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Dr. Hallowell's Blog

5 Early Career Planning Tips for Teens with ADHD

By Robin Roman Wright, BCC, Career & ADHD Coach

Teens with ADHD are hindered by a propensity to procrastinate, “get stuck,” get bored and/or argue with those in authority. For these teens, guidance can make a huge difference.

Many teens with ADHD are bright and creative, however ADHD high school students are often frustrated and less successful than they would like to be. Missing deadlines, leaving boring tasks half done or experiencing difficulty getting along with authority figures get in the way of academic success. What’s more, when these same teens go on to higher education, they are likely to encounter these same issues.

While learning strategies to deal with these tendencies is an important part of being successful, it is just as important to ignite a desire within teens to shoot for a goal that is challenging, interesting and attainable.

In order to develop the vision of what can be, and the motivation to attain it, teens need an understanding of their abilities, a realistic picture of what is possible, and a feeling of efficacy. Therefore, it is important for teens with ADHD to begin career planning early in their lives – middle school is not too early, and senior year, while not ideal, is not too late.

In order for a teen to become a self-supporting young adult, who launches successfully into the world of work, he or she needs to carefully consider:

  • His or her strengths
  • His or her personal style and the type of people that s/he is likely to get along with
  • Work environments and roles that play to the individual’s strengths and interests.

Each teen needs to think about the kind of life that he or she wants to lead, the difference s/he wants to make in the world, and identify the possible scenarios of what could be given his/ her talents, skills, and interests.  Financial requirements, including the student’s own resources, also need to be factored into the planning. As a next step, each teen needs to learn about what it takes, or what other people have done, perhaps even finding and talking with others who are living the kind of life that s/he envisions. Lastly, a teen needs to consider what skills and knowledge s/he is willing to learn that will lead to school success and job satisfaction.

The trick here is to help teens learn to manage their time and activities in order to reach personal academic and vocational goals that have meaning and importance for them.  It is so common for adults who care about their teen, to pressure students to meet external goals and standards that appear arbitrary or unimportant to the teen.  This becomes a tug-of-war.  The teens don’t see the necessity of working hard for these external reasons; teens with ADHD are further hindered by a propensity to procrastinate, “get stuck,” get bored and/or argue with those in authority. For these teens, guidance can make a huge difference. Facilitating personal discovery about their talents and strengths, opportunities to reflect on their hopes and dreams, time to research the opportunities in the workplace are strategies that can reduce the intensity of the “struggle.” The opportunity to participate in this discovery process can help students become internally motivated.

My teen coaching clients open up and tell me what interests them, what problems they have solved that energized them, and what topics capture their fancy.  My clients are hungry for someone to help them identify what they are good at.  After we identify skills and knowledge, we then look at where their particular skills and talents can be valuable in the workplace.

While career coaches and counselors are at an advantage because we are third parties with a singular focus, parents and others can provide valuable support in the career planning process.

There are several helpful hints and resources available to adults who want to help ADHD teens explore career options.

Tips for Parents and Other Interested Adults:

  • Notice and nurture your teen’s interests
    • While a student may not be “living up to his/her potential” in the classroom, he/she may be playing basketball, tennis or a myriad of other sports.  He or she may be interested in acting or medieval swordsmanship.  If you see her/him fascinated by something help him/her learn more about it and/or get better at it.
  • Notice and mention the things your teen does well.
    • If your teen produces an interesting piece of art work or is a particularly engaging swim instructor or has a good eye for fashion, mention it.  Be as specific as possible about what you like about his or her work or action.
    • Don’t overly praise teens with ADHD for small victories.  Doing so might backfire by highlighting the fact that they didn’t achieve as much as, or it took them longer than, their same age peers.
  • Help teens go to camp, get a summer or part-time job, participate in community service activities or obtain an internship.
    • These activities help teens get exposure to more of what the world has to offer.
    • Such experiences help teens to “try on different roles, responsibilities and environments.”
  • In order to help teens expand their perspective, ask questions such as,
    • “What kind of life do you want to create for yourself?” While this may be too lofty for some teens, for others it will help them see that they can impact their own destiny.
    • Another set of questions is, “What fascinates you? What do you like to learn and do?”
      • This can be followed by a “show and tell.”  Spend time together reviewing subjects that the teen is interested in.  Ask to see the samples of “work” (usually done outside of school during free time) and comment on the quality of the work.
      • This may lead to a discussion regarding what you can do to help the teen learn more about this topic, field of study, or employment options in this field.
  • Think outside the box.
    • Take the advice of Carol Christen, co-author, “What Color Is Your Parachute? For Teens,” and help your teen identify a three-part plan.  What is the field or occupation that he or she wants to enter?  What are the options for obtaining an entry level position in that line of work?  She recommends getting answers to these three questions before making plans about what you are going to do after high school:
      • “What entry –level job (a job you can get with a high school diploma) could I get in my favorite field that would help me get experience for better jobs in this field?
      • What job could I get in my favorite field with two years (or less) of further training or education?
      • What job could I get in my favorite field with a bachelor’s degree or advanced training?” (p. 66)

Make a decision about what to do right after high school based on careful consideration of your goals, financial resources, interest in academic work at this point in time, the current job market and your learning differences.  Every worker today has to see himself as a life-long learner.  We will constantly be re-tooling to stay relevant and marketable.  It is not necessary to attend a 4-year school right after high school graduation in order to be successful later in life.  There are other paths.

  • Check out ideas that are emerging from people like Anya Kamenetz, Writer and Author, contributing editor at Fast Company, The Hechinger Report and other news outlets.  She wrote a book called, “DIY U Edupunks, Entrepreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.”  She sees technology as changing the landscape of higher education.  DIY U stands for, “Do It Yourself University.”  The concept is that with new educational initiatives, such as MIT’s Open Courseware effort, students can find ways, or will be able to find ways, to educate themselves.  Maybe now, but certainly in the not too distant future, there will be many teens who can learn marketable skills via free or discounted courses on the web.  The potential for ADHD teens, who dislike or have difficulty in a school setting, to use these new educational options is exciting and worth investigating.

Raising teens with ADHD and helping them transition from high school to higher education, and/or work, is not an easy process.  Find support through your local CHADD Chapter (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder) which offers support through monthly meetings.  The National CHADD organization also offers a database of helpful articles.  The link to the national website is www.chadd.org.

If you would like to consider using a career coach to help your teen or young adult identify possible career paths that would be interesting and a good match for him or her, please call the Sudbury Hallowell Center at (978) 287-0810 and ask to set up a complimentary inquiry session with Robin Roman Wright, BCC, Career & ADHD Coach.

Recommended Reading On This Topic:

  • Bolles, Richard N. and Christen, Carol.  What Color Is Your Parachute? For Teens. CA: Ten Speed Press, 2010. (New edition available 04/2014.)
  • Corman, Catherine A. and Hallowell, Edward M.  Positively ADD: Real Success Stories to Inspire Your Dreams.  New York, Walker & Company, NY.
  • Eikleberry, Carol, PhD.  The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People.  CA.  Ten Speed Press, 2007.
  • Gray, Kenneth Carter.  Getting Real: Helping Teens Find Their Future (Second Edition).  CA.  Corwin Press, 2008.
  • Hallowell, Edward M, MD.  The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy.  New York.  The Ballantine Publishing Group, 2002.
  • Kamenetz, Anya. DIY U Edupunks, Entrepreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.


(This article has been adapted from an earlier article published by the author.)

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