encouraged to maximize their summer breaks by participating in experiences that will bolster their chances of getting into their preferred college. This often means seeking out competitive internships and participating in multiple sports or intense extracurricular activities, sometimes while also holding down a part-time job. Taking a break from the social pressure of high school is also more challenging with social media playing such a prominent role in teenage social life. Teens continue to feel the pressure to keep up with their classmates, often comparing themselves to their peers and scanning Instagram posts to make sure they’re not missing out on (or being left out of) events and activities.

This year-round pressure is just one of many factors that researchers and clinicians think may be driving the rise in anxiety among teenagers. A recently published article in the Journal of Developmental Pediatrics found that in the U.S. rates of anxiety disorder diagnoses increased 20% between 2007-2012.1 Many clinicians suspect that rates have increased even more rapidly between 2012 and 2018. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one-third of today’s adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Teens with ADHD are at even higher risk, with up to 50% experiencing significant anxiety.

While some of the factors driving up teen anxiety are pervasive and can’t be changed in a single summer, there are still many things parents can do to help their teens keep anxiety in check.

  1. Help your teen focus on experiences that are meaningful and personalized. It’s smart to start thinking about college and career paths early on, and to use time away from school to build skills and experiences that bolster college and career success. But for teens with ADHD who have struggled to succeed in school, and whose self-confidence has eroded over time, focusing first and foremost on finding activities and internships that build confidence and self-esteem is important. Encourage your teen to think about the big picture and seek out experiences that tap into their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Ideally these experiences should be in areas that they are passionate about, where they can feel confident in their knowledge and abilities and be an equal or a leader among their peers.
  2. Encourage your teen to devote some time working on their academic skills. A complete break from academics during the summer months can make it difficult for teens with ADHD to start the new school year off with confidence. So, while your teen’s activities and internships should play to their strengths, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t spend any time building up their weaker academic skills. The trick is to set your teen up for success by providing them with academic experiences that build their confidence as well as their skills. Working with learning professionals who provide personalized instruction tailored to your teen’s learning style and strengths is the most surefire path to academic confidence and success.
  3. Quality family time is important. It’s normal and healthy for teens to prefer to spend their time with their friends rather than their family. But, that doesn’t mean that family time isn’t important. In fact, family time can provide a healthy break from social pressure, and the anxiety that comes with it for many teens with ADHD. Schedule family activities that include a break from technology when teens (and their parents) don’t check their social media accounts for extended stretches of time. The focus of this time should be on blocking outside distractions and spending quality time with each other. Activities that are naturally less compatible with cell phone use (like hiking, swimming, amusement parks, paintball, horseback riding, trampoline parks) will help make the technology breaks a little easier.
  4. Work with a therapist if your teen seems highly anxious or unmotivated. Finding time for therapy appointments can be hard during the school year. If you are worried about your teen’s level of anxiety, or if they seem to be constantly irritable or unmotivated, use the summer months to find a therapist who can meet with you and your teen to assess their mood and anxiety. Even a few appointments with a good therapist can make a big difference when it comes to treating anxiety and having a go-to therapist they can meet with if anxiety spikes in the fall can mean getting treatment more quickly when your teen needs it the most.

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