Ask the Experts

Q: What Is Helicopter Parenting vs. Scaffolding in College?

College students with ADHD need specific and plentiful supports. Your teen is smart enough to master his subjects, but his executive dysfunctions and ADHD tendencies lead to missed assignments and overwhelm. Here is how you can help without helicopter parenting in college.

Q: “How do we support our son in college who is ‘twice gifted’ with both ADHD and  high intelligence? He has had to drop classes every semester because he hasn’t figured out how to manage his time and keep up with extended assignments and long-term class projects. The work is not difficult for him, but because he can see how easy it is, he puts off doing it and focuses on other active assignments until it’s too late and he is overwhelmed. We are trying to let him do his own ‘adulting’, but we see a pattern that is sabotaging his academic program, and we fear he is beginning to feel like a ‘failure.’” – Don’tWantToBeHelicopterParents


Hi Don’tWantToBeHelicopterParents:

Let me start by saying there is a HUGE difference between being a “helicopter parent” who hovers and then swoops in when the going gets tough and a “scaffolding parent” who offers and supplies the necessary support their child needs to succeed in learning and in life.

In my view, helicopter parents DON’T help their children do something independently; they do it FOR them – even after the child can do it for themselves. Scaffolding parents provide structure and support so their children can stretch beyond their capabilities and develop new skills.

Think about it this way: There’s a reason why a net is strategically placed under the trapeze artists at the circus. How else would those acrobats feel confident and capable to soar to new heights? Or land softly if they fall?

So if you are seeing unhealthy patterns that are not only sabotaging your son’s academic progress but also his self-esteem and confidence, it’s time to step in. Here are a few ideas that might be helpful for you to suggest.

[Click to Read: Adjusting to College When You Have ADHD]

  • I work all day long with college students as an academic/life coach and I see firsthand that, no matter how intelligent or gifted they may be, their lack of essential executive functions can really hinder their academic performance. Having a coach can help a student feel more empowered and in control. If you want more information about academic/life coaching for college students with ADHD, please check out my previous Dear ADHD Family Coach column titled Does My Teen Need an ADHD Life Coach?
  • Has your son taken advantage of his college’s academic and tutoring resources? Most schools have office hours where a student can go for organization, time-management, and planning support. Perhaps having a weekly appointment with a counselor would provide him with the accountability he needs.
  • Does your son receive any accommodations at school? If not, it might be time. Often, my clients with ADHD or LD don’t realize that they might qualify for services at college. I would advise reaching out to the school’s disability services office to get more information and to see what they offer. If you want more information on how to navigate the process of applying for services, here’s a great ADDitude article that breaks down the process.

Good Luck!

[Read This Next: It’s Time to Land Your Helicopter]


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!

Updated on February 4, 2020

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