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Understanding Teenage ADHD and How Parents Can Help.

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

The word ADHD is coming up in so many different contexts of life; both personally and professionally recently. For this reason I wanted to write about what I know about it, how I am understanding it and the conversations I am having about it in my community, workplaces and with clients.

As a parent I feel blessed that my career has afforded the time and space to learn more deeply about mental health and with a systemic lens that looks beyond individual pathology. I've spend more than a decade studying and practicing mindfulness which involves focussing your attention and developing attitudinal qualities that enhance self understanding and expand awareness. I have four teenage daughters and a partner and we have had some of the same challenges like everyone has this year but raising the girls has taught me a lot about the human condition and relationships.

ADHD is something I often hear in our school community, in my work with counselling adolescents and often in supervision and academic studies. This year in particular ADHD has been such a big theme in my work with schools. I recently started reading a book by Dr. Gabor Mate; a physician who has worked with thousands of people who have ADHD, was diagnosed with ADD himself (before they changed the label) and is well respected in the field of mental health and medicine. His book Scattered Minds is an insight into the history and origins of AD(H)D and worth a read if you or your child has a diagnosis or seeking treatment for the condition.

While Gabor Mate is supportive of the role of neurological factors in ADHD and the use of drugs in treatment he also gathers the latest research, clinical practice and his own life experiences with ADHD to indicate what else is going on behind the behaviours. Causes that arise from conditions in childhood and the relationship between attachment figures in early life, the family, culture and in particular the mother child bond. Gabor speaks to our culture and our obsession with busyness, perfectionism and disconnection with honesty. It is often the system we live within that perpetuate the underlying traumas and dispositions that we label as mental illness.

Gabor gathers evidence to suggest it's not the gene that causes ADHD in and of itself. He also refers to how early attachment and the relationship attunement between mother-child might have been less than ideal. Attunement is the mirroring of a child's emotional affect by a parent and this is something that can be repaired and developed through relationships strategies between parent and child or through working with a skilled therapist.

Dr. Dan Siegel says, "When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”

Our body and brain development is constantly in relationship with our environment and there is something to be said in that AD(H)D has exploded more recently with more and more teenagers receiving diagnosis and more often that not medications to manage behaviour; sometimes without any long term psychotherapeutic help or at least trying that first. So much so is the global rise of pharmaceutical treatment for mental health conditions that the U.N. and W.H.O. are now calling for a move away from pharmaceutical driven medical models to treat mental health.

Teachers in both primary and secondary level education are reporting that several students in every class have a diagnosis and the behaviours associated with it are challenging for teachers to manage. The medical model falls terribly short in our understanding ADHD and Gabor himself a Doctor said psychological understanding and therapy work is his preference with medication being an absolute last resort. He also highlights that most doctors know very little about the condition but understand the criteria for diagnosis and the medications they can prescribe.

In my private practice work I am supporting teenagers who have ADHD but I am also interested in how their parents are relating with their teens and providing boundaries, compassion, presence and the connection young minds need to thrive. Parenting is much like leadership and that can get really tricky when life starts to be challenged by a teenager and with the constant pressure, pace and complexity of modern life it's tough. If you're working full time, single or part of a minority group it's even more difficult these days. But as parents we can sometimes get so wound up in the management of ours and our teenagers lives that we forget about the relationship and connecting to them person to person, heart to heart. The relationship is the most important part of parenting as it provides the foundation for all their relationships beyond the family.

We just need to look across our own family to understand the historical complexity of relationships and you will start to see patterns of how we carry our family traumas that are not resolved into our next generation. It's getting more and more challenging when we live in a society that encourages individualism, busyness and disconnection from one another as we strive through today towards constant technological advance. We don't fully understand ourselves intelligently yet we seek to replicate ourselves artificially and digitally.

I've no doubt the book Scattered Minds will be challenging for some parents to read because it requires you take a look at your own relationship with your children and do the work as a family. I should know it's really uncomfortable at times. Gabor Mate's approach is eloquent and compassionate and offers real hope for healing families. The book and compassion based psychotherapeutic approaches offer a transpersonal process that can help re-build that capacity to attune in families and the to foster co-regulation, true mindfulness and connection to something more expanded than the self.

The ability to emotionally regulate emerges from the architecture formed in early attachment and the attunement between care giver and baby. We are not designed to be sustainable "self-regulators" the whole process of regulation is about attuning to another human being to secure our bonds and odds for survival. If you're a parent with a child that has an ADHD I encourage you to read this book and look at getting some holistic counselling or psychotherapy support yourself as well for your teen. You may like to listen to Dr Gabor Mate's talk on ADHD for an introduction to his book and if you Google him will find lots of great resources to research.


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