Let Your Son Stand on His Own Two (ADHD) Feet

There comes a time to stop nagging your ADHD child to do stuff and to see how he does on his own. My time has come.
The Experts | posted by Katherine Ellison
Teen boy in school hallway

How can I count on Buzz to do all he needs to do, without me constantly reminding him? And what do I do with all that leftover helicopter energy?

It’s three weeks and counting since I dropped off my 18-year-old son at college, and I’m having serious helicopter-parent withdrawal symptoms.

When Buzz, as I called him in my ADHD memoir, was still home, I nagged him around the clock: to get to school, do his homework, pick up his shoes, park closer to the curb, leave his brother alone, and — you get the picture. It wasn’t fun for either of us, but he seemed to need it at the time.

But now how can I count on Buzz to do all he needs to do, without me constantly reminding him? And what do I do with all that leftover helicopter energy?

On the first question, obviously, it’s sink-or-swim time for Buzz. As each day goes by, I’m more encouraged to think that maybe his frontal lobes are finally catching up to his considerable smarts, meaning he’s more aware of potential consequences of his actions and inactions. Of course, I don’t yet have any actual evidence of homework being done or classes attended.

What gives me hope, as I wait for the shoe to drop, is to remember how Todd Rose, author of Square Peg, who shares Buzz’s ADHD diagnosis, stepped up to the demands of college. Rose, as you may have read, flunked out of high school in Utah with a .09 GPA, got his teenage girlfriend pregnant, and was working as a stockboy when he decided to get serious about school. True, he had good reasons: He wanted to provide well for his new son, but realized pretty quickly that shelve-stocking would be an impossibly boring career.

He took his GED, enrolled in a community college, and started listening more closely to his dad’s good advice. Among other things, his dad told him two things he already knew — that he lacked study skills and that his main problem was motivation — and one thing he didn’t. Picking classes he knew he’d be interested in would motivate him to figure out the study skills to succeed along the way.

Rose also benefited from being in a new environment, where no one recognized him as the slacker he was in high school, and where teachers had high expectations of him. He met those and more, graduating with honors and going to Harvard for his advanced degrees.

Along the way, he learned to become more self-aware — keeping a journal of his lapses in judgment — and to set up a customized system to organize himself, using his smartphone for memos and to set off alarms, and strictly rationing his time surfing the Internet or social media. Technology giveth distraction, but can also taketh it away, with timers and programs that block your access to email (if you can just be disciplined about using them.)

I suspect that a lot of this had to do with time, and maturing frontal lobes — and the sudden physical absence of a nagging mom, the strongest possible signal that it’s time to grow up. Which is where I get to the real point of this story. Distracted children who do poorly in school naturally attract their parents’ (meaning usually their moms') attention and concern. When those moms also have ADHD, as I do, it’s easier to fall into a habit of continually trying to solve your kids’ problems. Crises, emergencies, and problems, after all, are mostly novel — and novelty is what we live for. But I, for one, am now trying hard to go cold-turkey on the helicopter rides. I’m thinking it’s time for a new hobby. Maybe sky-diving?

Katherine Ellison, diagnosed with ADHD at age 48, is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of five books.

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