ADHD in College

Why Your Teen Must Learn to Advocate for Himself

When your child goes off to college, he’ll need to take care of himself — and that includes being his own ADHD advocate. Make sure he’s ready to stick up for himself with teachers and professors.

ADHD teen learns how to be independent
ADHD teen learns how to be independent

My son Jarryd decided to fly solo in college. He didn’t apply for accommodations, although he had used them in high school. As the semester progressed, he found himself running out of time on exams. A day before his final exams — yes, one day before — he decided to go to the Office for Students with Disabilities and request an extended-time accommodation for his exams.

The OSD person chided him and turned him away, saying he should have applied for accommodations months earlier. Jarryd didn’t back down. Using his sense of humor, he asked, “So you mean the office that is supposed to help kids with ADHD doesn’t have anything in place for people who come in at the last minute? What’s that about?”

The person saw the point and granted his request. If he hadn’t spoken up, he would not have gotten the accommodation. That lesson will repeat itself in the lives of young adults diagnosed with ADHD. Parents won’t always be there to advocate for their young adults, so it’s important to help them advocate for themselves.

How do loving parents, who have been looking out for their child since elementary school, pass the baton of independence to their teen? It’s a gradual process, in which the young adult takes an increasingly larger part in making decisions. The good news is self-advocacy can be learned.

1. Help Your Child Understand His Strengths

It’s much easier to ask for help when you know your strengths. Our kids are more than a set of ADHD symptoms. They need to know that.

What parents can do: Focus on what your teen does well. Catch him in the act of doing something well, and praise him. Did he feed the dog without your prodding? Did she do her homework without you nagging her? Did he get a good grade on a test? Did she hold her temper when her little brother changed the TV channel? Did he keep trying, even though he was frustrated? These are all reasons to give praise.

Hannah, 17, was a client of mine. Her grades were not up to par for the college she wanted to attend. So she and I talked about her strengths. She has excellent people skills, a good sense of humor, and she is persistent. Our strategy was for her to find a way to meet with a recruiter from the school, and to highlight her strengths. We found a college-recruiting event that a recruiter from her dream school would be attending. She signed up and talked with the recruiter. She followed up with voicemail and e-mails. She was eventually accepted into the school.

2. Talk About Your Teen’s Needs

If a young adult knows the specific challenges he faces, it’s easier to be involved in meeting them.

What parents can do: Make your teen an active participant in IEP meetings and in managing his medication. It’s never too early to start. I work with students as young as six, and have them list what will help them do better in school. I ask the same students to tell doctors about how they feel when they take their medication.

Anton was only seven when he attended his first IEP meeting. He didn’t stay for the whole thing, but he did a great job of conveying his needs to the attendees. Afterward, he was proud that he could tell the teachers how his brain worked in the classroom.

3. Encourage Your Teen to Ask for What She Needs

To get help, a young adult has to be proactive and prepared. He should learn to request things from his professors or his boss at work by saying, “I work best when…” or “It helps me if I….”

What parents can do: Sometimes a teen’s social skill challenges get in the way of her asking for help. She may be too shy to approach a professor, or worried that she will say the wrong thing. Let her rehearse with you, so she will feel comfortable when she is face to face with the person. Or have her write out a script for herself before talking with the person. If she makes a request through e-mail, ask if you can proofread it before she sends it.

Karen’s e-mails to her professor, requesting help on a project, were unfocused and confusing. I wasn’t surprised that her professor didn’t respond. We sat down and figured out the most effective way to ask for help. She e-mailed her request again, and this time her professor responded – favorably.