Early Warning Signs of Trouble for Teens with ADHD

Phil Anderton

Recognize Tipping Points and Take Action

Of all the challenges that come with ADD/ADHD, perhaps the most frightening for parents is the heightened risk of criminal behavior. Society has a low tolerance for ‘abnormal behaviors.’ The law sets tolerances about what is acceptable. Generally, the causes of errant behavior are not relevant in the eyes of the law. That alone heightens the risk for people with ADD/ADHD to ‘get it all wrong.’

Tipping Points are an opportunity for prevention. Tipping Points are those times in a young person’s life when, if an appropriate and timely intervention is not made, the person concerned has a higher than average chance of going forward into a life that has negative and harmful outcomes. One such risk, one that is difficult to even consider, is the risk of breaking the law.

Tipping points are particularly important for parents to recognize when their children have ADD/ADHD. If you can do this, you can reduce the risk for your child. If you get them early, before antisocial behavior begins, you can keep the kids away from social exclusion, trouble in school, wrong relationships, and the criminal justice system.

ADD/ADHD is an unseen disability — not, for example, a broken arm. Yes, we see the manifestations of it, but we don’t see the cause. And that effects how people react. Sympathy, empathy, and just plain old understanding are greater, more focused and more beneficial when people are aware of the presence of ADD/ADHD. People do not often know when ADD/ADHD is motivating behaviors, which causes difficulties in relationships. Back to the broken arm – it’s easy to empathize with the sufferer’s discomfort when the arm is visibly damaged and in a sling.

Is it too late if the phone rings, and “Hello, it’s the local police. We have your child in custody” is what you hear? Absolutely not. That is what we call a teachable moment, a Tipping Point. Of course, Tipping Points range from more to less dramatic, but the concept is the same.

At the point of “crisis,” and ideally before-hand, appropriate interventions can prevent long-term negative outcomes. It can be difficult to look at what may have contributed to a negative situation, but it is critical. It’s not about retribution at this stage, it’s about recognition: recognizing what has to be done going forward, and making sure it is well thought out. It is all the more powerful when an understanding of the role of ADD/ADHD is considered without judgment.

Exactly where in the continuum of a young person’s life would we expect to find Tipping Points? At any time, really. From early stages of friendships and peer bonding, we can anticipate difficulties for the child with ADD/ADHD. Social challenges, alone, can set into motion a chain reaction of low self-esteem that individuals carry with them for many years. This carries all the way through to high school, where social emphasis shifts to self-management, usually a challenge for these kids. Examples of typical Tipping Points include:

  • Exclusion from social activities and childhood friendships due to impulsive behaviors;
  • Depression, social withdrawal on the part of the child;
  • Suspension or expulsion from school due to inappropriate behaviors or withdrawal due to academic problems;
  • “Adoption” of the child by inappropriate friends, often older, who manipulate the child’s desire for acceptance through risky activities that often lead to crime; and,
  • Escape from family stresses through substance abuse or runaway behavior.

Tipping Points happen repeatedly throughout the life of a person with ADD/ADHD: the first job, first relationship, and so on. Identifying them in advance allows you, the care-giver, to be prepared. If you are sensitized to a Tipping Point, you can cope more effectively.

Any interventions that parents make should be informed, made with a clear set of objectives and mindful of the circumstances. They should be positive, encouraging and empowering. In my nearly 10 fantastic years of working with ADD/ADD/ADHD, I have moved toward a model that empowers parents and care providers toward the proactive redirection of youth.

We can be sure of many things with ADD/ADHD in and around us. We can be sure of its positivity, its strengths and its positive characteristics such as drive, enthusiasm and creativity. But we can also be sure that at many times in a young person’s life, their ADD/ADHD will bring about heartache, pain and suffering, often unseen and often under-appreciated for its hardship. Having ADD/ADHD is not like breaking your arm. It doesn’t mend and go away. For most, it’s here to stay.

What can you do? Learn about Tipping Points. Learn how to anticipate them. Most importantly, learn to be pro-active. Manage the risks for the child in your life, and use this to keep them out of as much trouble as is possible.

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