Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) is the most common behavior disorder in childhood. It affects between 4% and 6% of school age children and adolescents, possibly more depending on the study. ADHD is more commonly thought of as a childhood disorder and therefore it is more commonly diagnosed during the childhood years. However ADHD symptoms can still appear during the teenage years when entering adolescence causes previously latent ADHD symptoms to surface. Moreover, while doctors once believed that children outgrew ADD/ADHD symptoms by the time they reached adolescence, they now realize that this is not always the case. In fact, about 70% of children with ADHD have problems with impulsivity, problem solving, decision-making, and inattention throughout their teenage years. The increased demands of school, jobs and new relationships may bring to the surface a teen’s inability to stay focused, or his or her inclination for impulsive or irrational behavior.
If ADHD goes unrecognized and untreated, a teenager can develop low self-esteem, frustration, academic underachievement, or failure, as well as social isolation. These highly negative feelings can follow him/her into adulthood. Therefore, it is important for parents to be educated about ADHD symptoms in teens.
Normal adolescent behaviors such as hyperactivity, impulsivity and irritability imitate the symptoms of ADD/ADHD, making it extremely difficult to diagnose. While in younger children the symptoms of ADD/ADHD may be obvious, such as difficulty sitting still or blurting out answers. In teens, because of their increasing maturity, these symptoms may be more subdued. During adolescence the characteristics of the ADD/ADHD change and some symptoms become more noticeable while others become less noticeable. Symptoms such as hyperactivity, attention span and impulse control may decrease, while impulsivity can become a major problem for teens with ADHD. This can cause difficulties at school, at work and in family and social relationships.
Don’t Forget Those Hormones
Teenage is a phase when there are certain hormonal developments and bodily changes which are managed by the endocrine and nervous system of the body. The neurotransmitters in the body help the brain to form, translate, store and recall thoughts. Two of the important neurotransmitters which are responsible for this function are dopamine and acetylcholine (responsible for controlling memory, attention, reasoning, perception and judgment). Any fluctuations in their levels can alter the brain function. ADHD symptoms in teens attribute to low levels of these neurotransmitters. Such chemical imbalances can be also be caused by anxiety and depression. 
Some behaviors described below are exhibited by most teens, and can be attributed to normal reactions to the challenges of being teenagers. They may be hormonal in nature, they may be normal, or they may be out of the range of the norm. But whatever the cause, when these behaviors are persistent and affect studies and relationships with others, parents and teachers may need to have their teen evaluated to discover the cause of the behavior.
Identifying the Signs and Symptoms of ADHD in Your Teen
The main symptoms of ADHD in teens are serious and consistent difficulties in the following three areas:
- inattentiveness or “distractibility” – poor attention span
- impulsivity – weak impulse control and delay of gratification
- hyperactivity – excessive activity or restlessness.
Many teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are naturally inclined to fall into one category more than the other. However, most teens with ADHD have some combination of both inattention and hyperactive-impulsive behavior.
Sometimes ADHD in teens coexists with other conditions. For example, it may coexist with learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, and substance-induced mood disorders. In addition, a teen with ADHD may also have oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. ADHD touches all aspects of a teen’s life in more ways than it does in early childhood, which means it can seriously interfere with his or her daily functioning.
The most common symptoms that may be indications of ADHD in adolescents are:
- Being easily distracted with a brief attention span.
- General untidiness, in school and at home.
- Being consistently late with assignments.
- Constantly losing things such as homework.
- Regularly running late for school.
- Doing everything with a deadline at the very last minute only.
- An unusual sense of fairness.
- Coming up with loads of excuses for not getting things done.
- Giving the impression of not listening when being spoken to.
- Being highly impulsive and not thinking before taking action .
Inattentive Symptoms of ADHD
Teens who are inattentive have a hard time keeping their mind on any one thing and may get bored with a task after only a few minutes. It is one of the most recognizable symptoms of ADHD in teens. They may give effortless, automatic attention to activities and things they enjoy. But focusing deliberate, conscious attention to organizing and completing a task, or learning something new, is difficult. This stems from lack of short term memory and can be for genetic or neurological reasons. Being easily distracted can also manifest itself in having several incomplete tasks going on at once and not completing assignments. Some teens with ADHD may also forget to bring their assignments to school and often lose or misplace their books.
If you’ve found yourself repeating the same instructions over and over again, or reminding your teen of the same thing time and again, you might want to begin documenting the situation. Becoming aware of the difficulties and limitations of your teen will enable you to determine if the situation is a symptom of ADHD or simply because he’s not listening.
Hyperactive/Impulsive Symptoms of ADHD
Being hyperactive usually means that the teenager cannot stay in one place for long. Teens who are hyperactive may seem unusually restless. Like younger children, some teens can be very fidgety, constantly drumming on the table or moving their feet around. While others may get up and walk in circles around a room.
Teens who are overly impulsive seem unable to curb their immediate reactions or think before they act. As a result, they may blurt out inappropriate comments, may have difficulty waiting in line or for their turn, interrupt conversations or blurt out the answers in class or conversations –sometimes before the question is finished being asked. Many teens with symptoms of adolescent ADHD can also be overly talkative.
Teens with ADHD can be also be impulsive to a degree that is not only distracting but also dangerous. Impulsive activities that teens may engage in include performing dangerous stunts, taking drugs and drinking alcohol.
Sometimes teens with ADHD will be unable to focus on a conversation and will have trouble making eye contact when they speak to you. It sometimes seems as if they are not speaking to you but to someone else. Parents of ADHD teens commonly report that when they try to speak to their teen, they’re unable to get them to make eye contact for more than a few seconds.
Unlike inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity may be more easily recognizable in teens. People tend to get annoyed with teens that can’t control their impulses or activity levels. When other students are trying to pay attention, the bouncing around and drumming of the one with ADHD can be distracting, often testing the patience of teachers and peers. These behaviours can get the teen into trouble which may cause teachers and parents to try and figure out what is wrong with the teen.
Some teens may show signs of all three types of behavior (combined type ADHD), others may only show inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity.
ADHD is a treatable condition that requires a comprehensive approach. Getting an accurate medical diagnosis and finding effective treatment for ADHD in your teen, and any coexisting problems, is extremely vital and important for your teens mental health. Medication has a proven track record of success when closely monitored by a physician and in conjunction with other therapies such cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, social skills training, parent education and support, and remedial education.
If attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is diagnosed in your teen, learn about the condition. Keep informed with your teenager’s doctor, psychiatrist, and teachers. Stay involved in the school to see that he/she is getting appropriate remedial education or special tutoring whenever necessary. Parents of adolescents with ADHD continue to be their youngster’s best advocates. They are the ones that need to be involved in getting their teens the help they need.
1 Your Adolescent – Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry,
2 ADHD in Teens and Adolescents: Behavior Problems May Be More Than Just a Phase, Health.com