Ask the Experts

Q: My Son Left College, and Now He’s Stuck

Like many teenage boys with ADHD, my son lost his drive and direction when he came back home from college. He wants to regain his independence, but he’s frozen — and playing a lot of video games. How can we help him without coddling?

Q: “My 19-year-old son is textbook ADHD — not doing chores, messy room, and difficulty problem solving. He has had to leave college twice. He says he cannot concentrate to study, but he can play video games for hours. He is going to be starting therapy soon. How can I help him? My husband just gets angry. He wants to go back to living away at college and I’m afraid it is going to be a repeat scenario.” — SvenskaMom

Dear SvenskaMom,

I understand your concerns about sending your son back to college given his track record and challenges. Launching kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) can be a frustrating, stop-and-start process. ADHD brains mature more slowly (up to a three-year lag behind neurotypical brains), so it’s important to remember that, in some areas of executive functioning, young adults of 19 or 20 are actually more like 16 or 17 year olds. Since boys generally mature more slowly than girls, your son likely needs more support in certain areas than you’d expect for someone his age. Learning the skills necessary for independent living just takes longer for some people. It’s not your son’s fault; it’s how he’s wired.

I’m glad that you are taking your son to therapy because I’m guessing his self-esteem is suffering, and he may even develop a mood disorder. When kids can’t make it in college, they feel bad about themselves. Regardless of whether they talk about it, young adults like your son have told me that they see their peers advancing, realize they’re not moving forward, and feel ashamed of where they are and who they are. Talking to someone outside of the family may really help.

[Free Webinar Replay: The Teen Brain on ADHD — A Parent’s Guide to Boosting Executive Functions]

The fact that your son wants to return to school is admirable and, by taking small steps, he can get there. Right now, it doesn’t seem he’s acquired and mastered the skills necessary to return to college. By not following through on chores, being messy, playing video games for hours, and struggling with problem-solving, he’s letting you know that he still needs assistance transitioning from an adolescent who lives at home to a man who’s out on his own. He’s not ready — yet.

Many parents understandably get angry because they feel like they lack any authority over young adults who clearly (to the parents anyway) still need help. Nothing seems to motivate them. But your son has told you about his big-ticket item: going back to school. He would strongly prefer NOT to be at home. This is your golden carrot. You need to dig down and find your compassion in order to meet him where he is, not where you think he should be. Together, you’ll work on filling his toolbox with the tools he needs to make this happen. This is the basis for a collaborative, skill-building approach to boost his competency and his self-confidence.

Here are some tips to help your child begin building independence and executive function skills:

1. Start small: Establish a specific time to talk with your son for no more than 30 minutes. Any longer and he will get overwhelmed and check out. Share your desire for him to return to school and independent living when he shows you he is ready. Ask him to identify some behaviors and tasks that demonstrate his readiness. Write these down. Share with him some things you’d like to see him do to improve his self-care, organization, and participation in household chores. Write these down, too. Pick three of the items that overlap and agree on a plan for accomplishing them and checking on them. Post this list on the refrigerator.

[Free Webinar Replay: You’ve Got This! Motivating Teens Without Threats or Arguments]

2. Limit gaming time: At a separate time, talk with him about establishing reasonable gaming hours and limits. His brain focuses easily on video games because gaming is interesting, rewarding, and works well with the concrete thinking of ADHD brains. He’s also probably good at it. Teach him how to set up gaming as a reward for doing things such as chores that he dislikes. This is a model for studying first and socializing second.

3. Insist on a part-time job or classes at a local community college: He can’t demonstrate his burgeoning responsibility while he’s at home 24/7. Working part-time (or even full-time) OR taking a few classes at a community college means that he’s accountable to other people. This will also increase his self-esteem. If he would benefit from an executive functioning coach to help him manage his time, organize his schedule and follow through on commitments or assignments, consider finding someone to provide this instruction. That way, you will be freed up to give him the emotional support he needs and assist him at home.

4. Acknowledge his efforts and accomplishments: It takes time, patience, and dedication to make these changes and get unstuck. When parents notice what their kids are doing and give them positive feedback, young adults are more likely to keep trying. So, go ahead, focus on the positive.

Plan to renegotiate along the way, tweaking your agreements as needed. By focusing on yet, you’re conveying that you believe in him and his ability to create the life he desires.

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

[Grow Up Already! Why It Takes So Long to Mature]

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.