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Helping Your Teen with ADHD Prepare for Independence


Parents spend so much time worrying about their teenager's grade point average, preparation for the SAT's, keeping up with athletic practices, school events, and battles over curfew, it's all too easy to overlook the increasingly complicated set of skills that a teenager needs to learn before he can succeed at independent living, whether it's away at college or in his or her first apartment.

Until just a few short generations ago, life lessons were taught on a daily basis starting at a very young age. Daughters worked by their mothers' sides - learning cooking skills, child-care skills, home-making skills, and needlework, and sons worked side-by-side with fathers, or were apprenticed to someone who taught them skills over many years. In addition, life was much simpler. Choices were fewer and young adults typically lived at home until marriage, and then only moved a short distance away.

Today, teenagers don't have the opportunity to learn their parents' work by watching. Many teens can barely describe their parents' daily life at work. Parents are more likely to emphasize sports skills and academics while ignoring basic life management skills. Often, however, when a teen moves away from home for the first time, the largest factor that determines success is their ability to handle the practicalities of their daily life. Here are some ways to prepare your son or daughter with ADHD for a successful shift to independent living.

Middle School Years

Even young teenagers can begin learning the basics of these important life management skills. Middle school years are not too young. Many parents feel that their middle or high school student is overburdened with so much that they don't want to place any more demands on them. The confidence and knowledge that he can take care of himself is important to all teens and can only be gained through practice.


Middle schoolers can take at least partial responsibility for their own laundry. While parents may bail out a middle schooler if she has an exam the next day, or if he is late due to a school activity, these are good years for them to learn that clean clothes don't magically appear in their rooms.

Clothing allowance

One excellent way to help a middle schooler learn money management skills is to give them a set monthly clothing allowance. They'll need to do some long-term planning - for example saving enough money from the September and October allowance to purchase a new winter jacket as cold weather arrives. Young teens can become excellent bargain hunters when it's "their" money that's being spent.

Time management

These are good years for some time management responsibilities to be gradually turned over to your young teen - helping him learn to set an alarm at night and wake on his own in the morning. He or she should begin wearing a watch and becoming more responsible for being aware of the time.

Organizing personal space

The "battle of the bedroom" is often prolonged during the teen years. Teens may not need or want to keep their rooms neat, but do need to engage in a regular "dig out" - perhaps on a weekly basis.

Wallets, purses and keys

Middle school years are also a good time for a young teen to begin carrying a wallet, backpack, or purse every day. They can learn to keep track of their personal ID and their weekly allowance. Keeping track of house keys is also an excellent skill to work on during these years.

High School Years

Automobile driving, maintenance, handling emergencies

Once a teen has his or her driver's license, suddenly they are at the wheel of a very expensive, potentially lethal machine. Minor, innocent mistakes can cost parents hundreds of dollars in insurance costs and deductibles.

  • Safe driving The first and foremost concern is safe driving - always wearing a seat belt, not exceeding the speed limit, and never driving after drinking.

  • Car Maintenance One parent recalls with chagrin that he neglected to explain the meaning of "that little red light" on the car's dashboard until after his daughter drove home from the beach, ignoring that little light until the engine started smoking a few miles from home!

  • Emergency breakdowns And even if we're not concerned about danger to the vehicle, teens need to learn how to handle emergencies - what to do if the car breaks down miles from home, what to do late at night in the dark.

Money Management

In a few short years, teens need to move from thinking of money as a means of immediate gratification - for pizza, clothing, or entertainment - to learning how to plan , budget, and pay bills.

  • Spending wisely - Cell phone bills can skyrocket without careful planning, and parking and speeding tickets can overwhelm a student's budget in the blink of an eye.

  • Handling Credit - Credit cards are hard to resist as they are almost forced on unsuspecting college freshmen in their welcome packet.

  • Balancing checkbooks - Financial record-keeping in adulthood is detailed and complicated. The first step is learning to manage a checkbook - learning to carefully record all deposits and checks.

  • Learning to save for long-term goals - The saving habit is difficult for most adults, but the earlier it's learned the more automatic it becomes. One recent study of savings behavior in a large corporation demonstrated that automatic savings is much more successful than savings that has to be regularly initiated. This is an easy and valuable lesson to teach your teen - to open a checking account and arrange for an automatic monthly deposit from that account into a money market or savings account.


Typically, until a teen leaves home, records are maintained by parents - academic records, medical records, social security registration, birth certificates, etc. Unless a teen has experience in developing a simple system for keeping important papers in a place where they are easily found, his or her life may become quickly chaotic after leaving home. Receipts of purchases, copies of paid bills, insurance contracts, and financial records for tax filings will soon be part of his or her life.

  • Teaching your teen to develop a filing system - Parents can help prepare their teen for this essential life management skill by developing a simple filing system for them during high school. At the beginning, it may be safer to file copies of essential information in your teen's personal file, keeping the originals safe in another location. A portable file box that contains hanging files can be a handy system that your teen takes along to college or to his or her first apartment.

Personal Care

The transition from parental responsibility to personal responsibility for all aspects of personal care is a long, slow process that should begin in elementary school and continue until your son or daughter is ready to leave home. In elementary school years, parents typically remind their children when to bathe, to brush their teeth, to go to bed, as well as when to visit the doctor or dentist. But gradually, your child needs to develop good self-care routines. Young adults who leave home without good habits in place will have a difficult time making a successful transition to independence.

Sleep. Good sleep habits are critical because lack of sleep can greatly increase ADHD symptoms. And sleep problems are very common among adolescents and adults with ADHD. Fighting against a night-owl pattern and developing a regular bedtime are important habits for your teen to develop. Equally important is to transfer responsibility for waking up on time to your teen. He or she will not be able to function well in college or on the job until a consistent morning routine has been developed.

Exercise and Nutrition. Teens, if left to their own devices, often eat an unhealthy diet of fast food and snacks with poor nutritional content. And although they make get adequate exercise while participating in organized sports, many young adults fall into routines of inadequate exercise and poor nutrition when they first strike out on their own. It's important that your teen is educated to understand the importance of good nutrition and adequate exercise in reducing the impact of ADHD.

Daily Life Management

The transition to taking charge of daily life management is critical to successful independence, but often takes a number of years to accomplish. Parents should gradually turn over the reins, even if it means a few stumbles and falls as a teenager learns to rely upon himself instead of depending upon a parent for constant reminders.

Time Management is a key to daily life management. Most individuals with ADHD have a very poor sense of time - a poor sense of how long things take and of how much time has passed. Learning to wear a watch and to be on time are skills that need practice.

Daily routines are an important aspect of time management. Your teen needs to develop both a morning and evening routine - going to bed at a routine time, getting up at a routine time, and having a set routine of activities to prepare for bed and in the morning to prepare for the day ahead.

Daily planning and prioritizing. Much of the day is already planned for a teenager. Between school hours and after-school activities, your teen may have little free time. It's still important to learn to plan and to prioritize - for example, thinking about what academic assignments must be completed to allow time for recreational activities during the weekend.

Planning ahead. High school years are a good time to begin to develop the habit of making long-term plans. Your teenager may have long-term school assignments that can give him or her good practice in planning ahead. Looking for summer jobs before the school year ends is another opportunity for planning ahead. And the lengthy college application process that should begin sometime during the junior year of high school is one of the most important and challenging opportunities to learn to organize and plan ahead.

Putting it All Together

Teens with ADHD mature at different rates and parents should keep in mind that, generally speaking, all teens with ADHD mature more slowly than their age-mates without ADHD. Helping your teen to develop the skills for independent living should be a gradual process that parents support through being consistent and encouraging. Take a positive approach, don't start too many new skills at once, and be prepared for stumbles and problems as your teen learns to take over the reins of his life. The path may not be as smooth as you would like, but with humor and patience you and your teen will make the transition together.

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