Good Comebacks (and Even Better ADHD Explanations) for Teens
Teens with ADHD need matter-of-fact ways to explain — to themselves and others — the ADHD-related behaviors that are noticeable to their peers. Help your child shut down unfair, unhealthy criticism by using these explanations and comebacks that use simple and relatable language.
ADHD is not who you are. It’s not a mental problem. ADHD is a description of how your brain works, and that’s it.
I tell this to every kid the first time I meet them. As a school social worker, professional who specializes in ADHD, and a father, I know it’s critical for kids to understand this — and to have at their disposal easy, accurate language to use with their peers that fosters understanding.
Real harm is done when children don’t understand that their ADHD-related challenges stem not from personal failings, but rather from neurological differences. In my experience, almost 10 out of 10 kids have never had a professional explain ADHD to them in a way that’s relatable and understandable. And that may cause real psychological harm.
What is ADHD in Simple Terms? A Description for Teens
ADHD is a description of how your brain works. It means that the part of your brain in your forehead called the frontal lobe is developing a little slower than the rest of your brain. This has nothing to do with what you’re good at, how smart you are, or how successful you will be.
Think about it this way: If you tried playing Minecraft or Fortnite on a computer from 2016, it would work but it might be a little “glitchy” because you’re playing a current game on an older operating system. That’s kind of how ADHD works. Your brain is in 2020, but your frontal lobe (which is your brain’s “operating system”) is like a 4-year-old computer.
People with ADHD can be great at focusing on things that interest them and also paying close attention to details. This can help you a lot. Everyone’s brain finds some things easier (or harder) to learn than others. As I tell my teen clients, the ADHD brain typically has to work extra hard to get better at doing the following (which it absolutely can):
- Future thinking skills: Picturing things (like turning in completed homework) that you have to do in the near future.
- Using your “brain coach:” Everyone has a voice in their head that they use to talk to themselves. If your brain works with ADHD, it means that the volume on your brain coach is turned down too low. You have a brain coach, like everyone else, you just don’t always hear it.
- “Feeling time:” You might know how to tell time, but your brain makes it hard to feel time, especially for things that seem uninteresting. This is why doing a chore may seem like it will take an hour when it will really take 5 minutes. It can also be the reason why it feels like your parents are always rushing you.
- Thinking about other people’s thoughts and feelings: Any time you’re around other people, including your family, they’re having thoughts about you, and you’re having thoughts about them. ADHD can make it hard for your brain coach to tell you to think about what others are thinking about what you’re saying or doing.
- Transitions: Switching from doing something you like to something you don’t want to do. That’s why it can be really difficult to shut off video games when you’re told to do something else.
Comebacks to Criticisms for Kids with ADHD
When your child gets criticized or teased for these behaviors, saying “just ignore them” or trying to build them up with praise feels empty. And it doesn’t help them respond to their peers in a way that is matter-of-fact. What they need is context to understand how their brain works — and a language to respond to criticisms that can help them “save face.” These responses can’t sound like a script, created by a well-meaning parent or therapist; they must be authentic. Here are a few suggestions and starting points:
- When your child is criticized for interrupting in class or making off-topic comments: “ADHD makes my mouth work faster than my brain so sometimes I say things before I had time to think about what I was saying.”
- When your child is criticized for emotional reactivity: “I blow up quickly because ADHD makes it hard for your brain to figure out quickly if something is a little problem or a big problem. I always figure it out afterward, though. I’m not trying to flip out on anyone.”
- When your child is criticized for making a social “faux pas:” “My brain is thinking about (insert game, interest, etc. here), and it doesn’t always think about what other people are thinking about what I’m saying or doing. I’m getting better at it, but I’m still going to do things sometimes that give other kids weird thoughts.”
What NOT to Tell a Child with ADHD
Some people refer to ADHD as a superpower or “gift.” I believe “sugarcoating” ADHD by using this sort of flowery terminology is a mistake. Managing ADHD is a lot of work. When it’s described as a superpower, that removes the implication that managing it requires real effort. Please steer clear of these terms. Speaking directly and frankly with them about this challenge from the outset will build trust and teamwork.
I make videos explaining ADHD to kids that can be found on the ADHD Dude YouTube channel. The videos for kids are in the Dude Talk playlist. There are also separate Dude Talk playlists for elementary, middle and high school.
This content came from the ADDitude webinar by Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, titled “How to Best Explain ADHD to Your Child, Family, and Friends.” That webinar is available for free replay here.
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