“Happy Birthday, Dear! You Have ADHD!”
When dealing with a teen with newly diagnosed ADHD, it’s important to keep the diagnosis in perspective.
I recently heard from an ADDitude reader looking for help: “My daughter just turned 15 and, as a not-so-happy birthday present, she was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD. She did well in elementary school, but is struggling in high school. She seems depressed and has grown quiet. She now takes ADHD medication, but what else can we do to help her succeed in school and feel better about herself? How can we help her at home? Should we have her see a therapist?”
Feel Comfortable with the Diagnosis
Don’t view your daughter’s ADHD diagnosis as a “not-so-happy birthday present.” Getting a diagnosis means that you now know how her brain is wired – you know her strengths and challenges. She will now be able to understand why she has difficulties in school and at home. While her natural intelligence probably got her through earlier grades, her previously undiagnosed ADHD traits probably contributed to her hitting the wall in high school.
Your initial reaction of shock and unhappiness is not unusual. However, for many parents and their children, a diagnosis brings relief, reducing the blame and shame of falling short in trying to meet the challenges of everyday life. You and she will discover that there are specific tools and strategies to help her meet her goals.
ADHD is often missed in girls because they’re more likely than boys to suffer from inattentive ADHD. The symptoms of this sub-type (which include poor attention to detail, limited attention span, forgetfulness, distractibility, and failure to finish assigned activities) tend to be less disruptive and obvious than those of hyperactive boys with ADHD. The problem is compounded because, while girls appear as shy, compliant daydreamers, they may suffer silently from anxiety, lack of confidence, and isolation.
Meet the Challenges
Talk over your daughter’s ADHD symptoms and discuss the challenges she faces. She may prefer to think about this alone first, but let her know you want to talk about things when she is ready. Ask her to write down the positives that might come with her ADHD traits. Many people with ADHD take longer to process what they hear before expressing their thoughts. One positive may be that, because she stays connected to her thoughts longer, she may have more insightful ideas or conclusions about a topic. If she daydreams a lot, tell her how daydreams enable her to tap into creativity, a well-known strength of those with ADHD.
Identify what is causing your daughter to under-perform at school. Ask the following questions and listen closely to her answers:
Taking in information. Is she able to keep up with the material presented? Would it help if she sat nearer the teacher or farther from her classmates? Are other things preventing her from learning in the classroom?
Keeping track of materials. Organization can be a challenge for kids with ADHD. Would she benefit from a different organization system or from having someone teach her new strategies?
Doing homework. Does she know what needs to be done? Does she struggle to get started? Does she run out of time or energy before completing an assignment?
Preparing for quizzes, tests, and projects. Does she struggle to manage her time? Does she know how she studies best? Does she know how to break down longer projects into smaller sections?
Advocating for herself. Does she feel comfortable approaching the teacher with questions or concerns? Does she need support in learning how to advocate for herself? What does she wish her teachers understood about her?
Teenagers who are newly diagnosed with ADHD are often reluctant to ask for or receive services in school. However, certain accommodations, whether through an IEP, 504 Plan, or by agreeing to some modifications after talking with her teacher, may bring both relief and support to help her succeed academically. For instance, if she struggles with anxiety, and takes longer to finish tests, she may benefit from taking tests in a quieter setting and having more time to complete her work. Also, many people with ADHD have a weaker working memory (recalling previously learned information, holding on to the information, and manipulating it). She might benefit from having a set of class notes from the teacher if she cannot focus on the teacher while capturing the salient facts on paper.
Medication. It may take several months of trial and error to find the right medication and dose, so be sure your doctor is knowledgeable about the medication options and how to adjust medication when necessary. You mentioned that she might be dealing with depression, so it is important that the person prescribing the medication addresses both concerns.
Coaching. Many students find that having someone to work with regularly helps them stay motivated, develop new strategies, get organized, and manage their time. Working with a coach to meet goals is easier and calmer than working with a parent. Ask your daughter if she would want to do that.
Therapy. Depression often accompanies ADHD. It is hard to know how much of the depression is due to not being able to meet expectations, and how much can be attributed to other causes. Her depression may be alleviated when she realizes that she is not alone in her struggles, and that there are many ways she can learn to manage her responsibilities.
If she is having a hard time accepting and coping with her new diagnosis, a cognitive behavioral therapist who is knowledgeable about ADHD can help. The therapist will help her understand how ADHD has affected her throughout her life, and help her reframe any negative thoughts she may have.
What You Can Do
A key part of the treatment plan is understanding how ADHD affects your daughter’s learning, behavior, and social skills, and adjusting your parenting style to meet her needs. Here are a few helpful strategies:
> Place 10 pennies in each of your pockets in the morning. Each time you correct your daughter (even if done nicely), put a penny in the left pocket. Each time you encourage her with positive feedback, put a penny in the right pocket. To counter the negative messages she receives from friends, teachers, and herself, aim to have at least five more pennies in your right pocket at the end of the day.
> Schedule some stress-free time with your daughter each week, and let her choose the activity. Enjoy connecting with one another without having any agenda.
> Ask your daughter how she wants you to support her.
> If you feel it would be helpful, seek support for yourself. Get advice on parenting issues, such as support versus enabling, improving communication skills, and setting expectations and boundaries.
You shouldn’t fear your daughter’s new diagnosis. Help her focus on her strengths, and let her know that you support her in dealing with her challenges.