Teens with ADHD

Teen Stress Is Very Real — and Manageable with These Exercises

Your teen is hurting — whether due to low self-esteem, mean peers, school stresses, or hormonal fluctuations. You know mindfulness can reduce stress, but you can barely get him to sit down and focus on dinner for 10 minutes, much less a mindful practice. Here, find 6 short, easy exercises designed to help a teen with ADHD start out on the road to self-compassion and self-improvement.

Bored female student doing homework on laptop and holding a notebook on the head.
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The Teen Stress Problem

If you insist that teenagers today are just entitled, spoiled Snapchat junkies, then you're not paying attention.

Unrelenting social media, competitive college admissions, over-committed schedules, exhausting hormones, and unhealthy peer pressures all coalesce during high school. In fact, research1 shows that teenagers are the most stressed out group in America — and that may be doubly true for teenagers with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), who struggle to manage their symptoms on top of everything else.

1 American Psychological Association. “Stress in America: Are Teens Adopting Adults' Stress Habits?” 11 Feb. 2014.

Young male teenager meditating in half lotus posture.
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Stress Management As a Powerful Life Tool

When a teen with ADHD gets stressed, his brain switches into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. His heart rate goes up, his executive functions all but disappear, and — in some cases — he may find it’s easiest to shut down or act out. Stress leads some teens to turn on themselves, flee from their emotions, or “check out” — which too often means escaping into sex, drugs, or other impulsive and dangerous behaviors.

The good news? In your child’s brain, there already exists a mechanism to manage stress and stop out-of-control behaviors. It goes by a few different names — “attend and befriend,” self-compassion, or mindfulness. With consistent practice, a stressed-out teen can learn to calm her body, slow her breath, open up her brain, and view the world (and herself) more compassionately and mindfully. All it takes to get started are some simple mindfulness prompts and breathing exercises. Here are 6 straightforward strategies to get you started.

Lonely teenage girl sitting on the dock on cold winter day.
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ADHD Mindfulness Technique #1: Take a Mindful SEAT

This introductory technique aims to focus awareness on immediate feelings. Ask your teen to close his eyes, take a deep breath, and answer the following questions:

  • What Sensations are in your body?
  • What Emotions are you feeling?
  • What Actions do you want to take?
  • What Thoughts pop into your head?

The SEAT acronym allows teens to quickly check in with themselves and figure out what they want, what’s causing or exacerbating feelings of distraction, and what they can do to return to the present moment.

[Free Handout: 5 Mindfulness Exercises for Students with ADHD]

A teen girl doing the "hot chocolate breath," a mindfulness exercise designed for teens
cup of hot chocolate warming in the hands of a girl
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ADHD Mindfulness Technique #2: Use Hot Chocolate Breath

This technique works best for younger kids, but teens benefit from it, too — if they can get over some initial feelings of self-consciousness.

This technique starts with your teen holding up her hands as if she were holding a mug of hot chocolate right under her face. Prompt some basic visualization, and ask your teen to imagine first smelling the hot chocolate — inhaling deeply through her nose — and then blowing it to cool it down, exhaling smoothly across the surface out her mouth. Have her repeat this breathing pattern and visualization — in through her nose smelling, and back out through her mouth, cooling off — for a minute or two. Encourage her to let her breath find its own rhythm: not too fast, and not too slow.

Using imagery like this — connecting the exercise to the pleasant sensation of drinking hot chocolate — provides teens with a positive association and helps them make sense of their breathing patterns. Slow, deliberate breathing is what calms down the body and the brain; the visualization jumpstarts the prefrontal cortex and helps kids focus their wandering attention.

Analog wall clock, narrow focus on number nine, tinted black and white image
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ADHD Mindfulness Technique #3: 7/11 Breath

This technique is popular with athletes, police officers, and teachers who are regularly placed in high-pressure, high-performance situations. In my experience, teens who are skeptical of breathing exercises in general are usually more likely to respond to this one — particularly once they learn that it’s used by firefighters… and LeBron James.

The “7/11 breath” is as straightforward as it sounds — simply breathe in for 7 seconds, and out for 11. After a few repetitions, your teen should notice that his brain chatter has quieted considerably, and he may even feel less physically antsy. If he maintains the 7/11 breath for 12-15 repetitions, he should settle into 4 to 6 breaths per minute, a range that’s scientifically proven to optimize long-term focus.

stop sign
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ADHD Mindfulness Technique #4: STOP

This technique relies on a visual cue, such as a stop sign, to get started.

Here’s how it works: When your teen sees the established visual cue — when she reaches the stop sign at the end of your street, for instance, or when she notices the stop sign you’ve posted at the top of the stairs — she should follow that command and stop what she’s doing for a few moments. She should take a long, slow breath, letting it go all the way in and exhaling it all the way back out. Ask her to (briefly) observe her surroundings and ask herself, “What’s here? What’s happening to me in this moment?” Then she can proceed with her day as normal.

The STOP technique is deceptively simple, but it can help teens with ADHD better understand social cues, control their impulses, and monitor their own needs.

Boy (13-14) with eyes closed
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ADHD Mindfulness Technique #5: The Silent Sigh

Your teen is already an expert at sighing — a dramatic and scathing way to convey that they’re annoyed, unhappy, or above it all. Sighing also serves a physiological purpose: the vibrations of its deep exhale calm down the body, particularly when it’s feeling frustrated or out-of-control.

The “silent sigh” technique works best when your teen is angry or on the verge of a meltdown. When her stress reaches a breaking point, have her slowly and fully exhale, pressing all the air out her lungs. If she wants, she can close her eyes and focus her attention on what’s frustrating her; by the time she’s done exhaling, she should be able to see it more clearly and — ideally — decrease some of her annoyance and unhappiness.

[Free Resource: Transform Your Teen's Apathy Into Engagement]

Teen girl with eyes closed listening to music
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ADHD Mindfulness Technique #6: “Zoom In” on Sounds

This technique works well for anyone who zeroes in on the small details and misses the forest for the trees. It is slightly more complex, so you may need to guide your teenager through it at first.

Here’s how it works: Ask  your teen to sit up straight, with his eyes closed. Ring a bell, strum a guitar, or make another short, melodic sound. Ask your teen to listen closely and make an effort to hear the beginning, the middle, and the end of the sound. (You can repeat this step a couple times if it takes a moment for your teen to get the hang of it.)

Once the bell fades, ask your teen to identify the farthest sound he can hear — maybe it’s cars driving on a nearby street, or the wind blowing through your backyard. Next, ask your teen to identify a closer sound — his brother’s footsteps walking down the hall, perhaps, or a clock ticking in his bedroom. Next, ask him to focus on the sound of your voice for a few moments, then turn to the sound of his breath. With some practice, he can zoom in even further and meditate on the sound of his own heartbeat.

“Zooming in” like this helps your teen learn to focus his attention on something specific. If he is nervous before a test, for instance, he can take a few moments at the outset to run through these steps in his mind. Gradually narrowing his attention — first on the cars outside, then to the students in the hallway, then to the test in front of him — is a great way to address the present moment, calm his body and brain, and release unnecessary distractions.

Mom and daughter with ADHD discuss responsibilities
Mom and daughter with ADHD discuss responsibilities
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Takeaways for Parents

The best thing about all these exercises? They take barely any time at all. Encourage your teen to find small, quiet moments throughout the day to practice one, two, or several of her favorites. Stress won’t disappear, but she’ll learn how to be kinder to herself in the face of bad feelings — which will go a long way toward helping her (and you) better manage the daily challenges of life with attention deficit.