High School

What Are My Teen’s Best Options After High School?

In high school, many teens with ADHD are just trying to get by. They don’t have the extra brain space to plan for the future. That’s where parents come in – and here’s a hint: The answer isn’t always college.

A teen with ADHD walks outside and ponders her options after high school.

The first step to helping your teenager with ADHD plan for his future is to think about your definition of success. Many parents automatically think of college as the ultimate achievement, but the reality is: it’s not for everyone. Your goal should be helping your son or daughter find a career that he or she can enjoy, and that will provide excitement every day. A college degree is only one means to that end.

Start by envisioning your child’s ideal future with her, and then choose the education or program that will take her there.

1. Ask your teen to make a list of potential careers that tap in to her passions. These can be non-traditional careers like fishing charter captain or art therapist. If she can make money doing something that she loves, then why not?

If your teen has a dream that you think is unattainable, try not to crush the dream. Your teen could be that NFL star. Your teen could be that rock star. Things like that do happen, or there wouldn’t be people out there doing it. But, they need a plan B. Plan A may be to act on Broadway. Plan B is to wait tables to pay for their livelihood while they also work to get a big break.

There are many other ways to create a plan B scenario. The goal is to find something in an area related to the primary passion. If your child wants to be an athlete, maybe an education in sports marketing or personal training is a plan B that would still allow her to pursue her dream.

[Free Download: Transform Your Teen’s Apathy Into Engagement]

Just make sure not to call it plan B. Teenagers hate it. Say it in a different way. If your child wants to be a professional athlete, ask, “What happens if you get an injury?” “Where are people in the NFL who got injured and didn’t have a college education?”

2. Look at the details of the job environment. If a construction job starts at 7am, but your child can’t drag himself out of bed before 10am, it’s probably not a good match. Sitting in a cubicle all day may drive your daughter slowly insane. Consider that kind of research.

Vocational or career-assessment tools can help to whittle down career ideas. They can help teens figure out the sorts of things at which they may not excel.

3. Discuss how much the job pays. Money is a challenge to understand conceptually. How much is enough money? Start by discussing the lifestyle your child hopes to achieve. Ask, “Do you want to live in a large house with land, or do you want to live in a small apartment?” She needs to understand what she is aiming for, and then figure out how much she needs to make to achieve and maintain that.

[You Don’t Have to Start College Right Away (Or At All!)]

Create a living budget. List out all of the expenses – a car payment, insurance, gas, maintenance, rent or a mortgage. How much does food really cost? What about medical insurance? Then ask, “How much are you going to make?” Take the total expenses and divide it by the hourly rate — minus taxes — to see how many hours he needs to work to make that happen. When he sees 300 hours a week, it can be eye-opening.

I recommend making The Millionaire Next Door mandatory reading. It’s about consumption versus non-consumption, and saving versus spending.

4. Research the career requirements. College isn’t always required. Try to identify a few top companies where your teen might want to work. Go to LinkedIn. Look at where employees live, where they went to college, and what they studied. This lets your teen see the path that somebody took – where they went after high school – and the kind of skills they acquired that caused the company to hire them.

Your Teen’s Options After High School

After you have figured out a potential career, and its educational requirements, there are several paths to consider.

1. Gap Year

If your teen is burnt out on academics and can’t stomach the thought of four more years, consider a year off to explore potential career options. Many colleges support and promote gap years. They will accept a student, and allow him or her to defer for a year to figure out a major, and if a particular college is the right fit before fully committing to it. The extra time lets slow-to-mature students with ADHD build independence and life skills without the crush of academics happening concurrently.

Avoid “see the world” gap years. It’s a great vacation, but it’s not productive. Teens with ADHD need to focus on figuring out if and why college is right for them. The goal is to come out of the gap year with a career path they are truly excited about so they can get into the right college with the right major. That should be the main outcome.

During the gap year, your teen can work, or try taking a course at a community college. I strongly advocate that teens should live away from home so they can learn how to do laundry, cook, go grocery shopping, and live with a roommate – all of the things that can be overwhelming when balancing them with college academics. A residential gap year is great at teaching these skills if you can afford it and your child needs additional support.

2. Internship

Internships now exist for people who are not in college. They are a great way for teens to try a career before they’re invested heavily in training time or education.

3. Job Training or Trade Occupations

The balance between the cost of college, and the income people will earn after graduation is starting to shift. A lot of companies offer specialized training, which can be good for teens with ADHD because it’s right to the point. For example, General Assembly offers courses in coding, and The Game Institute can build skills needed to become an artist for the gaming industry.

Trade occupations – like electricians, plumbers, and mechanics – have a shortage of qualified workers right now. There is real opportunity there.

4. Entrepreneurship

Many famous entrepreneurs have ADHD, including Richard Branson of Virgin and David Neeleman of JetBlue.

At NecessaryBrilliance.org, teens can read stories about people with learning differences who have found success, and some of the hacks or techniques they used to get there. Some have completed college and some have not, but they are all pursuing careers they are passionate about.

Trying to create a business from an idea is a great learning opportunity for a teen right out of high school. It’s probably going to fail, like most startups do, but the experience can give teens with ADHD the opportunity to get passionate about something. If your family can’t afford to help your teen while she tries it out, she could get great experience working for a startup during a gap year.

5. Military

This can be a good option if your teen is passionate about serving, and needs good job experience in the short term. The military provides a lot of structure, and teens who test well may get to choose where they are deployed or what jobs they pursue.

6. College

College doesn’t always have to be a residential, four-year program. Your teen may want to consider commuting or taking courses at a community college first. Community college is less expensive, and can help teens figure out their passions before diving in and working hard for the last few years of the degree at a private college.

7. Online Schooling or Night School

Sometimes working in a particular career path during the day motivates kids to work at school at night. Online schooling can fit in around a job, or a gap year program, and may help teens get required courses out of the way.

College is only one of many paths to success. It may take teens with ADHD longer to get there than others, but if they’re successful in their 40s, making money doing what they love, and have a roof over their heads, nobody is going to ask when they finished their college degree.

[Transitioning to College: A Four-Year Road Map for Students and Parents]

This advice came from “How to Find Your Path: A Roadmap for Choosing a College, a Career, or Something Different,” an ADDitude webinar lead by Rick Fiery, M.S., MBA in February 2019 that is now available for free replay.


Updated on March 29, 2019

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