When Grace Friedman was diagnosed with ADHD at 12 years old, she didn’t know much about it. What she did know was that it was hard to make friends, her emotions seemed to be “on steroids,” and focusing on homework and in class felt impossible.
It also was difficult to accept that her brain and body worked differently than the average student’s. It was frustrating that she had to work harder on every assignment, staying up later and later just to finish a few math problems.
Friedman was convinced that because of these differences, she wouldn’t be able to succeed. She feared she’d “never be good enough, smart enough, quick witted enough to be successful in school” and beyond.
“It is hard to get used to the idea that my ADHD won’t be going away and I have to actively manage [it] for the rest of my life,” Friedman said.
Friedman, of course, isn’t alone. Many, many teens and young adults with ADHD feel the same way and have the same fears. Many have a shattered self-esteem and believe their ADHD is insurmountable.
Instead of denying, dismissing, or despising her ADHD, Friedman chose to accept it. “I decided early on I want to be the best version of myself because of my ADHD, not despite it.”
Friedman wants others to know that even though living with ADHD can be difficult, it is an issue you can work on—and it can even be a gift: “Those with ADHD often think outside the box, are creative, and can think big picture.”
Today, Friedman is an ADHD advocate, speaker, and founder of ADDYTeen.com. She also has her BA in psychology, and is co-author of the new book Winning with ADHD: A Playbook for Teens and Young Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder with pediatric neurologist Dr. Sarah Cheyette, M.D.
Friedman noted that managing ADHD is an active process. But it does get easier over time. Over the years, she’s acknowledged the unique ways that her brain works and identified tools and strategies that help her stay on track. Below, Friedman shared what helps her to thrive with ADHD, which might help you, too:
Running her own race at her own pace. “I always remind myself that I work a little differently than everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t suit up to win.”
Regulating emotions. Friedman, like many people with ADHD, can feel a rush of different emotions all at once. When this happens, she pauses, and labels what she’s feeling, along with identifying the situation she’s in. This helps her understand what’s contributing to and underlying her emotions.
Instead of bottling up her feelings, she channels that energy into a healthy outlet, such as exercising or painting. She also finds it powerful to talk to a loved one. “Talking to others can help you to take a different perspective on the situation or even help you identify the root of your strongest emotion.”
For instance, she used to yell at her parents when she was doing her homework. “After talking to them about why I was so upset, I understood I wasn’t mad at them per se, but I was fearful I wouldn’t pass the exam. Who can help you break your emotions down?”
Managing medication. Friedman has learned when she needs (and doesn’t need) to take medication and how to cope with unwanted side effects. For example, because high school was very structured—7 hours of school, soccer practice, homework—Friedman took her medication daily. However, in college, she reserved her medication for studying and class. She didn’t take it while speaking at conferences, working at her university, or doing her internship at a local hospital.
“I started to recognize that even though academic and non-academic activities required my attention, medication didn’t always have to be in the equation.”
Friedman encouraged readers to “talk to your doctor, check in with yourself, and find out when and in what situations taking medication is right for you.”
Concerning side effects, Friedman’s medication significantly decreased her appetite—and she’d work without eating or drinking anything. So, she started eating a protein-packed breakfast before taking her medication, and having snacks throughout the day. “This is especially important for ADDYTeens playing sports or doing rigorous after-school activities. Don’t run out of fuel!”
When Friedman first started taking medication, she felt ashamed. “I didn’t want anyone to know, let alone talk to my doctor about how I was feeling. As far as I was concerned, if I didn’t talk about it, I didn’t have to worry about it.”
However, she now views medication as soccer cleats: “Just like soccer cleats give a player more traction on the field than regular shoes, ADHD medication gives an ADDYTeen more traction in their everyday life.” ADHD medication gives you “a better grip on tuning out distractions, focusing, and making progress on important work.”
“People with asthma use their inhaler to breathe with more ease, why would medication to help an ADDYTeen focus be any different?”
Having a supportive, encouraging community. “I have family members, friends, and mentors with and without ADHD who have taught me skills that help me manage myself and what life throws at me.” Friedman stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with individuals “who care for your well-being and personal success.”
Being self-compassionate. Friedman noted that it’s vital to take care of yourself—which can include anything from engaging in hobbies to finding healthy ways to cope with stress.
Navigating a Common Challenge
According to Cheyette, the biggest challenge that teens and young adults with ADHD face is balancing getting help with being independent. When they aren’t doing well in school—because of challenges with focusing, and then achieving—parents and other well-meaning adults try to swoop in. For instance, Cheyette said, they might organize their teen’s things or keep track of their schedule.
This is absolutely understandable because you want to help your child to succeed—and to stop feeling bad about themselves.
Teens and young adults with ADHD can get into a cycle of failure, said Cheyette: Having a hard time focusing leads to not completing an assignment, which leads to thinking “I’m not good at that,” which leads to a bad grade, which substantiates their poor self-image, boosts anxiety, and sinks motivation, which leads them to stop trying.
“However, at this age, teens and young adults…should be able to do things on their own. They resent the adults in their lives telling them what to do, and the adults, by and large, resent doing it.”
To navigate this challenge, the key is to get into a cycle of success, where the teen or young adult—and not the parent—achieves something. Cheyette described the cycle of success as: focusing, getting things done, feeling good about yourself, and believing you’re capable. And because of that belief, “if you mess something up, it doesn’t stop you—because you are a person who gets things done, that’s what you do. You find a way to keep going.”
Cheyette shared this example: A teen has 20 missing homework assignments, and their grades are awful. Their parent helps them set an achievable goal, and break it down: complete 10 missing homework assignments, “no more than two missing homework assignments in 2 weeks.” The parent also encourages them to brainstorm how to achieve this goal. If that plan doesn’t end up working, they encourage the teen to come up with a better plan. “Soon the teen turns into a problem solver, rather than someone defined by their problems.”
Sometimes, it’s better to have someone other than a parent be the coach, such as a professional coach who specializes in ADHD, an older sibling, an athletic coach, a clergy member, or another adult they trust, Cheyette said.
It’s also critical for teens to learn how to ask for help. Cheyette stressed the importance of parents encouraging their teens to talk to adults. From a young age, kids can order at a restaurant, talk to family over the phone, and talk to their friends’ parents. Then, as they get older and when problems arise in school, they can talk to their teachers.
Cheyette also stressed the importance of caring for yourself physically and psychologically, such as sleeping well, moving your body, and managing worries. She noted that finding a good environment to work in is crucial, as well. This includes managing your electronics. “Try to work ‘on’ or ‘off’—but avoid that in-between.”