Teen Jobs Could Be More Powerful — and Tricky — Than Ever
Teen jobs build self-esteem, executive functions, and skills — if part-time employees with ADHD use supports like calendars, reminder apps, and notebooks to stay on track. Follow these 10 tips to make your teen’s first work experience a positive one.
My youngest daughter had a teen job and then, after almost a year, she didn’t. It was a devastating blow for her self-esteem and, of course, that disappointment hit us hard as well. The fit seemed great, but problems arose with a supervisor who didn’t seem to understand how to work with neurodiverse employees.
For months afterward, my daughter floundered. She was angry and confused; no one ever clearly told why the job ended. Then, I found a youth job-training program and she discovered her voice, speaking up for herself as a young part-time employee with ADHD. When she finished the training program, she was hired working two to three nights a week in a pet store. After her first shift, she came home crying tears of joy, for maybe the third time in her life. “I have the best job ever,” she said. That was powerful.
The Benefits of Teen Jobs
Employment teaches responsibility and good work habits, improves time management and organizational skills, and helps teens save money. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, for every year a person works in their teens, their income increases 14 to 16 percent in their 20s.
An Employment Policies Institute (EPI) study by economists Dr. Christopher Ruhm and Dr. Charles Baum qualifies the long-lasting benefits of having part-time work as a teen. The EPI study found that teens who had jobs not only earned more annually than did their peers who didn’t work, but they also were less likely to be out of work, both in the short term right after graduation and throughout their careers.
A part-time job can be a positive experience and a milestone for any teen. For teens with ADHD, success hinges on knowing your own strengths and also recognizing when you need executive function supports — apps, alarms, and/or calendars — to stay organized. With clear-eyed accommodations in place, a high school job can be a vital learning opportunity.
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How Part-Time Jobs Benefit Teens with ADHD
During this isolating pandemic, a part-time job can also offer a powerful lifeline to teens with ADHD who are feeling ungrounded and lonely without regular in-school classes, after-school activities, and opportunities to see friends. Finding safe part-time work is more challenging than ever, but it is possible — and possibly also more impactful than ever.
Sharon Saline, Psy. D, a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 30 years’ experience and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life (#CommissionsEarned), says many kids with ADHD would typically do numerous after-school sports and activities that are now cancelled. As a result, they are bored and want something to do to break up monotonous days. Some kids may also need income to pay for shopping, books, or food during tough times.
“A lot of teens with ADHD struggle at school,” Saline said. “A job teaches different skills and builds self-esteem. Whether they are stocking shelves at a grocery store, babysitting, or working as a cashier at a coffee shop, they are building life skills that are not dependent on academic abilities. By showing up, demonstrating responsibility, sticking with your assigned tasks and staying even when you’re tired and want to leave, kids learn what it means to practice ‘adulting.’ Their paycheck (along with any positive feedback from supervisors) acts as the currency that tells them they’ve done a good job and are on the right track.”
Part-time jobs often offer clear tasks and a narrow field, which is important for teens with ADHD, Saline says. Skills learned on the job help teens build self-confidence and metacognitive awareness — a greater understanding of themselves — which is the last executive functioning skill to develop. In neurotypical individuals, these self-evaluation skills coalesce around age 25; people with ADHD experience a delay of up to three years. Working outside of the home contributes positively to this process.
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What Teen Jobs Work Best for ADHD Brains?
So, that got me thinking: What criteria should a teen with ADHD use when job hunting? Do some jobs work better than others for ADHD brains, and what’s the employee’s responsibility? Do they need to disclose that they have ADHD? Is transparency beneficial in any way? Here’s what the experts said.
Tip #1: You can’t fake interest.
Dr. Vinay Saranga, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says a teen with hyperactive and impulsive symptoms of ADHD might not do well at a desk job demanding lengthy amounts of sitting and focusing. But, other than that, the main criterion is finding work that matches their interests, talents, skills, abilities, and personality.
Ideally, the job will work to the teen’s personal strengths as well. For example, if they enjoy talking with others, they might consider a part-time job in a retail store or as a restaurant hostess. Or if they prefer being outdoors and active, they might apply to be a summer camp counselor or to provide after-school care for younger children.
Some teens with ADHD might do well to think about their ultimate career goal first, and then identify what job experiences or skills might be useful to help get from here to there.
Tip #2: Look for these workplace characteristics.
- Clear expectations and instructions
- Well-organized setting and manager
- Managers/supervisors who are involved and who supervise closely, but who are also encouraging and approachable — not overly critical or aloof
- Other experienced coworkers and/or supervisors who can serve as potential mentors or role models
- Availability of coworkers of similar age with whom to team up with, ask questions, and share support
Tip #3: Do not over-commit and under-deliver.
Research tells us that maintaining healthy routines and ADHD-management strategies are a very important predictor of workplace success, says Melissa Dvorsky, Ph.D., director of research for the ADHD and Learning Differences Program at Children’s National Hospital.
Dvorsky says teens with ADHD should begin by asking themselves these three questions: why they want a job; what they hope to get out of it; and whether it is something that they can realistically manage right now.
“It’s important to not over-schedule with too many commitments and competing priorities. Consider how well you are managing your school and other tasks when deciding whether you can balance a part-time job during the school year or if it is better to consider working over the holiday season or summers when not in school,” Dvorsky said. “For teens who already have difficulty getting homework and studying done, having a part-time job may pull their attention in other directions making the school problem worse.”
Tip #4: Assume your executive functions will need a boost.
In any position, the teens who succeed are often the ones who feel comfortable enough to self-advocate when they encounter challenges in the workplace. They are also the ones who proactively manage their executive functions by setting reminders, making notes, and keeping a calendar, Dr. Saranga says.
Purposeful organization, time management, and planning strategies are absolutely essential for managing ADHD in the workplace — in high school and far beyond.
Tiffany Steadman-Collins, a teacher’s assistant with ADHD who lives in Ontario, Canada, says she has always used a visual planner to help her stay organized at work. When she was younger and working part-time, it helped her manage her time and talk through situations with her parents.
“I rely on my agenda and loads of sticky notes,” Steadman-Collins says. “I like to be as prepared as possible. That helps me. If there is a book or video, I need to watch I always still take it home just to be prepared and to ease anxiety as well.”
Tip #5: Do not let past challenges impede your future successes.
Adam Sauriol struggled with ADHD in high school, but his first full-time job as an electrician’s apprentice in British Columbia has exceeded expectations.
He gets up with his alarm at 5 am every day, loves the reliable daily routine, and enjoys what he is doing. “I think the job is what does it,” says his mother, Kerry. “He gets himself up and is there on time with all of his gear. He is so much more organized now than he ever was at school.”
Tip #6: Embrace a calendar system.
Dr. Dvorsky suggests using a planner or electronic option like Google calendar that is accessible from all your devices.
- Record your work schedule, important dates, and key information as they come in. Do not wait and risk forgetting.
- Use color coding so your work schedule and tasks are distinct from school planning and other events
- Set up automated reminders to alert you when it is time to leave for work.
- At work, consider using timers to complete tasks or to signal when it is time to transition to a new task.
Tip #7: Request steady, predictable work hours.
Routines are helpful for ADHD brains trying to get to work on time, solidify a new work schedule, and complete tasks on time.
- If possible, request similar shift times each week or a set schedule that you can plan around (e.g., Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 7pm).
- From there, slot into your calendar other activities including your sleep schedule (bed/wake times), meals, school, completing schoolwork and studying, and time for other activities.
- If you take medication for ADHD, consider how this aligns with this routine for school and work.
- Prepare work clothes and materials the evening before to help set you up for success the next day.
Tip #8: Never rely on your memory.
- Write down the things that are important to remember such as tasks or processes that require multiple steps.
- Carry a pocket notebook or, if using your phone at work is acceptable, create electronic notes in a Work folder on your phone.
- Minimize clutter and distractions in your workspace by keeping only the materials you need in that area.
Tip #9: Think before revealing your ADHD.
An employer is not entitled to know if an employee has ADHD. The risks and benefits of disclosure hinge on the employee-employer relationship, as well as the employee’s specific needs. Not every manager or boss may be as positive, supportive, or knowledgeable about ADHD as a teen’s teacher, counselor, or coach often can be. Some bosses who are less knowledgeable about ADHD may view disclosure as “making excuses,” Dvorsky says.
Misconceptions about ADHD may be resolved through discussion with a receptive employer, but not all managers are receptive. In many cases, the teen can identify solutions and make changes without involving their manager. That said, many managers are happy to help employees with simple adjustments that promote improved work performance.
For my daughter, Ainsley, the pet store was an ideal fit. She gained valuable experience and learned numerous transferable skills, including time management. Most importantly, she felt good about the experience, her confidence grew, and she loved seeing the regular customers.
“I learned not to be afraid to ask for clarification if I don’t understand something the first time,” she said. “Sometimes I’d ask a supervisor to show me how they would do a specific task, like reaching extremely high shelves to restock them.”
Tip #10: Know your rights.
As a parent, or a young worker, it pays to familiarize yourself with your rights:
Teen Jobs That Work: Next Steps
- Read: A Summer Job Guide for Teens with ADHD
- Learn: How to Get A Head Start on Your Summer Job
- Ask: “What Should I Be When I Grow Up?”
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