If you’re an adult you’ve already traveled that hard path of adolescence. But what if you added ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to that already confusing and troubling state?
We’ve all had a day where we are distracted, bored, can’t focus on any one activity, can’t quite settle down to read something or take care of a chore. But what if you feel this way every day? And what if you are a high school student trying to get by in a calculus or biology class? What if you are a new driver? Scary to consider, but that is what 9% of American teens are doing, with boys 4 times as prevalent as girls. ADHD teens have a whole other layer of developmental issues and problems to deal with.
Brain imaging studies at the National Institutes of Mental Health have shown that there are actual delays in the maturing of the brain in teens with ADHD, particularly in the areas of thinking, planning and being able to focus and pay attention. A three year delay!
Stimulant drugs (amphetamines) such as Adderall have long been used to treat the symptoms of teens with ADHD to help them focus and stay on task. But interestingly enough, this same stimulant effect may be an indicator of why teens with ADHD are even more prone than their non-ADHD peers for taking part in behaviors that can impair health and safety. Among the most common are impulsive relationships and sexual encounters, alcohol and drug abuse, teenage binge eating disorders, and taking part in high risk activities, such as speeding. It isn’t just that they aren’t thinking things through or considering consequences, it may be that the stimulation they get from these risky behaviors actually makes them feel better. They are grabbing at an invisible safety line.
There are three types of issues that can be seen in ADHD teens:
All of these sound pretty typical of any normal teenager, but for a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms must have been going on significantly for more than 6 months, and must be at a degree greater than what is expected in other teens their age.
A behavioral specialist helps parents decide if they really do have an ADHD teen on their hands, and then determining exactly what combination of treatments, medical and behavioral, may work best.
Keep in mind that some ADHD teens aren’t diagnosed until they reach high school, while the average age of ADHD diagnosis is age 7. Symptoms can be subtle, or missed. An example of this is a child who just seems quiet or somewhat withdrawn, and this is confused with being “well-behaved”. Unfortunately, these kids may slip under the radar of a teacher or parent, and the child with more overt behavioral problems is diagnosed (and gets help) much earlier.
The sooner the better is a good maxim for ADHD treatment. For these more subtle cases of ADHD, it can be adulthood before a solid diagnosis has been made. And this means that there have already been several more years of risk taking behaviors. Ask any adult who had a late diagnosis of ADHD, and many will describe binge drinking or risky sexual behavior being used as a stimulant effect for feeling better, being more connected to the moment.
If you didn’t have ADHD as a teen, you got off easy.
Sue Dungan is a medical writer and Registered Nurse with a special interest in psychosocial issues. Working in a metro DC Emergency Room gives her a eyes-on look into how patients and families struggle with mental health issues.