At a glance
ADHD can sometimes affect how teens experience love.
Trouble handling emotions can make feelings more intense.
There are ways you can help your teen handle the ups and downs of being in love.
Falling in love can be an emotional roller coaster for many teens. But what if your teen has ADHD? Can you expect an even bumpier ride when your child with impulsivity or trouble with emotions falls head over heels and begins a love relationship?
ADHD symptoms can definitely complicate things, and even create some potential risks. But it’s important to remember that not all kids with ADHD struggle in the same way or to the same degree. And they can have successful loving relationships just like other teens.
Learn about how ADHD can impact love and relationships for your teen. And discover ways to help your child handle it successfully.
The role of brain development
Kids with ADHD have delays in the development of executive functioning skills. Research shows that the areas of the brain responsible for executive function take around one to three years longer to fully develop in kids with ADHD. It’s important to remember that your 17-year-old with ADHD might not have the same emotional control or judgment as other teens.
For some teens with ADHD, that delay may cause them to shy away from pursuing romantic relationships. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever be ready to get involved with someone or start dating. It might just take longer, and that’s perfectly normal.
Intense emotions and hyperfocus
Kids with ADHD often feel emotions more deeply than other kids do. When teens with ADHD fall in love, the feelings of joy and excitement can be even more intense for them. Teens might feel a deep sense of intimacy and acceptance, perhaps for the first time. They might also have a surge in confidence, something a lot of kids with ADHD lack. The combination of feelings can be overwhelming for a teen with ADHD.
All of these are developmentally normal things — as long as they don’t become all-consuming. But most teens with ADHD have at least some trouble managing their emotions. So, these positive feelings can sometimes take over. Your child might hyperfocus on the relationship, while schoolwork, sports or work take a backseat.
There are natural consequences to not studying, missing practice and being late to your job, of course. Teens need to keep that in mind and put their feelings on hold in order to focus on things other than their relationship. However, doing that takes executive functioning skills — something kids with ADHD can struggle with.
It’s great to see your teen feeling so happy, even if that happiness is a bit out of control. But what happens when the relationship ends? For some teens with ADHD, relationships flame out with as much intensity as they began with. Negative feelings of loss, sadness and hurt may be as powerful and as all-consuming as the positive ones were.
When that happens, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of depression. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety are common in kids with ADHD. Beyond that, there isn’t much you can do other than be supportive. Tell your child you’re sorry this is so painful, and that you’re always available to talk. If your teen decides to open up to you, be as nonjudgmental as possible.
It’s possible that some teens with ADHD might get bored more quickly with a relationship and be the one to end it. That doesn’t mean the breakup won’t be upsetting, however.
Watch as ADHD expert Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD, discusses ADHD, emotions, and falling in love.
Impulsivity and risky behavior
Teens with ADHD often have trouble with impulse control and resisting temptation. They tend to act or speak without thinking first. That’s one of the reasons teens with ADHD often engage in risk-taking behaviors more than their peers. Add passion and high emotion to the mix, and it’s extra hard for teens with ADHD to hold back.
They may be so excited that they come on too strong and scare off potential partners. Or they may rush into a relationship without considering whether it’s likely to be a good and healthy one. And sometimes, teens with ADHD will take unnecessary risks to gain the attention of someone they really like.
Sexual activity is one area where teens with impulsivity often get into trouble. Studies show that teens with ADHD are more likely to have sex at a younger age than their peers. They’re also less likely to use protection — and more likely to have unplanned pregnancies.
Once again, executive functioning issues are the cause. Teens with ADHD just aren’t able to put on the brakes, consider the consequences of their actions, and make thoughtful choices. That’s especially true if they’re not taking medication for ADHD.
Parents may not always be comfortable talking to their child about sex or approve of their child being sexually active. But it’s important that teens have and use protection.
Being in a relationship with someone with ADHD
If your teen is in a romantic relationship with someone with ADHD, you may wonder if there’s anything in particular your child needs to know. But having ADHD may not have any impact on a relationship. And there’s no reason to think that a teen with ADHD wouldn’t be as loving a romantic partner as anyone else.
How you can be there for your teen
Teens usually aren’t eager to share their private lives with their parents. You likely won’t be able to have much input into how your child handles the emotions that go along with falling in love. It’s important to be available when your child does want to talk, however. It’s also important to set house rules for dating and stick with them.
Falling in love and having good first relationships is a powerful experience for all teens. For teens with ADHD, who may struggle with social skills and feel isolated, it can make a huge difference in how they feel about themselves. So even if your teen gets swept up in emotions, it’s important to be supportive of the relationship — and of your child.
Executive function develops more slowly in kids with ADHD.
Impulsivity can lead some teens to engage in risky behavior like unprotected sex.
It’s important to be available and nonjudgmental if your teen wants to talk.
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About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.