Helping Your Young Adult with ADHD Prepare for Independence
Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
Like the song says, "Growing up is hard to do."
And it's even harder when you have ADHD. The very part
of our brain that we use to do "grown up" things
- planning, decision-making, prioritizing, self-monitoring,
controlling impulses, and considering consequences - is the
part of the brain that is affected by ADHD.
The maturity time line for adolescents with ADHD is
longer than for other adolescents. Many parents report that
their young adult with ADHD seems to be three, four,
even five years behind in maturity level than their non-ADHD offspring at the same age. ADHD doesn't mean
your young adult will never mature. But it often means that
the road to maturity will be longer and bumpier.
Think about the image of adulthood that you present to your
son or daughter with ADHD. So many parents describe
adulthood as a long list of "have to's." Who wants
to "grow up" if it means that most of our time is
spent meeting burdensome responsibilities by doing things
we don't enjoy? "That's why they pay you to work! Of
course work isn't fun," such parents tell their young
adult offspring. They throw cold water on their adolescent's
fantasies of freedom and adventure. Adults can't "just
do what they want" they warn - adults have responsibilities.
They have to do what the boss tells them to or lose their
job. They have to pay their mortgage or lose their house.
Every young person has unrealistic ideas about adulthood.
A teenager is focused on gaining freedom - freedom from parental
restrictions and freedom from high school, where they've been
required to spend most of their waking hours doing something
they don't like. But raining on their parade is hardly likely
to motivate them to embrace adulthood. Everyone learns soon
enough about making a living and paying the bills.
Presenting a More Positive Image of Adulthood
Telling your son or daughter how hard the future's going
to be won't help him or her succeed. But you can help by explaining
that they've survived one of the most ADD-unfriendly phases
of their life - their high school years. Their life can get
better now, because now they have choices - many choices.
There is an enormous variety of educational possibilities
- vocational training, on the job training, community college,
small private colleges, work-study programs in college, large
universities - as well as a broad array of careers and lifestyles
to choose from.
Their challenge lies in making good choices. Parents and
young adults can benefit tremendously from seeking guidance
in making those choices.
It's also a time to focus on the positive - what activities
does your son or daughter enjoy? What are his or her gifts,
talents, preferences? From this point onward, they have the
opportunity to make choices that are more consistent with
their hopes and dreams.
Your young adult with ADHD has already received countless
critical and discouraging messages. She's been told that she'll
never make it in the "real world" unless she changes
her ways. He's been told that he'll end up working at McDonald's
if he doesn't take his homework more seriously.
Instead of joining this chorus of threats and criticism,
why not encourage your young adult to recognize life's many
possibilities, to develop the confidence to take risks, to
learn that if she's knocked down she can get back up, to realize
that in failing at one thing he learns ways to make his next
effort more successful.
Knowing How Much to Help
As teenagers become young adults, there is a gradual shift
in responsibility from parent to young adult. The lines are
fuzzy, however. When is it time for a particular responsibility
to shift? And, who's to blame when problems persist? You may
worry whether you've done a good enough job as a parent. Have
you prepared them? How can you prepare them?
Some parents protect themselves from self-blame through
blaming their young adult son or daughter - "He's just
got to learn through the school of hard knocks." "She
never listened to anything I said." "It's up to
him now. We can't be responsible for him his whole life."
Other parents err in the opposite direction, micro-managing
their 19-year-old as if he or she were nine or ten. Some parents
go so far as to telephone their college-aged son or daughter
to wake them in the morning, to make sure they're studying
for exams, and to remind them to make appointments or reservations.
In doing so, they give their daughter the message that it
is the parent's responsibility, not hers, to make sure that
things are taken care of.
Many parents fluctuate from one extreme to the other - exploding
with anger at one moment, engaging in rescue operations in
the next. As one father expressed it:
"I never know whether to be supportive or angry. Where
do I draw the line?"
Finding the balance between helping too little and expecting
Your greatest challenge as a parent is knowing how best
to handle the inevitable potholes that your young adult
with ADHD will encounter as she makes sometimes faltering
steps toward adult independence. Helping too much undercuts
her self-confidence and hinders her developing self-reliance.
Expecting too much can lead to failure, demoralization,
and even greater set backs on her road to independence.
Giving the right amount of help, just like balancing on
a tightrope, requires frequent adjustments. During stressful
life events - losing a job, serious medical problems, the
breakup of a long-term relationship - your son or daughter
may need more support and guidance. At other times, that same
level of support will be inappropriate, even counter-productive
Adulthood is Harder These Days
In some ways, adulthood used to be simpler. Opportunities
were fewer and required less formal training. Work life began
earlier, and most often, young adults in generations past
followed in the parent's footsteps. Girls became wives and
mothers while boys typically participated in the family business
- whether farming, trade, or some sort of craft. Young adults
lived at home with their parents until they were ready to
marry. Often, even after marriage, young adults lived with
one set of parents or another until they had the means to
build or purchase a home of their own. Even then, most often
their home was near their family, which continued to provide
emotional and practical support.
Today, our young adult children face much larger challenges.
There is an expectation that most young adults will attend
college (a phenomenon that has only been widespread in the
US since the end of World War II) and select a career that
may bear little relation to the careers of their parents.
Rather than living with parents, or next door, most young
adults are expected to strike out on their own to create an
independent life, perhaps far from home. The gradual learning
curve and continual family support that was the norm for young
adults a few generations ago rarely exists today. Young adults
with ADHD typically need a higher level of support for
a longer period of time than young adults without ADHD,
however many of them do not feel that it is acceptable to
remain dependent upon their parents. To succeed, these young
adults with ADD (ADHD) must learn how to create or build a
support system around them that might not have been provided
by family in earlier times.
When is adulthood reached? One good working definition is:
BEING AN ADULT MEANS BEING YOUR OWN BOTTOM LINE
During childhood and adolescence a child automatically turns
to parents for assistance. But even young children often declare,
"I want to do it myself!" This is a natural, healthy
tendency. Taking over the reins, taking care of oneself, becoming
a problem solver is a gradual process. Although family members
support one another throughout life, adulthood is reached
when we look to ourselves for solutions, when we are financially
self-sufficient, and when become the giver rather than the
receiver of family support.
For a young adult with ADHD (or an older adult with
ADHD for that matter), becoming one's own bottom line
shouldn't mean doing everything oneself, but rather being
responsible by making sure that things are taken care of -
either by oneself or someone one has engaged to perform a
There are many ADD-unfriendly tasks in life that are best
accomplished by others. The essential shift that marks adulthood
is to acknowledge responsibilities and to find ways to meet
them without continuing reliance upon parents. As a young
adult with ADHD matures, he gradually takes over the
responsibility to "worry" about things. On the other
hand, an immature adult with ADHD expects others to
do the worrying - girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, even spouses.
For immature adults with ADHD, it remains the job of
others to remember what needs to be done, and even to take
care of doing tasks.
Key messages for parents about helping your son or daughter
with ADHD to mature:
Slower maturation is par for the course.
Taking over the reins is a gradual process.
Communicate a positive message of possibilities along
with messages about responsibilities.
The degree of support your son or daughter needs may
vary widely depending upon the circumstances.
Growing up means becoming your own "bottom line."
Adults with ADHD don't need to "do" everything
themselves, they just need to learn to be responsible for
arranging for important life tasks to be done.