I rarely look back at my time in high school and think: “wow, those were the days. Wish I could go back there.”
Being a teenager can be frustrating. There’s a lot of stuff you have to figure out and adjustments you have to make. With ADHD, even more so.
One pretty significant task that people confront in adolescence is building a sense of self. This is a time when you’re becoming more independent, so naturally you come up against questions like who you are as a person and how you fit into the world.
Imagine trying to answer these questions when you’re a teen with ADHD. Who are you? Well, if you have ADHD, there’s a good chance you’ve been told you’re lazy, incompetent, irresponsible, annoying, someone who doesn’t try hard enough.
How do you fit into the world? You fit in as someone who struggles with the things everyone else takes for granted.
Of course, that’s not really who people with ADHD are or what their place in the world is. Different individuals with ADHD have a million different interests, strengths, quirks and defining characteristics.
But they also have ADHD. And when you’re a kid with ADHD, people who don’t know much about ADHD tend to misinterpret and judge your behavior, and those misinterpretations and judgments get reflected back on you and absorbed into your self-image.
This is especially true because you’re spending your childhood and adolescent years in school, a place that generally isn’t very ADHD-friendly. So you’re figuring out who you are at the same time as you’re being asked to show up everyday and put yourself in an environment that plays to the things you struggle with.
In this context, it’s easy to see how building a positive sense of self that puts you on firm ground for adulthood is, at the very least, an especially complex task when you have a condition like ADHD.
It’s also a task that’s important. Partly because having a healthy understanding of your own self-worth is, naturally, a goal to pursue for its own sake. But also because, as it turns out, having high self-worth may provide a buffer for some of the negative effects of ADHD symptoms.
In case you think I’m making that up, let me direct your attention (or inattention?) to a recent study titled Trajectories of Global Self-Worth in Adolescents With ADHD: Associations With Academic, Emotional and Social Outcomes. In the study, researchers surveyed students with ADHD about their self-worth between the ages of 11 and 14, then saw whether the trajectories in these students’ self-worth predicted what the students’ lives looked like at age 15.
The students found that teenagers with ADHD tended to divide into three main groups. Those whose self-worth was high and getting higher, those whose self-worth was moderate and getting lower, and those whose self-worth was low and getting even lower. These groups accounted for 44, 49 and 7 percent respectively of the 324 teens with ADHD.
At the age of 15, those who were in the group with high/increasing self-worth had lower rates of depression and better social functioning than those in either the moderate/decreasing or the low/decreasing groups. The researchers took the severity of students’ ADHD symptoms into account, meaning that for two people with equally severe ADHD symptoms, one with a downward trajectory in self-worth would still be more likely to experience depression and social problems than one with an upward trajectory in self-worth.
So if high self-worth can soften some of the effects of ADHD symptoms, there’s an obvious question: what can we do to help teenagers with ADHD develop a healthy sense of self-worth? That’s a complex question that I won’t even try to answer comprehensively in this blog post. But it seems to me that anything we can do to help them explore their unique interests, make the education system more responsive to people with different learning styles, and increase ADHD awareness would be a good start.
Image: Flickr/Tyrone Daryl