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Helping Your Young Adult with ADHD Prepare for Independence

 Social IQ

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.

Being an adult means...

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 too much

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.

Reaching Adulthood

When is adulthood reached? One good working definition is:


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 particular function.

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.

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