A Tale of Two Freshmen: Your ADHD College Survival Guide
Solid college prep begins at home, and it doesn’t happen overnight — so make a long-term plan to help your child succeed when she heads to campus.
First, the good news: the number of students with ADHD and/or LD attending college has increased exponentially in the past 30 years. Getting into college is only half the battle. All teens, especially those with ADHD and LD, need strategies to meet increased academic expectations and to live on their own.
A Tale of Two Freshmen
Catherine and Mary finished their first semester at college. Catherine is distraught. She found out that she is on academic probation, and her performance next semester will determine whether she’ll be eligible to return to college the following year. Catherine knew that having ADHD and LD in reading would make college more challenging, but she was blindsided by having to manage it all with no adult supervision.
Her social adjustment went well — she joined some clubs and made some friends — but the academic transition was rocky. She was late for classes or missed them entirely. She found it hard to make and follow a schedule, keep up with her assignments, take her medication, and use available resources at the school to help her avoid this crisis. She was embarrassed and depressed that she did so poorly; her self-esteem took a hit.
Mary, on the other hand, is happy. She got a 3.0 GPA. She was able to create and follow a daily schedule, made some great friends, kept her room and herself organized, and handled her medication and much of her daily life, with only occasional help from her parents. Her ADHD and LD in reading brought many academic challenges, but she had practiced coping skills in high school, had ongoing coaching from her parents, and knew how to self-advocate for all of the services and accommodations available to her on campus.
A Tale of Two Parents
Both girls had been diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school. They both have above-average abilities, went to challenging high schools, and did well. A major factor in their success, or lack of it, is the way their parents worked with them in high school.
When their daughters were young, both families adapted to their executive function deficits by advocating, planning, and structuring their kids’ school lives for success. Without their parents’ involvement, college wouldn’t have been possible for Mary or Catherine.
However, Mary’s parents started talking about her differences, without over-focusing on them, and framed them in a positive light from a young age. They consciously decided to use parenting practices to prepare and empower her to take charge of her life before she left home. They began by thinking about what their daughter would need to function in college. They got support from professionals to find a middle ground between staying in control and letting go. They became increasingly less involved as they helped Mary lead the way.
When Mary didn’t understand something on her homework worksheet, they would say, “We’re going to go to school tomorrow morning and talk to Mrs. Smith. She’s a really nice person, and can explain this to you better than I.” They started very small, and then gradually invited Mary to be part of any school meeting. Senior year, they decided to practice being in college. That meant that Mary’s parents would not communicate with the school at all, Mary would do it. Her parents were only in the background to guide, debrief, and help problem solve.
Catherine’s parents didn’t think about her college years. They focused on their daughter’s short-term success. They helped her make the grades to get into college, but they didn’t encourage her to practice the skills needed to manage life on her own. They did all the communicating and problem solving with the school and teachers.
Which Type of Parent Are You?
If Catherine’s parents’ approach sounds like yours, don’t despair. There are Parent Warriors, who fight any battle to ensure that their child is treated fairly; Parent Directors, who prevent problems before they happen; and Parent Repairmen, solving problems as soon as they crop up. Many are trapped in these roles because their children struggle with thinking and acting on their own. Shifting parenting approaches, as Mary’s parents did, isn’t easy, and it takes time and support. But it is possible, and the payoff in college is worth it.
During middle school and Mary’s first semester of high school, Mary’s parents had strict rules about homework time, and they monitored Mary’s daily and long-term assignments. At the end of Mary’s freshman year, and in her sophomore and junior years, they took a less active coaching approach.
- The family met weekly to help Mary set goals and keep up with her schoolwork. They asked her lots of questions, so she could practice making her own study plan. She knew when and how she would handle nightly assignments and what steps she should take each week to complete long-term assignments.
- They gave her suggestions, but they let Mary make her own homework and study schedule.
- They asked Mary what kind of support she needed from them.
- They allowed her to take the consequences of her decisions, like lower grades. Instead of jumping in to prevent problems, they helped her reflect on the things that had led to lower grades and what she could do to avoid them next time.
- They told Mary that, by her senior year, they wanted to be out of the picture. Mary would be totally responsible for her schoolwork and grades.
It’s OK to take baby steps. Anything is better than parents being in charge all the time.
Acquire Living Skills
Mary’s parents also taught her living skills. Throughout high school, they coached her to wake up, set her bedtime, order and take her medication, and do her laundry. She took on all of these tasks, and, by her senior year, she could practice these skills. They even let her experience the negative consequences of losing sleep, when she got a smartphone and stayed up very late on social media sites and texting her friends.
They made the point that, if she were at college, they wouldn’t have been able to help her. They asked her to think about the consequences of not getting enough sleep — her GPA was critical to acceptance to the college of her dreams. When it came to setting limits on her technology use, they brainstormed together. Mary learned self-control at home.
Teach Your Teen to Self Advocate
The most important skill that we can teach teenagers that will increase their likelihood of success is being a strong self-advocate. Mary’s parents knew it was important for their daughter to advocate for herself in school. Beginning in upper-elementary and middle school, they took Mary along to school meetings with teachers and doctors. As she got older, she participated more. When crises cropped up, they helped her think about what she wanted to say and accompanied her to the meeting to say it. She learned to deal with conflict. By her senior year, she was handling most of her school and doctor conferences and conversations on her own.
You Are Part of the Solution
Like Mary’s parents, you can use the high school years to help your teen practice being independent. To take this step, you’ll have to see things as Mary’s parents did.
- They allowed her to manage her own challenges and struggles. Unlike Catherine’s parents, they stopped playing Warrior, Director, and Repairman.
- They collaborated with her, but let her handle things for herself. This forced Mary to use her executive functioning skills before she went to college. They identified the areas in Mary’s life in which they were overinvolved. Their goal was to transfer more responsibility to her.
- They got help. They enlisted the school guidance counselor, who helped them find books, videos, and people to talk with. Local parent groups can suggest counselors and coaches who specialize in college readiness. If teens and parents aren’t getting along, hiring a coach, counselor, or therapist is probably necessary.
When your teen faces challenges and you are tempted to jump in, think long-term. Parents should be the authority on certain things, but ask yourself whether this is one of those important things or whether you should allow your teen to get through the challenge on her own. When you feel like getting re-involved, don’t. Remember that you are setting the stage for her to succeed in college and beyond.
Updated on March 10, 2020