Ask the Experts

“My Gifted Teen Has ADHD — and So. Much. Frustration.”

Twice-exceptional teens who are gifted with ADHD experience a vast difference between what comes easily and what is very challenging. This gap is aggravating for them — and many times confusing to their educators and caregivers. Here is how you can help.

2e symbolized by a bright light caged in

Q: “My gifted 14-year-old has ADHD and anxiety. She has been labeled as ‘lazy’ and ‘not trying,’ for years. In middle school, her frustration has turned to emotional dysregulation and oppositional, defiant behaviors. How can we help her?”

A: Your daughter is what we call twice exceptional — or 2e. A child with the 2e profile is very intelligent but has unevenly developed skills due to another condition like ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, autism spectrum disorder, nonverbal learning disabilities, or other mental health or health conditions.

The 2e Dichotomy

People with ADHD and superior intelligence frequently have what’s called discrepant within-person variability in their cognitive profiles. This means they excel with certain types of thinking — whether it’s visual, spatial, or verbal. Maybe they have a really incredible photographic memory, or maybe they process things really fast, or maybe their visual spatial abilities are very strong. Balancing these superior capabilities are comparatively weaker capabilities in other areas — ones that may be related to executive functions that affect working memory or processing speed. These children experience a vast personal difference between what comes easily and what is very challenging for them.

This discrepancy between their challenges and their strengths is striking for them (these are significant relative differences), even though their weaker abilities may fall within the average range. These differences can be aggravating for the child and frequently confusing to educators and caregivers.

How 2e Ignorance Fosters Shame, Frustration

People in the child’s life know that they are incredibly smart, yet since they struggle with X, Y, or Z, they assume the child must be apathetic or uninterested. “You’re just not trying,” they often say. “You must not care that much.” They don’t recognize or appreciate the significant discrepancies within 2e children or teens and how these kids develop different skills at vastly different rates. Lack of awareness and understanding about this asynchronous development fosters anxiety, shame, and frustration in your daughter or other kids like her.

[Click to Read: Unlocking the Potential of Gifted Kids with ADHD]

Children with 2e frequently have this bias as well. Because they have strong abilities in certain areas, they expect that they should succeed in all areas. And while they may manage well enough in elementary school, when they transition to middle school or high school, the demands on their executive functioning skills exceed their capabilities. Without sufficient coping strategies, things start to break down. Kids become angry with themselves for not doing better and for having limitations that others seem to lack.

ADHD is, at its core, about executive dysfunction. As projects become more complicated, classes less centralized, and expectations about independence increase in secondary school, executive functions such as planning, prioritizing, organization, focus and initiation are increasingly taxed and then pushed to their breaking point. At the same time, puberty is making the emotional dysregulation associated with ADHD even more pronounced.

While all of this occurring, bright 2e students are criticized for being unmotivated and undisciplined — ’lazy.’ It’s so distressing — not only because these students are being labeled, but also because they’re not getting their academic needs met and because they come to believe the criticism is true.

[Read This: Twice-Exceptional and Thriving — At Last]

How to Help 2e Students with Emotional Dysregulation

When a teen is faced with these triggers all at once, things can mushroom into something much more intense. So we have higher levels of anxiety, higher-intensity explosions, greater difficulty with managing anger, and perhaps a mood disorder. For these reasons, and many others, it’s critical that we help 2e teens who are showing signs of mood disorder and/or oppositional defiance.

How? First, start from a place of extreme compassion. No one is harder on your daughter than herself. She, like so many of her 2e peers, would prefer not to have these struggles. She needs your empathy before your problem-solving skills.

Next, working collaboratively, identify a few areas where she excels, where she understands concepts relatively quickly and tasks she can accomplish easily. Then name the areas where she struggles — typically with executive function challenges. We want to help 2e teens lean into their strengths and shore up those challenges by picking one of them to work on with some practical concrete interventions.

People can really only change one thing about themselves at a time, occasionally two. During the pandemic, it’s definitely only one. This means that you’ve got to adjust your expectations and your daughter has to adjust hers as well. Together, pick the one thing that she most wants to work on (it’s probably on your list, too) and go with that. This way, she’ll buy into whatever plan you create because she’s invested in seeing that one thing shift. When there’s enough progress on it and she’s ready, you can add something else.

If the goal is to improve something related to school, remember to consider the effect of remote/hybrid learning on motivation. To that end, you may need to reset the goals around school during these tough times. Does she need to break assignments down into smaller chunks? Is she getting additional time when it’s needed? What type of academic or emotional support is she receiving? Make sure that your child has an adequate IEP or 504 plan in place and, if she doesn’t, request a team meeting as soon as possible. It’s important that teachers are offering her appropriate accommodations as well as giving her engaging work and interesting projects that she can delve deeply into.

If she’s in accelerated classes, she may feel ashamed of any assistance, thinking that, since other kids don’t receive help, why should she? No gifted teen wants to stand apart from their peers in this way. This sense of embarrassment may cause her to reject the assistance she actually needs. I would highly recommend counseling to help her with this shame, to accept the brain she has and to build her self-confidence about being 2e. After all, being a gifted, alternative learner is what makes her uniquely special.

2e Gifted Students with ADHD: Next Steps

The content from this article was derived from a Real-Time ADHD Support Group event hosted by ADDitude and led by Dr. Sharon Saline. Live support group meetings take place on Facebook most Fridays at 4 pm ET.

To support our team as it pursues helpful and timely content throughout this pandemic, please join us as a subscriber. Your readership and support help make this possible. Thank you.