Your Teen’s Brain — and How to Unleash Its Superpowers
Adolescence is turbulent, even without ADHD. With it, your teen faces an extraordinary set of challenges that can push her (and you!) to the edge — if you let it. Here’s how to stay informed, supportive, and calm during your child’s metamorphosis into a self-sufficient, confident adult.
When ADHD and Puberty Collide
Faced with raging hormones, out-of-character outbursts, and madly shifting interests, it’s no wonder so many parents feel disconnected from their teens. When ADHD and puberty collide, it may feel like your sweet, loving child has transformed into a creature from another planet.
But the truth is, though her language may sound foreign and her appearance may confound you, your teen isn’t actually possessed. Rather, she’s going through some of the most challenging and rewarding years of her life — years that will help her turn into the confident, successful adult you know she can (and should) be.
The teen years are not an era to “survive.” Adolescence is not a burden you must endure — it’s actually an amazing opportunity for you, your child, and your whole family to venture, collaborate, and thrive outside of your comfort zones.
The teen years are not without challenges. But by being involved, mindful, and patient, you can help your teen surf the tumultuous waves rather than drown in them. Read on to understand why your teen acts the way he does — and how you can help him become the superhero he was always meant to be.
The Teenage Brain On ADHD
Do you truly understand the way your teen thinks? Why she reacts the way she does to new experiences and unforeseen setbacks? What motivates her to keep pushing forward? During the teen years, your child’s brain is developing rapidly. These changes manifest in four major ways:
- Novelty seeking: The teenage brain more aggressively seeks dopamine, as teens have a lower dopamine baseline than do adults. (This is especially true for a teen with ADHD, whose dopamine levels are lower than average to begin with.) This quest for dopamine results in sensation-seeking and risk-taking behaviors. These can be positive — like trying new foods or overcoming a fear of rollercoasters — or negative, like trying drugs or engaging in risky sexual behavior.
- Social engagement: Your teen is building his “tribe” — finding the people he feels most comfortable around. For teens with ADHD, who often struggle socially, building enduring relationships is especially critical because they are among the strongest predictors of future well-being, longevity, and happiness. However, parents sometimes feel hurt when their child begins prioritizing friends or actively pushing them away.
- Increased emotional intensity: Hormones are bouncing around your child’s brain day and night, oscillating her emotions and intensifying her reactions (both positive and negative). Teens with ADHD — especially girls, who struggle more frequently with anxiety or depression during adolescence — feel an even more exaggerated emotional seesaw. A go-with-the-flow child can morph into a temperamental teen overnight, leaving you scrambling to deal with the sudden shifts in your teen’s mood.
- Creative exploration: Teenagers’ brains are increasingly capable of abstract thinking and conceptual reasoning — which often leads them to question the status quo or pursue a barrage of new ideas and innovative projects. If not properly encouraged and guided by parents, this outpouring of creativity can lead to an identity crisis or a lack of direction for teens with ADHD, who may be bursting with ideas but feel unable to act on them.
Mindful Ways to Maintain Balance with ADHD
These dramatic changes can make your teen feel like a different person altogether. They are tough, but also necessary and healthy as your teen evolves from child to adult. Still, how do you balance all these new (and occasionally conflicting) needs with your own desires to connect with your child and keep her safe? Here are a few strategies parents can try — with your teen’s help and buy-in:
- Release expectations. Teens (with or without ADHD) are confronted daily with expectations — some reasonable and some not — from parents, teachers, or even themselves. Releasing the unfair expectations adults have of him, and confronting his own unhealthy expectations, will allow your teen to map out his true goals and find the path most likely to make him happy. You, in turn, should examine your own expectations and evaluate whether they’re fair for the child you have — not the child you wish you had.
- Laugh. Encourage your teen to see the humor in her slip-ups, whether due to ADHD or simple teenage bone-headedness. Adolescence is filled with enough drama as is — your teen shouldn’t pile on more by being overly critical of her own mistakes. And remember, parents aren’t perfect either — you should be able to admit when you make a mistake and laugh at your own gaffes. Your child will be more willing to look on the bright side — and view her skills and talents in a positive light — if she sees that Mom and Dad are human, too.
- Enlist help. Teach your teen to recognize when he needs help and to ask those around him to lend a hand. Teens with ADHD are reminded of their weaknesses all too often; they may, as a result, reject help in an effort to demonstrate their strength. Asking for help can be hard — especially for a headstrong teen. It’s your job to remind him that the most successful people in the world are the ones who learn to harness the powers of others because everyone is endowed with unique talents and shortcomings. And this advice applies to you, too! Parenting your teen is your responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Reach out to a trusted friend for advice, or ask a family member to spend a day with your teen when you need a break. You (and your child) will be better off.
- Tirelessly explore passions. One day, your teen is all about bass guitar. The next, she only cares about her volleyball team. You might feel like you’re getting whiplash from the merry-go-round of extracurriculars, but one of the most critical things you can do as a parent is to be open to each new interest your child wants to explore. Parents are often guilty of telling their teen to “stick to one thing,” but that can be limiting — for kids with ADHD, especially. Even something as simple as asking your child about the song she’s writing or cheering her on at her game can go a long way toward solidifying her long-term interests and building her self-esteem.
Be present during your teen’s journey — offering suggestions and pointing in different directions as needed — but accept that you can only guide him as far as he’ll let you. Of course, you’re the parent — your rules and boundaries still apply, and must still be enforced. But you can’t force your child down a path he doesn’t want to take, or turn him into a person he’s not. Being present, mindful, and supportive will help you and your teen turn these tough years into the building blocks of a healthy, happy lifetime.