The Hidden Signs That Your Teen May Have ADHD

By Katie K. May

Many people, parents and professionals, consider the symptoms of ADHD to be hyperactivity, difficulty paying attention and trouble completing schoolwork. While these may be common or commonly talked about symptoms, they are not the full story.

Unfortunately, many times ADHD goes undiagnosed until much later in life and these individuals have a lifetime of receiving the message that something is wrong with them. ADHD researchers have found that children with ADHD receive an estimated 20,000 more negative messages than neurotypical kids. 

Imagine how your teen’s self-esteem would soar with an accurate diagnosis. Together you could shift the conversation from your teen hearing that they are “too much, bad, wrong or different” to your teen working with you to understand their unique needs, rooted in the data of how their brain works. An environment that supports their success is within reach! 

If your teen doesn’t struggle academically, ADHD may be missed and misdiagnosed as a mood disorder. Read on to learn about the hidden signs of ADHD in teens. 

Hyperfocus on Interest-Based Activities

Your teen may struggle to complete math homework when sitting at the kitchen table, but then can spend hours playing the guitar, reading for recreation or watching YouTube videos. The name “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” is misleading; it’s actually not a deficit of attention, but an inconsistency in attention that is at the core.

Hyperfocus is an interest-based nervous system response that gives your teen an amazing ability to intensely focus on and complete tasks related to an interest area. This type of focus is internally driven and is not transferable to tasks that your teen’s brain does not consider a priority.

Put simply, if you’re a nerd for Marvel movie trivia but not for spreadsheets, your ADHD will never allow you to hyperfocus on doing your taxes but you may spend hours doing deep dive internet research into movie history. You also might lose track of time and lose sight of other responsibilities in the process.

DBT Mindfulness Skills Can Help!

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Skills Groups have been endorsed by ADHD experts as effective in helping teens manage ADHD symptoms. See my interview with ADHD Dude here!

When teens learn and practice Core Mindfulness skills, they will become aware of times when they are mindless, stuck in an unhelpful pattern or behavior or acting without thinking. They learn to increase control of their mind, stop letting their mind control them and to make decisions to change their environment and actions in the moment (when it counts).

How to Use Core Mindfulness Skills for Task Switching

  1. Observe. Notice what you’re experiencing inside your body. Become aware of what’s coming through your senses and what’s happening around you.
  2. Describe. Label your behavior for what it is. “I am hyperfocusing right now.”
  3. Participate. Throw yourself completely into the activity you need to complete. Do not do it halfway! Change your environment, your body posture, your tone of voice.

Keep your mind on your goals in the situation and focus on what works to achieve them. Act as skillfully as you can by doing what is needed for the situation you are in, not for the one you wish you were in.

Core Mindfulness skills take practice and accountability. Having the peer support of a skills group will keep your teen on track for using and troubleshooting these skills.

Poor Ability to Manage Emotions

When your teen is highly sensitive and impulsive, ADHD may be at the core of emotional ups and downs, depression, anxiety and even self-harm behaviors. Teens with untreated ADHD may be more likely to experience intense emotions. Their emotions may seem to hit for no reason, from out of the blue. They may be more sensitive to triggers and have the ability to detect subtle emotional information, like a facial expression or tone, that others don’t even notice.

Difficulty in managing emotions also leads to an increase in impulsivity. Your teen likely finds it very hard to restrain impulsive behaviors. They act without thinking and do or say things that get them into trouble. 

This emotional dysregulation gets in the way of your teen organizing their lives and behaviors to achieve their goals. When they are sad, they are lying in bed. When they are angry they are lashing out at others. When they are bored, they are zoned out playing video games. They cannot control behaviors linked to their moods.

Managing Emotional Dysregulation

DBT emotion regulation skills help your teen identify your emotions and manage them appropriately. Two skills that can be effective in managing the fast ups and downs are the PLEASE skill and Check the Facts.

Reduce your vulnerability. Getting enough sleep, properly nourishing yourself and moving your body regularly will reduce the frequency and intensity of ups and downs in your emotions. The PLEASE skill is an acronym that teaches individuals in DBT to treat physical illness, exercise, eat well, sleep well and avoid substances so that they can maintain a balanced life.

Check the facts. Individuals with ADHD have often completed a sentence others have started before that person has even finished the thought in their own mind. This can at times lead to inaccurate interpretations and jumping to conclusions. The DBT skill of Check the Facts teaches individuals to slow down, to look for all possible interpretations and to assess the intensity of their response to see how it matches the event that triggered them.

Intense Reactions to Rejection

Most people who have ADHD are also very sensitive to what other people think or say about them. This is sometimes called “rejection sensitive dysphoria” (RSD). This is not a diagnosis, but a way of describing the discomfort, distress and difficulty that individuals with ADHD experience when they encounter a perceived rejection. 

Some signs of RSD in your teen may include:

  • Intense emotional responses when rejected or left out socially
  • Embarrassment or shame that sticks around after a social situation
  • Setting high standards and feeling like a failure when they are not met

Managing Rejection Sensitivity

Thankfully, DBT gives us a wide range of skills for self-management of emotions and for interacting successfully with others! The FAST skill in DBT teaches teens how to stick to their values and stay true to themselves so that they can maintain their self-esteem in relationships.

How to use the FAST Skill:

  1. Be fair to yourself. Remember to validate your own feelings and wishes.
  2. Don’t take responsibility for the choices of others. It’s all too easy to blame yourself for not being invited, but it likely has nothing to do with you.
  3. Stick to your own values. Don’t change your beliefs to fit in or to be part of a crowd.
  4. Be honest. If you feel hurt by a friend’s actions, tell them the truth. Embrace vulnerability and open the conversation.

Does your teen have ADHD?

Don’t wait to find out. By the time teens with ADHD reach adulthood, 90% have developed at least one other mental health disorder that impacts their quality of life, like depression or anxiety. Early intervention is key to identifying the right treatment to support your teen.

Creative Healing offers ADHD testing for tweens, teens and parents too! Click here to learn more.

About the Author

Clinical Director at Creative Healing

Katie K. May is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Director at Creative Healing, a teen support center with three locations in the Greater Philadelphia area. Her team of true teen specialists helps teens learn skills to manage big emotions so they can create lives they love. Learn more at