Coming of Age with ADHD: Look Out, World — Here I Come
Here are a couple of keys to the kingdom for 20-somethings with ADHD about to tackle all those firsts: job, apartment, relationship.
Late teens with ADHD looking ahead to the future fall into three categories: optimistic, terrified, and lost. Each comes with its own set of benefits and challenges.
Optimistic teens are too ready to get on with life. Despite research arguing that they shouldn’t leave home at 18, they can’t wait to get their parents out of their hair. They have overdeveloped yearnings for freedom and underdeveloped skills of independence. They don’t yet know that freedom is pretty expensive and impossible to achieve without true independence. They may discount the importance of further education or attempt it half-heartedly. In serious cases, they can face school or career failure, financial ruin, and sometimes even criminal behavior.
Terrified teens lean in the opposite direction. They’re too realistic for their own good. Fearful of their own shortcomings, they may avoid leaving home or try it only for a year before bailing out and moving back into their parents’ basement. They refuse the independence that other teens hold dear, like learning to drive, living in a dorm, or holding a job. Parents may find them annoyingly satisfied with their situations and unmotivated to strive for anything greater.
Lost teens are confused by their situation and options in life. They lack the confidence of optimism and the driving energy of worry and easily become depressed and defeated. They may go back and forth several times from living at home to living independently. When asked to develop a plan — even a simple one — they admit they don’t have any idea what to do. They know plans exist. Their friends all have them, but no matter how hard parents or school counselors push, lost teens with ADHD can’t see themselves anywhere doing anything. In worst-case scenarios, they imagine living in communes or becoming homeless as good alternatives, or decide to have babies at a young age, thus extending their family’s support for years to come.
No matter how mild or severe the situation, for each of these teens, the answer is hope. Hope isn’t a lofty ideal. It’s not the same as optimism. It means having the will and the way to seek a better life, one day at a time. It’s the gritty reality of knowing what to do and making yourself do it, whether you like it or not. It’s finding and following the right path, and not just the easy one. It’s what separates the teens with ADHD who succeed from those who don’t.
It can be hard to feel hopeful when everyone else is growing up, making key life decisions, taking calculated risks, and succeeding at life while you’re not. But hope is something you do, not something you feel. It is an intentional act, not a wish. It’s picking a single goal and then putting one foot in front of the other and judging your success only by that single step before taking the next.
Many teens with ADHD will overcome their fear, bravado, or discombobulation, take those steps, and join the ranks of the winners, without too much turmoil. Others will struggle mightily. For all, however, there’s no substitute for good treatment — directive individual and family therapy, mentoring, parental support, educational accommodation, and medication management. I’ve spent 22 years and 23,000 clinical hours putting together that kind of team effort, and I’ve seen vastly more success than failure. In fact, working this way with the young people I’ve just described has kept me hopeful all these years
Just remember, there’s only one captain on any effective treatment team: you, the person with ADHD. Open your mind, reach out, and accept the benefits and problems of ADHD as they pertain to you. Get help and get started on that first step to tomorrow.