Mediaplanet: What are the continuing myths and stigmas that exist around ADHD in teens?

Heidi Bernhardt: It’s a complex neuro-developmental disorder that impacts brain functioning and processing, but it doesn’t impact intelligence or IQ. Those diagnosed have just as much capacity to learn as others. They simply need some assistance because they learn differently. Some people think ADHD is a new fad disorder, but we can actually track the symptoms back to the 1700s. ADHD affects all populations at all stages of life and is recognized worldwide.

Another myth is that ADHD sufferers can’t pay attention to anything. The disorder causes dysregulation in attention. This means sometimes sufferers will be hyperattentive and over-focus on one thing that’s very stimulating. This can be just as much of a problem as under-focusing.

Even though everyone has times where they can’t focus, like if they’re tired or not feeling well, ADHD is a different phenomenon. Even though ADHD impairments can fluctuate from day to day and hour to hour, they have to be at a level that impairs functioning for a diagnosis to occur.

MP: What are the most important first steps to take if you think your teenager might have ADHD?

HB: First, get a thorough assessment from a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a developmental pediatrician, or a family physician trained in ADHD. You need a full assessment to look at the symptoms, ruling them in as ADHD or ruling them out as something else that also causes problems with inattention.
Next, the adolescent and the parent need to become educated about ADHD and I can’t stress that enough. They need to understand ADHD as a disorder, but also how it specifically impacts the individual. ADHD presents differently in different people so they need to understand it in themselves.

MP: How might ADHD be treated and what are the benefits of different treatments?

HB: ADHD is on a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe and presents in a wide variety of ways, so treatment should always be individualized. ADHD should be treated with a combination of treatments. It should never be treated with medication alone. Learning about the disorder and setting up classroom accommodations and teaching strategies that support the student with ADHD are two good first steps. Those diagnosed might also integrate habits that are good for brain functioning into their routine, like aerobic exercise and eating a balanced diet. Cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness have also been shown to be helpful.

Medication can be especially useful when regulating attention is a significant impairment. If an ADHD sufferer’s attention is turned off, they can only be prompted to refocus to a point.  While medication treatment is a personal decision, that decision should be made after reviewing your symptoms with a qualified physician. 

MP: Does having ADHD mean that an adolescent won’t be able to finish their education and go on to have a successful career?

HB: With the right assistance and treatment for adolescents with ADHD, they can go on to post-secondary education and have a successful career. They need to become aware of what academic supports are available to them and what accommodations they can access, allowing them to work to their potential. I think one of the most important things an adolescent with ADHD should consider is what career or course of study suits their strengths and passions. If you know that you need to be active to be productive, perhaps a career working at a desk might not be a good fit. The most important thing to remember is that when ADHD is understood and adolescents with ADHD are supported, they can become happy, successful adults.

Heidi Bernhardt is the founder, President, and Executive Director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada (CADDAC), a national non-profit. Heidi has not received any personal, direct financial payment for her participation in the production and publication of this article, but has disclosed that although CADDAC has not received any financial compensation or payment directly in relation to this article as well, CADDAC has received or receives grant(s) or funding, including in-kind compensation, for patient education and advocacy initiatives from pharmaceutical organizations and/or medical device companies.

For information on ADHD geared specifically to adolescents and their parents, please visit Additional education resources such as videos and webinars can also be accessed from the website.