ADHD in teens: Recognize the signs & symptoms, plus how to offer support as a parent

ADHD in teens can create unique struggles and issues at school as well as at home. On top of all the exciting and sometimes scary changes teens experience, ADHD can sometimes make middle school and high school life more complicated. 

For teens who have already been diagnosed, their ADHD symptoms may become more manageable as they mature and learn how to cope with their condition. But for teens with undiagnosed ADHD, hormonal changes, more homework, and increasingly complex interpersonal relationships can present a significant challenge during adolescence. 

That’s why it’s so important for the parents of teens (and teens themselves) to evaluate whether a teen’s behavioral changes, inability to focus, and lack of organization could be caused by ADHD. With successful treatment, ADHD in teens can be managed—one that doesn’t hold an adolescent back from reaching their full potential. 

What Are the Signs of ADHD in Teens? 10 Indications

Adolescence can be a turbulent time; as a result, ADHD in teens can be easy to misinterpret. For example, an adolescent’s hyperactivity could be written off as teen angst. Their inability to focus could be explained by boredom, a new crush, or lack of interest in a certain subject at school.

But what sets ADHD in teens apart from normal teen apathy and mood swings is the significant amount of stress that ADHD usually causes the teen who’s suffering. If your teen seems to be falling behind socially or academically, here are some of the most prominent signs of ADHD in teens to watch out for: 

  • A lack of focus: A teen with ADHD might have trouble keeping their mind attentive. This might cause them to make careless mistakes at school, their workplace, or around the house.
  • Being constantly disorganized: ADHD in teens can cause adolescents to lose belongings, assignments, or miss appointments and deadlines. 
  • Fidgeting: Restlessness is a common sign of ADHD. Someone with ADHD might find it difficult to sit still without squirming or getting up.
  • A tendency to overreact: One study suggests that individuals with ADHD may not reach the emotional maturity of a 21-year-old until their late 20s or early 30s. ADHD in teens might cause an adolescent to overreact inappropriately in certain situations. 
  • Abnormally strong fear of rejection: An emotional state known as rejection sensitive dysphoria is common in people with ADHD. This means that ADHD in teens might manifest as hypersensitivity to rejection, teasing, or criticism.
  • A tendency toward daydreaming: ADHD in teens may cause an adolescent to get lost in daydreams when they’re supposed to be working, studying, or practicing during extracurricular activities. 

Lastly, teens may suffer from impulsive behavior: Adolescents are already known to be more impulsive than adults, an issue that can be made worse by conditions like ADHD. 

Christine Ridley, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Thriveworks, also explains that mood swings can be a sign of ADHD in teens, but not in the way you might think. She points out that “irritable mood and impulsivity may play a role in a teen seemingly being overactive, but in reality ADHD makes it difficult to respond to stress.”

Can ADHD Symptoms Start at 14?

ADHD symptoms can be spotted as early as five or six years old—and in rare cases, even in three to four-year-old toddlers. ADHD symptoms being diagnosed later in childhood and adolescence are not unheard of but not very common in kids older than the age of 12. 

Other long-term, possibly lifelong mental health conditions that are often detected in adolescence include depressive and anxiety disorders—two other types of mental health conditions that teens (and teens with ADHD) are more susceptible to.

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How Does ADHD Affect a Teen's Life?

Because of problems they experience with concentrating and controlling their emotions, many but not all teens with ADHD suffer academically. This is not always the case, but may be more common when a teen is not getting ADHD treatment.

ADHD in teens could cause them to forget their school assignments, or lose their house keys. They might also struggle to communicate without interrupting their teacher and classmates, and they may rush through assignments. ADHD in teens can also make it difficult to sit still in class.

Ridley indicates that teens with ADHD may also have a hidden talent. “They might have a  “tendency to remember details that no one else can remember or recall, which makes for a unique ability. However, working (or short-term) memory for teens with ADHD is often challenging for example a teen may be able to recall specific details of a childhood experience many years ago but forget what was reviewed in today’s math class.” 

Especially without treatment, teens with ADHD may also be passed over for sports teams, clubs and social circles. Feeling excluded can create self-esteem issues, but it may also exacerbate the depressive or anxious feelings that ADHD in teens can already stir up.

Does ADHD Get Worse in Teenage Years?

ADHD is often a lifelong condition, and an individual may experience peaks and valleys where their symptoms improve and worsen as they age. During someone’s teenage years, especially as the hormonal changes of adolescence are going on and the demands of school and extracurricular activities are increasing, an individual’s ADHD symptoms may get worse. 

Teens are faced with an unprecedented amount of new choices in regard to their activities, interests, and long-term goals. And, their interpersonal relationships may become more complicated as their personalities change and develop. ADHD can make adapting to all of these transitions more difficult. 

That being said, ADHD doesn’t have to get worse during a teen’s adolescence. In fact, some teens with ADHD seem to show less hyperactivity, especially if they’ve been diagnosed in the past and have their symptoms under control with the help of a provider.

How Can ADHD Affect a Teen?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder—which means that it affects the structure and/or function of the brain and nervous system. Though this condition isn’t fully understood, scientists have identified patterns in the brains of individuals with ADHD that can be mapped out with advanced imaging tests. 

One of the most common misconceptions of ADHD in teens is that ADHD symptoms can be simply fixed with more rigid rules and parenting styles. But in fact, it’s these neurological differences, and not a lack of discipline, that affects the way a teen with ADHD thinks, learns, and interacts with others. 

MRI studies indicate that ADHD affects executive functioning, specifically related to someone’s ability to plan things out, pay attention, and access their short-term memory. Research has also revealed an impaired ability of ADHD individuals to control their emotional responses and work toward long-term goals.

How Do You Test for ADHD in Teens?

You may be able to spot many of the symptoms listed in the sections above on your own; your teen may also report experiencing them. But it’s not until a licensed and trained mental health professional conducts an ADHD evaluation that a teen can truly be diagnosed with ADHD. 

There are actually three types of ADHD: a predominantly impulsive and hyperactive presentation, a predominantly inattentive presentation, and lastly, a combined presentation of hyperactive and inattentive symptoms. 

Providers know how to determine whether a teen presents the necessary symptoms to be diagnosed. This process begins with: 

  • Screening for ADHD symptoms: Mental health professionals may vary in how they structure the evaluation, but they’ll use a standardized set of questions that help determine how a teen’s life experiences, such as childhood history, adolescence, and adulthood, may have affected their mental health. 
  • Screening for other mental health conditions: ADHD in teens often presents with another mental health condition that may contribute to an adolescent’s ADHD symptoms. Some common co-occurring disorders include anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, or substance use. 
  • Gathering feedback from family, friends, or partners: ADHD is known to affect memory recall ability in those with this disorder, so the observations and memories of family, friends, and romantic partners can be useful tools to diagnose ADHD in teens. 

Teens may also wish for privacy during their treatment process. Adolescents, as well as their parents or legal guardians, can request that all but the most important details are kept between client and provider, post-evaluation. 

A comprehensive list of treatment options for individuals with ADHD can be found here. This process most commonly involves a helpful combination of psychotherapy (such as CBT) and psychiatric medications, such as Strattera. 

Ridley also highlights that non-stimulant options are also becoming more commonplace and suffer less fear of abuse or dependency. “Medicine is working to offer alternative medicine to common stimulants to use non-stimulant and non-habit forming medications to treat ADHD symptoms, Strattera being one of them.”

How Can Parents Support a Teen with ADHD?

As a parent, it may be confusing, frustrating, or worrying when your teen is diagnosed with ADHD. But it’s important to remember that ADHD doesn’t have to become a setback for your teen—many individuals with ADHD are highly successful, productive, and often quite creative. But mental health treatment is an integral part of long-term success for people with ADHD. 

That’s why, besides your unyielding support and patience, it’s important to help them find treatment; and when they do, remain involved in your teen’s journey through therapy and/or psychiatric care. 

There are also mental health services that can help you become better educated and equipped to support your teen’s mental health, as well as your own. Some of these options include: 

Adolescence is a time for teens to explore, discover themselves, and find meaning and purpose in their lives and the world around them. ADHD in teens doesn’t need to be a roadblock preventing them from reaching their potential—the step toward a brighter future is connecting them with a teen therapist who understands and has the tools to help.  

Table of contents

What Are the Signs of ADHD in Teens? 10 Indications

Can ADHD Symptoms Start at 14?

How Does ADHD Affect a Teen's Life?

Does ADHD Get Worse in Teenage Years?

How Can ADHD Affect a Teen?

How Do You Test for ADHD in Teens?

How Can Parents Support a Teen with ADHD?

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  • Clinical reviewer
  • Writer
Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley, LCSW

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

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Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

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