ADHD in College

The Case for (Working, Maturing) Gap Years

Not every teen is ready for fly the coop. Many could benefit from a few more years of transition into adulthood. Here’s how to nurture and instill independence in your teen — without helicoptering or overwhelming her.

A teen with ADHD climbs stairs and matures

Research tells us that kids with ADHD are, on average, at least two years behind their peers in maturity and self-regulation. At no time is this more apparent and challenging than graduation from high school, college, or trade school. Recently, Stanford University Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims listed eight skills she believes every 18-year-old should have:

> Talking to strangers (not fearing them)
> Finding their way around (including maintaining a car)
> Managing assignments, workload, and deadlines
> Contributing to the running of a household
> Resolving interpersonal problems
> Coping with the many ups and downs inherent to adulthood
> Earning and managing money
> Taking appropriate risks

After 24 years of practice, and helping several thousand young adult clients set out into the real world — and with one of my own about to finish community college with a 4.0 GPA in accounting — I can say that most kids with ADHD struggle with all eight. Though helpful, medication and therapy can’t make up for that two- or three-year maturity gap, but families can improve their child’s odds of making a successful jump from teen to adult.

Don’t deny the gap, embrace it. It may seem wrong to dissuade your child from going for the “full college experience,” but if he or she isn’t ready, it’s best to allow some catch-up. For many years I, too, was big on getting teens out into the real world. Today, I realize that, for kids with ADHD (and many without it), that’s a perilous and unnecessary stretch.

Depending on the case, I now advise either living at home and attending community college for two years, or a trial run in the dorms at a local college. Either way, I recommend the child sign a release of information, so parents can track and encourage college progress, particularly if they’re covering a portion of the cost. I get accused of “helicopter parenting,” but we’ve tried other approaches, and we always come back to this model, because it recognizes the gap in maturity.

Throughout adolescence, give your child focused training for independent living. Many parents give kids with ADHD a pass on expectations. They feel sorry for them, don’t want to overwhelm them, or see enforcing expectations as too much work for too little gain. Don’t set kids up to fail by overloading them with agenda items, but focus your energy on the key skills of successful living, and make them applicable to the child’s daily life. Here’s my list:

1. Dollars and sense. There are many ways for kids fresh out of school to go wrong financially. At the top of the list is to incur debt. Student loans, in particular, are seductive, as they offer deferred payment and let the lendee ignore exorbitant interest. While educational investment can pay off big, that’s true only if your child actually finishes a degree in an area of study that leads to gainful employment. Young people also overspend on car loans and apartment costs. Daily dining out is a huge financial drain, which kids don’t realize because the bills come in small increments.

What to do: From middle school on, parents should train kids for smarter spending by starting them on strict budgets, dispensing a set amount of money each month to buy everything they need, from toothpaste to clothing, and letting them manage (mostly). This takes getting used to by both parties, and you’ll have a few failures along the way, but it beats being an ATM parent, especially with kids with ADHD. Beyond budgeting, I suggest giving kids almost nothing for free, except on special occasions. Instead, offer kids opportunities to earn money with work-like tasks.

To teach credit management, loan your kids money (no, really) at a fair market rate of interest. Begin with small loans and extend greater credit only when they are repaid. My mom and I have done this since I was 13. I’m 54 now. She’s made lots of interest off of me, I’ve had access to credit for every business I’ve ever owned, and I’ve never defaulted on a loan. If I had, I wouldn’t have gotten another one.

2. Career ladders. It’s ridiculous to expect 18-year-olds to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, yet parents keep asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Expect kids to work as soon as they are able, even if they don’t get paid until age 15 or 16. There are many volunteer opportunities in most communities, where younger teens can get simulated work experience. Some parents pay their kids to volunteer as part of their financial arrangement, which I heartily endorse. While kids should be students first, having no work expectation for them isn’t a gift, it’s a burden that will make their transition to adulthood harder and their career choice ill-informed.

What to do: Begin talking about, and having your child study and experience, different careers as soon as you can get her interested. Think about what makes your child unique, particularly how ADHD may enhance some careers and not others, and help her think it through, too.

3. Self-regulation. This can be the toughest transition of all. There are more self-care tasks than most kids realize before moving out and taking them over. The first occurs when the alarm clock goes off each morning and your child hits snooze 23 times. At home the standard response is to wake the child up, which, if he or she isn’t big on school attendance, may be necessary.

What to do: Move the responsibility from your shoulders to your child’s, beginning with perhaps one day a week and working from there. It’s usually better to have 18 tardies a semester and one day of self-regulation a week than perfect attendance courtesy of the parent.

4. Meal-planning. Feeding oneself is more complicated than kids realize, particularly if they’re used to food appearing magically on the dining room table or being handed out of a drive-through window.

What to do: Have your child run the kitchen one night a week beginning in middle school. If you can’t do this without incentive, move some of your dining-out money over to your child’s “restaurant” and pay him or her to cook and serve dinner. Leave a tip if you think the service was good. This is more than an exercise in self-care and nutrition. A lot of kids make their way for a few years in the food service industry, and this kind of practice can give them an edge when they are there.

5. Medication and treatment. In our office we take teen preferences seriously in planning medication and therapy. If we can’t reach an informed agreement, we won’t see them — though that rarely happens. Aside from getting buy-in about the treatment plan and improving the clients’ experience, we’re training them to have a serious interest in and keen understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. They can take over when they’re out on their own.

What to do: You can do the same thing by involving your child in the process of treatment with providers who have the same philosophy.

If you’ve gotten an accurate diagnosis, your child’s transition to adulthood will be different than it is for people without ADHD. If you plan ahead and keep planning, that’s all it will be — different, not impairing.

From Teenhood to Adulthood

Kids need to pick up some basic skills to move from adolescence to adulthood. Here’s how to instill some of the most important ones in your teen.

> Think “self-regulation” in everything you do. Nothing is more important.
> Don’t give away the farm. Gift only on special occasions.
> Put your teen on a monthly budget and enhance earnings through household work done for others.
> Have your teen take charge of personal life chores, like cooking or doing his own laundry.
> Career-plan early with volunteer and paid jobs or by starting a small business, like dog walking or house sitting.