Got an anxious high schooler with ADHD? Help is here.

Many teens today feel extremely overwhelmed and anxious, especially those who are out-of-the-box thinkers. Life seems constantly demanding and stressful. With the executive functioning challenges that are typical of ADHD brains, it’s even harder for them to regulate intense feelings.  Routine concerns can quickly balloon into outright panic. 

Approximately 35% of kids with ADHD have also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In my clinical experience, this number seems higher. After hearing over the years about about the ways that they miss the mark, don’t measure up and differ from other kids, these kids develop an internal vigilance–a nervousness–about the next time they will inadvertently stumble, what people will think of them and how to deal with the inevitable consequences. These worries fosters overt or covert anxiety.

I’ve asked teens with ADHD to describe the two things that cause them the most anxiety. Here’s what they’ve told me that they wish adults knew:

    1. They can’t keep up with 24/7 demands of their lives–whether it’s in real time or on social media. They struggle to regulate themselves regarding technology, understand social nuances and keep track of events and responsibilities. Their parents don’t see or understand all of the nuances they are dealing with.

Solution: Despite their words or actions to the contrary, teens actually want their parents to set limits on technology and help them manage. Parents, befriend your children on all social media outlets and help them manage FOMO. Talk with your teens about appropriate responses to relationship challenges both online and in person. Help them distinguish when to engage and how. Create screen-free family time at meals. Ask them to share an online, Youtube or musical interest or hobby with you so you can understand and participate in their world 

    1. They feel enormous pressure about school, the college process and what to do after high school. Some teens with ADHD drive themselves too hard, over-focus on achieving good grades and keeping up with their friends. Going to the ‘right’ college becomes more important than pursuing what best fits their interests. Other kids, in the face of repeated academic difficulties, adopt a “why bother even trying” attitude. They’ve lost the interest and impetus to make efforts. Too often, in all of these scenarios, parents will push their children based on their expectations of who they think their teen should be. Arguments and disappointment abound.  

Solution: Meet your teen where they are, not where you want them to be or think they should be. Development is an organic process that doesn’t necessarily unfold in a linear fashion. This is especially true for kids with ADHD, learning differences or high functioning autism. Their brains need more time to mature and they may benefit from an alternative path for a while until things fall more into place. Be open to thinking about alternatives. Maybe your son who likes video games and art might be better suited for a vocational program in computer design than conventional academics. Perhaps your daughter who excels at soccer but hates writing might benefit from being an assistant coach for a gap year. Offer guidance and support with an open mind. 

Of course, you can’t erase your teen’s anxiety. But, you can help them reduce it by monitoring their overwhelm, showing interest in their on-screen activities and keeping perspective on post-high school options.