Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: College Feels Far Away. How Can We Help Our H.S. Junior See That It’s Not?

Teens with ADHD are largely motivated by short-term rewards like a good grade, a night out with friends, or a paycheck. The reward at the end of the college-application process, however, is very far away — and far from concrete — for many high school juniors with ADHD. Here, our Dear Teen Parenting Coach explains how to steer your teen in the right direction without taking over the wheel.

Q: “Our 16-year-old son was officially diagnosed with ADHD two months ago, although we had long suspected he might have it. He began medication, which is helping him to stay focused at school and with his homework. Junior year of high school is challenging, with college on the horizon and the work of preparing for ACT/SAT on top of existing responsibilities. We are finding that the increased pressures of this year are really taking a toll. As parents, we could use some help in developing strategies for setting expectations and providing structure (for things like studying for ACT, contacting college coaches in his sport, following up with college counselor, etc.) without crossing the line into being controlling (or going in the other direction, and doing tasks ourselves that he should really be taking responsibility for). Our son has done fairly well in school up to this point, although not without some struggle, presumably because of the relatively short-term nature of projects and deadlines. But it’s the hard work applying himself on a task that relates to a much longer-term goal, like getting into college, that seems very hard to accomplish.” —NCMom

Dear NCMom:

You have my utmost sympathy; the pressures of junior year are crazy. Honestly, I think the college research, testing, and application process is essentially a huge part-time job added on to your already busy lives.

Most kids like your son can’t do it on their own. For teens who struggle with planning, time management, and organization, working on the details of a long-term project like college applications is daunting. With their preference for immediate gratification and their tendency to be easily overwhelmed, these teens struggle with putting so much effort into something that’s so far in the future. Attacking the college admissions process is much harder than the shorter term projects your son is used to and it relies on the goal-directed persistence that’s so hard for teens with ADHD.

Knowing when and how to step in confuses most parents. It’s not clear how to walk the line between doing too much or doing too little. You want to make sure he writes his essay on time, but you don’t want to be a helicopter mom. He realizes that he can’t keep track of all the application deadlines and materials, but he resists your help.

By the time kids reach their junior year of high school, they’re developmentally primed to see your well-intentioned advice as nagging — and irritating. It’s part of the adolescent dance of separation and connection. How do you help him stay motivated, monitor his progress and offer support without engaging in unpleasant power struggles and fruitless arguments? The answer is collaboration.

[Free Resource: The Executive Skills Worksheet for Teens]

You can’t be solely responsible for steering his college-bound ship, and frankly, with his executive functioning challenges and limited life experience, neither can he. It’s perfectly normal for you to guide him along the way if you’ve both figured out — in advance — what that support looks like. For the best results, you must create a strategy and structure together.

Make a date to sit down with him and talk about the whole college thing. Explain that, by setting up a program with regular, planned check-ins and clear goals, you’ll reduce those frustrating last-minute conversations and everybody’s stress. Pitch it as the win-win solution it really is.

  1. Brainstorm a master list of everything that needs to get done, assigning dates to each task. I recommend starting a file in Google Docs so you can both keep track of deadlines and progress. He can see what you are doing and you can monitor his progress.
  2. Figure out what he feels comfortable doing and what he thinks he can really handle. Things like contacting the college counselor and studying for the ACT make sense for him to do. Keep his tasks simple and achievable. Put his initials next to these items and also write them in his planner and phone.
  3. Next, explore what you should manage. Organizing college visits, contacting coaches, and signing up for standardized tests lay outside of the skill sets of most teens. These require lots of planning, scheduling, and writing — tasks that may challenge and intimidate for him. Decide what you’ll do on your own and what you’ll do together. Maybe you’ll organize the college visits and the two of you can draft a sample email to the coaches.
  4. Set up a weekly meeting to check in. These pre-set meetings lower the tensions about college for everyone. You relax because you’ll have a specific time and place to ask your questions and he doesn’t have to worry about college talk happening “all of the time.” Review your list, see what progress has been made, and troubleshoot problem areas. You may also want to establish a second, briefer check-in to cue him about his responsibilities.
  5. Remember to praise him for his accomplishments as well as his efforts. He’s going to need a lot of encouragement to see this through. If he loses motivation and can’t seem to get started on something, consider using incentives to coax him into action.

Above all, be kind to yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Orchestrating a collaborative plan will support your son’s desire to handle things independently and yours to make sure they get done.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.