Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Help My Overwhelmed Son Plan His Future?

The future is big and broad and undefined, which makes some teens with ADHD freeze up or give up. If your child gets defensive, overwhelmed, or distracted when faced with big choices beyond high school, read this advice for teaching independent planning skills.

Q: “My 18-year-old son struggles to make decisions. He started a new job this week and was told he could make his own schedule, the employer just needed to know when to expect him. I helped him plan the first week, explaining why I chose the shifts I did, etc. Then we discussed his hourly wage and how much he could expect to make each time he worked a shift and we calculated his weekly take home pay. He said he understood. He repeated everything back to me and I thought he had a grasp of all of the tasks. I sent him to another room to figure out the rest of the month. When I returned 45 minutes later, I found him staring at the sheet of paper with just a few shifts written down. I asked what the holdup was and he said, ‘I’m just thinking about it!’ To my 53-year-old brain, this is not rocket science. But to his 18-year-old ADHD brain, it was overwhelming. I think he got stuck but didn’t want to ask for help. How do I help him plan his immediate future and his long-term goals when we face daily challenges like this?” —Iowamom

Dear Iowamom,

It is very common for teenagers with ADHD to experience difficulties with executive functioning skills. Your description suggests your child may struggle with making decisions, maintaining focus, and planning.

Planning Skills Gain Importance in Adolescence

Planning becomes an increasingly important executive function skill as teenagers begin to navigate the broad spectrum of roles and expectations wrapped up in school, work, extracurricular activities, and friends. Planning skills usually aren’t tested when children are younger since parents and teachers make most critical decisions. As kids grow and gain independence, planning becomes much more important.

Planning Without Strict Guidelines Is Hard

For teens who struggle with planning, it is tough enough to adhere to strict expectations, like a date to complete a school project, a time to be at work, or the need to prepare for a team practice or a play rehearsal. Planning is even more difficult in unstructured situations. When a teen must plan activities with friends, manage free time, or even contemplate a career, poor planning can be disastrous.

Delayed Maturity is a Factor

Teenagers with ADHD often appear to be less mature than their peers. Advances in neuroscience over the past few decades have helped help us to understand that certain structures in the brains of kids with ADHD mature 2 to 3 years after those without ADHD. That means your 18-year-old son may have a brain that is operating, at least in part, at a 15-year-old range.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

Model Good Planning Strategies

My advice is to work with your son to develop better planning skills. You and other family members should make a point of modeling successful planning strategies. Discussions that prompt metacognitive/reflective insight into the importance of planning will also be useful. Some of the issues you’ve described, however, go far beyond weak planning skills. I encourage you to enlist a therapist who has expertise with ADHD and executive functioning.

This Advice Is for Your Son

Because your son is 18 years old, I want to offer a few recommendations meant for him and not for you. It is important for a kid his age to be able to take on some of the responsibility for developing his own planning skills. Here are some strategies he needs to consider so he can learn through observation and experience.

Watch how other people plan. Identify people in your life who are good at setting and accomplishing goals and watch how they do it. Ask them how they set goals. Look at their approaches to achieving success and see if you can adopt some of their techniques.

Save for something you really want. This is a great way to practice the skill of planning. First, figure out how much money you need to save to purchase something you really want. Then explore how you are going to get the money, and how you can avoid spending the money you have on unnecessary items. Create a chart or log to help keep track of the money you’ve saved. Share the chart — and your approach — with your parents.

[Free Resource: Transform Your Teen’s Apathy]

Help someone else with their plans. Take a step back and analyze another person’s needs. Sometimes it’s hard to look at all the things you need to do and figure out how to do them. You may find it easier to help a younger sibling or a friend plan something like a meal, school project, or trip. While observing others, pay attention to the questions other people ask during the planning process, as well as their organization tactics and activities. Borrowing their winning strategies can help you master prioritizing and sequencing while helping others achieve their goals.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

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.