Teens with ADHD

5 Life Skills Every Young Adult with ADHD Should (Eventually) Master

Your child doesn’t need to master every life skill imaginable before the age of 18. But their transition to adulthood will progress more smoothly if you begin working together to develop these five key skills now.

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Empowering and equipping your child to live a happy, productive, independent life — that is the ultimate goal. And yet, sometimes it feels like a futile, even impossible goal. Sometimes, it feels as if your young adult will never be “ready” for the real world. Truth is, the path to adulthood is not a straight line. It’s not even a destination, really. It’s an incremental process that’s full of turbulence, wrong turns, and corrections.

For teens and young adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the road to adulthood is paved more smoothly by five key life skills — beyond cooking and basic home repairs. As you help your child cultivate and refine these skills, you make your own transition, too — from director of your child’s life to collaborator, supporter, and champion. This process, may be a bit rocky, but it’s worth the effort.

Life Skill: Self-Awareness

Help your child understand their brain. This is absolutely essential for ensuring their readiness and confidence to leave the house. A person who is aware of their strengths and challenges, and how they function best, is more able to independently solve problems and proactively advocate for their needs.

Begin by explaining how ADHD affects executive functioning and how it results in challenges such as difficulties with working memory, organization, planning, and motivation, to name a few. Discuss frankly how ADHD can impact emotional regulation, and explore your child’s unique emotional triggers. Even better, work together to cultivate strategies for managing their big emotions when they start to get upset.

Help your child explore their ADHD brain from a place of non-judgment, neutral learning, and curiosity — not from a place of shame or embarrassment. Ultimately, it’s about normalizing differences rather than lamenting or fixing them.

[Get This Free Download: The Executive Skills Questionnaire for Parents and Teens]

Life Skill: Self-Direction

Self-direction is the do-all-the-things skill that allows your child to put themselves to bed at a reasonable hour, get food into their body, complete assignments on deadline, and, generally, take care of themselves. It is also the life skill that is often most impacted by ADHD, as it relies entirely on executive functioning.

Help your child master self-direction not by overloading them with strategies, but by encouraging them to problem-solve for themselves. For example, instead of telling your child how to get up on time, teach them to ask themselves, “How do I want to try to get myself up in the morning?”

You want your child to think for themselves about what they want to achieve and how they can make it happen. A focus on following your strategies instead of helping your child develop their own self-direction will only teach your child how to get from point A to point B your way; it won’t help them take ownership of the process.

Finding opportunities for your child to practice self-direction may be difficult. Like most parents of kids with ADHD, you’ve likely been the director of your child’s life for a very long time. You might worry that your child lacks motivation or commitment, and that they’ll fail if you don’t intervene. This often leads to micromanaging, which can then leave your child thinking: “Regardless of what I do, Mom and Dad are going to swoop in and take over anyway, so why bother?”

[Read: Teens with ADHD Need Scaffolds and Structure — How Not to Helicopter Parent]

Your child’s future independence requires you to hand over the reins and let them get things wrong before they can get them right. Start small: Think of some tasks and responsibilities you’ve been completing for your child that you’d like to invite them to do on their own. Start with one thing at a time. Strive to create an environment where your child feels like they can make mistakes and ask for your help.

Life Skill: Negotiating Through Social Relationships

Negotiation skills will help your child navigate delicate and complicated social situations like dealing with classmates, roommates, and colleagues. Negotiating is about balancing wants, which includes learning to say “no” — no to another drink, to staying out late the night before an exam, or to taking on more responsibility and obligations than they can handle.

The best environment for learning and practicing negotiating skills is home, well before your teen is exposed to the social relationships of adulthood. A collaborative mindset is key; you’ll do a disservice to your teen if you shut down their attempts to negotiate and always expect them to do as you say.

As your child gets a clearer picture of what they want — anything from more time with friends to a later bedtime — invite them to the negotiating table to work out how to do that in the face of other responsibilities, like waking up for school on time and completing chores.

Life Skill: Asking for and Accepting Help

Finding and leaning into support is a powerful life skill that is notoriously difficult to master. Many children and teens with ADHD grow up feeling frustrated because things that apparently shouldn’t be hard for them are, in fact, hard. Asking for help becomes a source of shame and overwhelm. They worry that they’ll be judged and viewed as defective. College-bound teens, especially, assume they’re supposed to know everything before they leave home. They worry that asking for help will only expose how unready and immature they feel. (Truth be told, most adolescents who are college age are not actually college ready.)

As they seek independence, teens often avoid asking for help and reject all offers, even when it’s clear they need assistance or advice. We call this the Independence Paradox — the gap between the help a child needs and the help they desire and accept.

While we’re all guilty of resisting help, teens and young adults, particularly those with ADHD, struggle to seek and accept help for a variety of reasons.

  • A perfectionistic, untrusting environment can stop children and teens from going out on a limb and asking for help.
  • Executive functioning challenges can cut off access to the problem-solving part of the brain that helps teens recognize that they need to ask for help. Stress and overwhelm further cloud problem-solving abilities.
  • Accepting help from parents can be off-putting when it’s clear that parents are trying to force a one-sided agenda instead of collaborating with them to find solutions.

Give your child opportunities to see you ask for help — a skill they probably seldom see in action. That way, they’ll see the value in learning how to ask questions, seek help, and advocate for themselves.

Focus on creating a trusting environment. If you shift from “Why can’t you just do this?” to “I can see this is hard for you,” you’re offering your child a different access point to accept the support you’re offering. Help your child manage stress and address other factors that could make them reluctant to seek and accept help.

Life Skill: Maintaining a Positive Mindset

Invite your child to pay attention to the positive and celebrate when things go right. The greater the focus on what’s working, the more inspired and motivated your child will be. This skill is pivotal in life.

Of course, teens and young adults with ADHD excel at pointing out their own foibles and faults. This is the result of experiencing a lifetime of ADHD challenges — and criticisms for symptoms beyond their control. Still, you can guide your child to flip the switch on a can-do mindset. When you always look at what’s working first, your child develops confidence that they can improve — and success breeds success.

The next time your child gets stuck, remind them of a time they persevered and experienced success. What previously successful strategies can your child use in their current situation? Consider a teen who’s struggling to complete her homework. Her parents might point out that she recently planned an entire slumber party for her friends and organized everything from food to carpools. How was she able to successfully pull that off, and how can she bring the same strategies to bear on her homework?

Even in the face of positivity, your child’s self-esteem may falter. Your job in those moments is to acknowledge their feelings, and ask them if that’s self-doubt creeping in. They may need to do some work to challenge their inner critic, and your words of encouragement will go a long way if you first acknowledge their feelings. You might say something like, “I believe in you. You may be having a hard time believing that for yourself right now, but I know you have the capacity for this. Sometimes it takes a little while to get there — but I know you and I’m confident you’ll get there.”

Avoid jumping straight into problem-solving mode. Sometimes, your child simply needs you to acknowledge and validate that they’re having a hard time. Give your child space and permission to feel what they’re feeling before moving into “fix-it” mode.

Paying attention to the positive is a sure way to build resilience — the number one indicator of lifelong success.

Life Skills for Young Adults with ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “5 Life Skills Every ADHD Young Adult Needs to Cultivate” [Video Replay & Podcast #450] with Elaine Taylor-Klaus, CPCC, MCC and Diane Dempster, MHSA, CPC, PCC, which was broadcast on April 13, 2023.

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