The ADHD Experience: What It’s Really Like
What’s it like to be a teenager living with ADHD? Or to parent a teenager with ADHD? Your Teen asked parents, teenagers and professionals to tell us about the ADHD challenges and successes. . .
Though I was aware of my son’s attention difficulties from the time he was in early pre-school, it wasn’t until after first grade that he was formally diagnosed with ADD. I have a love/hate relationship with this label, but I was pleased that we’d identified what was going on in his little seven-year-old brain so that we could work to better direct his focus. I did, and still do, take issue with the word, “disorder,” in the description of ADD/ADHD, as it implies a mental “problem” rather than a manageable difficulty.
This is my son’s senior year of high school, and it’s been an interesting roller coaster ride. As is the case with many children with ADD/ADHD, my son is an intelligent, creative, and critical thinker. He’s also sometimes forgetful and out-of-step with what’s going on around him. As a child, he couldn’t focus on something of little importance (to him) for more than 10 minutes; yet, a box of Legos or a Harry Potter book captured his full attention for hours. Needless to say, his selective attention span posed an issue in the classroom.
Various studies estimate that 12 to 30 percent of children with ADD/ADHD have coexisting conditions, varying from sleeping difficulties to learning differences, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia. My son has dysgraphia, a processing glitch that makes writing a challenge, requiring greater effort and time than a traditional student. It took him greater time and effort to accomplish the same writing tasks as other students, so he fell behind in class.
Many exceptional teachers in my son’s lower and middle school years took the time to understand him and his learning differences in order to make the most of his many gifts. Other teachers, unfortunately, lacked understanding, concern, or patience for his divergent intellect, which created an atmosphere that progressively whittled away his self-confidence.
After failed trials of most ADHD medicines on the market, years of out-of-pocket tutoring and an unsuccessful move to a prestigious private middle school, we enrolled him in his current high school as a freshman. Here, he experienced a learning environment with peers with similar challenges. The teachers recognized their students’ individual strengths and weaknesses and addressed their distinct learning styles by adapting their lessons to foster the understanding and productivity of the entire class.
My son will graduate this year, with honors, but more importantly, with the knowledge, organizational skills, and self-confidence he needs to thrive in college and life. Our roller coaster ride is hardly over; this is life, but the view from here looks incredibly positive!
Meg Foglietti is the parent of Lawrence School senior, Julian Foglietti.
Teenage Boy’s Perspective
By Julian Foglietti
By the time I was in first grade, my family realized I was different than the other kids. I had trouble concentrating and staying quiet. Further testing diagnosed me with ADD.
We started looking for ways to help me cope and for a year I was able to manage pretty well. By the time second grade came around however, we realized that I needed medication to help me cope, even though my teacher was understanding and supportive. Focusing was still really hard and I continued to talk out and be off task a lot.
I began taking the medication, and I went from being one of the most talkative kids in school, to someone who hardly talked at all. Very soon, I realized that my medication and struggles in school were sending me into a deep depression that would continue on throughout school.
By the time fifth grade came around my parents decided that a change needed to be made. At the time, I thought switching schools would help because the classes would be more challenging academically. Maybe the problem was that I was bored. My parents , however, felt that the switch would be helpful because the classes would be much smaller and I would get more personalized attention. I switched in sixth grade, but the heavy homework, harsh teachers and severe bullying continued to plague my life.
My depression worsened, and I soon fell into a very deep slump. By the end of eighth grade, I felt like I was never going to get back up.
Earlier that year, my mom had told me about Lawrence School, a school that specialized in helping students like me, who were smart but had some difficulties learning. Tired from the pains of my old school, I decided to make the switch. It felt surreal—I didn’t have many friends, but it was still difficult to leave a school that was so familiar to me.
I started my new school in the fall of 2011. One of the first students I met asked me straight out, “So, why are you here?” For the first time in my school career, I didn’t feel like I had to hide who I was. I did not have to pretend that everything was fine or that I was more successful in classes than I was. For the first time, I knew I was somewhere with kids who’d had the same experiences that I’d had. I finally had something in common with the other kids.
I’d never felt comfortable at school. I never fit in—kids didn’t like me, I wasn’t good at sports and I struggled in classes. Now that’s all changed and I’m about to graduate with honors.
I think that very few people in the world are as focused on proving themselves as kids with learning differences. We persevere when others would probably give up. We’re not always accepted for who we are, which forces us to work harder and prove that we are not all that different from everyone else. And while that might seem unfair, all that hard work makes us better people. It’s impossible to break us – we will always rise to the challenge before us, and in the right learning environment, we will do better than anyone thought possible.
Julian Foglietti is a senior at Lawrence School in Sagamore Hills, Ohio.
Teenage Girl’s Perspective
Growing up, I used to think I was stupid. I didn’t know why I could never understand what my teachers were teaching in class, why I could never remember anything I was supposed to be doing, or why I was the weird girl who couldn’t hold an appropriate conversation. I spent 18 years of my life in a constant fog of confusion, and no one but me had any clue.
Before I was diagnosed with ADD my freshman year of college, I had terrible anxiety that counter-balanced my ADD symptoms. I knew I would forget everything. So I wrote it all down on post-it notes. I color coded the notes and hung them all over my desk as constant reminders. I knew it took me a long time to grasp concepts or finish a reading, so I set aside multiple hours in the day to teach myself calculus or French.
My anxiety got me through the high school workload. I still thought I was stupid, but I’d figured out the work around. But, my first semester of college turned that assurance upside down. I found myself forgetting entire lectures. I knew I went to class, but I couldn’t even remember being in the classroom. My notes looked like brand new material. I spent the semester teaching myself all the material for my class. I worked my butt off to keep up with my course load, but the amount of work I put in didn’t translate into good grades.
Finally, I sought help. I was diagnosed with ADD my freshman year of college, and life hasn’t been the same since. I began seeing a therapist who helped me understand how differently my brain works and how to manage it.
My ADD medicine lifted the cloud from my brain; I can now see in color. I’ve realized that I’m not stupid at all. I’m actually quite smart. My ambition and confidence has increased ten-fold now that I know my capabilities. The nightmare I used to call ‘college’ is now a dream come true.
In the three years since my diagnosis, I’ve worked with my therapist to understand the world of ADD and my place in it, and that has made all the difference. I could have stopped at the medication, but I wanted to know why and how I was different and how to use that to my advantage. I wanted to learn how to rely on myself, and not just my medicine, to get by. Three years down the road, I can now see the world in color, with or without my medicine, and all because I made an effort to understand instead of simply treat.
Heather is a senior at the University of Kansas studying exercise science.
By Dr. Wes Crenshaw
If you have a teen living with ADD or ADHD, you’ll generally find him or her falling into one of three categories: optimistic, terrified, or lost. For parents, the category may not be obvious, but when I ask teens, most can easily identify which one they are.
Optimistic teens are a bit too ready to get on with life. Research argues that they shouldn’t leave home at 18, but they can’t wait to get those darn parents out of their hair. These kids have overdeveloped yearnings for freedom and underdeveloped skills of independence. They don’t yet realize that freedom isn’t free and is impossible to achieve without true independence. They may discount the importance of further education or attempt it half-heartedly. Many don’t consider that parents aren’t interested in financing endless wandering. In severe cases, these kids face school or career failure, financial ruin, and sometimes, criminal behavior —all before they sober up figuratively and often, literally.
Terrified teens lean the opposite direction. They’re a little too realistic. Keenly aware of their shortcomings, they avoid leaving home. Or they try it for a year before moving back into their parents’ basement. They refuse or self-sabotage independence, even avoiding driving or working. Parents find them annoyingly satisfied with their situations and unmotivated to strive for anything greater.
Lost teens are confused by their situation and options in life. They lack the confidence of optimism and the driving energy of worry, easily becoming depressed and defeated. They may go back and forth from living at home to living independently. When asked to develop a simple plan, they struggle, because they genuinely can’t see themselves anywhere doing anything. In worst-case scenarios, they imagine living in communes or becoming homeless as good alternatives, or having babies at a young age to extend family support.
Successful teens living with ADHD have a hopeful perspective —the will and the way to make it in life. Follow these steps to help your teen get organized and get on the right path:
Brainstorm with a mentor.
This may be hard on your teen’s ego, because only a few ideas will add up. But it’s easier for someone else to critique a plan than the teen.
Teens with ADHD/ADD idealize fun goals, like becoming a video game designer or winning The Voice. That happens, but not often. Help teens set an achievable goal while striving for their passion on the side.
Do A Cost-Benefit Analysis.
Have teens list reasons to try something on one side of a page and reasons not to on the other. Assign each a weight and tally the results. If a teen is honest, the numbers rarely lie.
Make Choices Authentic.
Real choices require at least two valid options, both deserving serious consideration. For example, don’t send a teen to college simply because he or she doesn’t know what else to do. That’s not a real choice.
Don’t Overcomplicate Decisions.
Some teens imagine more choices than really exist just to avoid decision-making. Most choices can be reduced to a series of yes/no questions.
Know Your Limits.
It’s easy for teens to bite off more than they can chew, from events in a planner to projects at work or school. That sets teens up to fail.
Suggest achievable short-term objectives and time-limited breaks. It’s better to be the tortoise than the hare.
Never Make Life-Altering Decisions While Altered.
Substance abuse does not promote good choices. Parents should especially emphasize this when discussing dating.
Document Your Success.
Take pictures of achieved goals and look back at them when your teen feels hopeless. Make and have your teen check off a list until the goal is reached, then bask in its glory, a reminder that he or she can finish something.
It’s hard for teens living with ADHD to feel hopeful when others are growing up, making life decisions, taking calculated risks, and succeeding, while they’re not. But, if teens follow this list they’ll find hope is something you do, not something you feel.
Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., is Board Certified in Couples and Family Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is a newspaper columnist and author of I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD and ADHD, available from Amazon.com. Learn more about his work at www.dr-wes.com.