ADHD impacts young adults and their parents. There are challenges with academics,relationships, and work. A young adult must figure out how to make the best decisions for themselves.
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ADHD Awareness Month 2023
Moving Forward with ADHD
Lightly edited transcript
Now I want to talk a little bit about how ADHD can impact a young adult and their parents. And I have to admit, this is very dear to my heart because I am a parent of an adult now. I would like to keep calling him a young adult, but he’s past 30.
I want to start by sharing how this impacts a young adult. Similar to how it can be in the parent-child relationship, there are some challenges with academics and relationships and things like that. With a young adult it may intensify a little bit more—for them and for their parents. The challenge is now is the young adult is responsible for addressing those challenges and learning new ways of communicating.
We, parents, have no control to make our young adults to the things we ask, or even when we suggest something for them to do, it’s not going to happen the way we think it should. The parent is going to have a big challenge with understanding, “What is my role here and where is my boundary as I’m raising this young adult?”
Young adults in college
The impact of ADHD on a young adult is going to include academic challenges. And depending on what they want to do—if they want to go to college, if they want to go to a trade school, whatever they want to do—those academic challenges may be there. They may struggle with organization, with maintaining focus, with their thought process—controlling their constant thinking—completing assignments, and meeting deadlines. These may be a big challenge for them. If we didn’t teach these skills when there were children, now as a young adult starting college, these things are more difficult because they don’t have those executive skills to perform at the college level, when everybody’s going to expect to have those skills. They don’t want to have the support system of their parents telling them what they need to do and how they need to do it or reminding them. So, academic challenges are one of those areas where ADHD may impact that young adult.
Entering the working world
Another challenge is going to be work. I’m thinking here about some work performance issues that might come up in the workforce for them. That could be that they’re having problems paying attention when they are in meetings, for example. Meetings are one of the challenges that I have seen with my clients. They may have more challenges with ADHD symptoms when these meetings are over 20 minutes long. They’re gone, their brain is gone, they’re bored, they’re not paying any attention. They sometimes lose valuable and important information that is shared in those meetings, and that causes a problem for them with their work. They can have problems with showing up on time at work. They can have problems performing a task or project in a timely manner as is expected of them. So, work performance is a challenge that a young adult may experience when they get in the workforce.
Romantic and social relationships
They can also experience relationship and social challenges with forming and maintaining relationships with others. Depending again on how they are socially relating to other individuals, if they don’t know how to maintain those interactions and those social relationships, it can cause a problem for them. They might not even know how to read cues at times in a conversation. They might not be able to keep up in a conversation because after 10 or 15 minutes they can be bored of the conversation, so they’re interrupting with other thoughts and ideas that come to their mind.
They could have challenges with impulse control and that could manifest in different ways, like talking out of place, telling inappropriate jokes. I’m sharing about inappropriate jokes because that’s something that I had a lot of experience with some of my clients. They were very impulsive or when they were in difficult situations, they start saying jokes. They didn’t realize that sometimes the jokes were very inappropriate. They got in trouble at work because of the type of jokes that they were saying. They may send an email with a funny story, and it was totally inappropriate to do that with other workmates. So, again, challenges at work can be another area that gets impacted in young adults with ADHD.
Mental health care
And then there’s the emotional and the mental health issues that come up. By this time as a young adult, if their ADHD has not been treated and managed, there may be a lot of other emotional challenges that can show up. It could be anxiety, it could be depression—those are the most common ones—but it could also be more of the bipolar type showing up, as well. It depends if the person was treated or not. Substance abuse issues can also show up at that time—again, if they were not treated at a younger age and made aware of their ADHD. As a young person, regulating those emotions and managing their mental health is very, very important. This is an area of a challenge that we need to be aware of that happens—and can affect their daily life, as well as their self-esteem.
Making good decisions
Another area that is affected is impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors that tend to happen during young adulthood. I’m going to say that this is going to vary by age. I see this happening more between the ages of 18 to 24 or 25, where there is that freedom of “I’m responsible for me.” It’s exciting and it’s good, but it also brings a lot of fear. They may not know how to make the best decisions for themselves. As they have a lot more freedom to decide on their own, maybe they try substances quicker than expected because they don’t have anyone monitoring them and talking to them about it. They may be more impulsive and really doing some risky behaviors. As an example, they may decide that they’re going to have a motorcycle and they’re going to be riding a motorcycle everywhere now. I’m not saying that it’s wrong and it’s bad and that it’s dangerous. I’m saying that they might make decisions in a more impulsive manner rather than thinking them through, and thinking, “this is what I need to do for me right now.” So that’s also how ADHD impacts young adults, especially when there has not been any earlier treatment for them.
When to help out and when to wait it out
How does this look for the parent of that young adult now that they’re more independent? Well, there’s a lot of added stress for the parent because the emotional demands on the parents are more intense. They may feel their kids are going to probably need more supervision—or still need supervision—but the adult doesn’t want it. So, the parent may be struggling with what level of supervision they should have over their child now, asking how the adult is going to manage these behavior challenges that they’re exhibiting right now. Or if they’re still living at home, it may also be, “I’m noticing that you struggle academically and I’m no longer the person that can go and talk to the school and ask for accommodations or extra time for you.” The young adult has to be the one advocating for themselves – and if this was not taught to them when they were younger, now it’s a bigger challenge for the parents. So, this is an added stress on parents for the relationship with their adult child.
If we don’t have good communication, then it can be very strained. What happens here is that the parents are attempting to communicate, and the young person is going to say, “You are telling me what to do instead of having a conversation with me.”
They’re going to be very defensive if whatever comes out of our mouths is us telling them what to do and harping on their not wanting to do it. A parent might wonder, “How do I manage this? How do I stop for a moment and notice the situation with my child” How do I let them know this is happening and we need to try something different?” All of this makes it very difficult for a parent, and that affects the parent-child relationship, as well.
There can be a financial burden for families, as well. It’s a financial burden because the young adult does not go to school, for example, having graduated from high school. They’re at home, they’re not working, and their parents still have bills to pay for them—cell phones, expensive car insurance, things like that. The parents are asking, “Okay, what else are you going to do?” If the young person is not ready to really go outside in the workforce—to go and do something, an entry-level or career position—then the parents wonder, “What else can I do here to prod my child further?”
One of the things that I see affecting the financial burden for families is finding the services for their kids. If, for some reason, the parents are not able to have the young person on their insurance, and the young adult does not have their own insurance, then the services that they can find for their kids may be limited. There may not be treatment or financial support available, in addition to therapy, which is important, or finding a doctor for their medication management as part of treatment. The parents will tell me anything else is out-of-pocket and they might not be able to afford it at that time.
There is a lot that comes with having your child become a young adult but still having financial responsibilities for that person. I’m using the scenario of them not working or, you know, staying at home and things like that, but the financial burden goes beyond that. They could be in college, and you are still supporting them while they are away at college, and things like that. Maybe they’re not performing to the needed level, and they get kicked out of college. That is part of the financial burden that the parents have. There’s a lot that can affect the parents–for example, maybe a parent has to take time off from work. That is a financial burden if they get paid by the hour. Or, if they have to use all their personal leave to attend to their child’s needs at that moment. That is also an impact on that parent.
Another impact of ADHD that I see is advocacy and support. Parents are not necessarily looking for the advocacy and support that they need. That’s why I always said that at the moment that your child is diagnosed, you need to start learning to advocate for yourself and educating yourself so you can teach those skills to your child. When they become a young adult, you need to see what else is out there that you can let your child know about. There are other services for young adults that you can apply for, that you can request in college, whatever it is that they need. Get that information and hopefully get it before they graduate from high school so you can tell them what they can do on their own when they go to college. If they’re in college, or they’re working, but they’re still having a lot of challenges, ask your child what other support they need, what else could be helpful. Parents do need to find a place where they can learn more about advocacy and support for you them while parenting a young adult.
Then there’s the emotional impact, as well. It goes back to the parent-child relationship and how it’s affected by ADHD. Sometimes there’s a lot of guilt. There can be a lot of guilt for the parent. We’re supposed to provide for them. We see the challenges that they’re facing and, you know, we want to keep providing. So that emotional impact is draining. It gets really tiring for parents, so it’s important that we find out what else we can do to support ourselves. That goes back to that support system. But, we also have to find out that how we can continue to help our child as an adult.
Strategies for Young Adults and Parents
That’s going to lead me to this next section, talking about the kinds of strategies we can have for young adults.
1. Keep Communication with Your Parents Open
Here are some strategies, and suggestions and ideas for a young adult:
It goes back to–there are some things that I’m going to keep repeating—the importance of communication, communication, and communication. And I’m going to add in here that this is not only for the young adult. If we look long term, and we want to have a good relationship with our young adult as they get older, we really have to have good communication skills now.
2. Parents, Learn New Ways to Listen
That means, as parents, we have to listen. I’m going to say, and I emphasize this: parents, learn how to listen. What I hear from every one of my young adult clients, “They don’t listen to me. They just tell me what they want me to do. They criticize me, but they don’t listen to me.”
3. Their Turn to Problem-Solve
The challenge with that is because if we, as parents, are not listening, we’re missing the opportunity to understand how they see their challenge, their problem, and how we can help them identify the solution that they believe is going to work for them. We miss the opportunity of seeing our kid really grow up and tell us what they believe is going to help them. And then they also lose trust in themselves, when we don’t listen but tell them what to do. By not having the opportunity to discuss how they could solve a situation, they start doubting themselves. By not having the opportunity to put in place their strategy or idea, they doubt themselves. We should be that safe place for them to really find out what it is that they’re going to do to help themselves, and give them the opportunity to do it, even if we think that what they’re saying is not going to work.
Even if I think, in my experience, that approach sounds silly, or I would not do it that way, well, that’s my opinion. Maybe it works for them, so let’s give them the opportunity to try it. And if it doesn’t work, then we can say, “Okay, we gave it a try. We don’t have to rehash why that didn’t work. What do you want to do different now?” Again, it’s not about judging them. It’s about teaching them how they can problem-solve. The importance here is communication and, we parents, listening to them. This is really important and I can talk a lot about this, but I’m going to leave that for another time.
4. Clear Family Expectations
Another strategy that I want to bring up again is going back to establishing structures and routines and expectations. With young adults, we parents have to let our kids know what we expect of them. If they’re still living at home, we could say, “You’re an adult and I know that you can be out and do whatever you want to, but I’m going to be worried at home. So, in my house, I really need you to be back in the house by 2 a.m. If you’re out of the house at 2 a.m., you know what? Stay out. Don’t come home until the next morning. Don’t wake me up.” Or whatever your rule is.
But if you have a rule when you want your child to be home, you need to let them know and have that conversation and explain why this is important to you. For me, it’s that I don’t want to lose sleep. I know I’m going to be up, so I said to my son, “Listen, let’s be fair. I’m going to be up and I’m going to be worried, so what time are you going to come home? Let’s negotiate. Let’s talk about it.” I think that it works if you just listen to what they’re telling you or ask the questions: “Where are you going to be? Give me the information that I need. How can I get a hold of you if I need you?”
And if you don’t mind that they come in at 3 a.m. or even later, that’s fine. But again, it goes back to setting very clear expectations beforehand and talking them over together.
It’s the same with chores at home. I do believe in chores. You’re going to have different people having different ideas about chores. I see chores as family responsibilities. [You could say] “We are all part of the family, so I do want us to collaborate together. As part of the family, I need you to do your dishes, or I need you to be in charge of your bathroom. I will respect your room but because your room is part of our house, I want to make sure that there’s no food in there, that there’s nothing in there.” You need to let them know your expectations and you need to set up those expectations. Just because they are adults does not mean that they have free reign of doing whatever they want to. It’s still your house. You’re still the parents. You set up your rules, and if they don’t like it, they have something to say about it, then that’s part of the conversation.
5. Actively Teach Life Skills
Another strategy here is to teach and encourage organizational skills. Teaching these skills is letting your young adult know what you expect. I’m going to give you this example. It’s funny because my son is older, but we were living together again during the COVID time. I remember one saying to him, “Please go and clean the kitchen” and I left it at that. I went to the kitchen and the kitchen was not clean. Then I called him and I said, “You haven’t cleaned the kitchen.” He said, “What do you mean? I did the kitchen.”
At that moment, honestly—and I know a lot about ADHD, right?—it just dawned on me. For the first time, I realized that what I mean by cleaning the kitchen—that is the countertops, that is the island, that is the stove, that is everything. For him, cleaning the kitchen meant the sink and the dishes and the plates and putting everything away. Nothing else. And for the first time I stood there and realized here is the proof of saying clearly what you mean, making sure they understand and they know what your expectations are from them. I taught him that for me, in my house, this is what I mean by cleaning the kitchen. And even though grew up in my house, I realized I was the one in charge of the kitchen back then because I know how I [like it]. It is important that we encourage them, and we ask questions, and we teach them what it is that we mean.
Teach them how to create to-do lists if they tell you that they have a lot of things to do. Just sit down with them and ask them, “How can I help you? Let’s brainstorm strategies. Can you create a to-do list? Where do you want to have this to-do list? How do you want to use the to-do list?” Encourage them to learn how to organize themselves to find what works for them.
The other thing is if they’re going to college, how do you create supportive study and work habits at home, now that they’re going to college—either living at home or when they’re back on school break? Do they want you to ask them questions if they are living at college? Or, like with one of my family members, the child had graduated and was going to start medical school. The whole conversation they need to have was, “How are we going to do this? What does he need?” Because for four years, he was gone. What is it that he needs at home in order to study? There was this whole conversation about how to set up everything now that he’s coming back home, especially when the parents were empty nesters. It’s a whole conversation because things will be different. This is an example of the importance of having this conversation with your young adult.
6. Pursuing ADHD Treatment for Themselves
You also want to explore with your young adult what are the treatment options for them. If they are in treatment, good. Is that working for them? Do they have to do anything different? If they’re not receiving any treatment for their ADHD, what do they need? Ask them and encourage them to look for that. Ask if you need to assist them. An important part is you don’t have to do things for them unless they ask you to help. So here it is—how do we teach our children, our young adults, to ask for the help that they need? And then we negotiate if we’re able to do it or not. So that’s another part – asking them, “What is it that you need? And how are you going to go about getting the treatment that is best for you?”
7. Foster Independence and Advocacy
You foster independence by letting them take the responsibilities that they need as an adult. If they fail, it’s okay. Let them fail. You’ll be there to support them and to see how they can make things better for themselves. Or, you ask them how you can help them. What is it that you can do for them? But let them experience some failure. It’s good for them. Let them be responsible for their decisions and have the opportunity to make their own decisions and see how that works for them. It’s important that when we tell our kids, “This is what we want for you”—whatever it is—we then make sure there is a plan of action for them.
As an example, don’t just say things like, “Okay, you’re not allowed to come back home [from college] until you have A, B, and C ready.” They’ll tell that to their kid a week before they are supposed to come back home from college. How are they supposed make these things happen in a week? There may be very high expectations that the parents had thought about for a long time, but then they never communicate those expectations clearly to their young adult. They might communicate only some aspects of their expectations, but not everything.
Communication is important. It’s about the other person hearing what we’re saying. Are we being clear? Can we do reflective listening? Can we ask them to do reflective listening to make sure that they understand what we said and expected of them? This is really important to foster independence, to foster self-advocacy. But we also have to remember that we have to have and communicate clear expectations for them to follow through. And we have to be the ones providing them with the opportunities to experience life as an adult and just being there as a support system for them.
This is a summary of what I’m saying right now as a parent of a young adult: educate yourself, have open communication, establish rules and structures, set clear expectations, make sure that you have a place for them to do the work if they’re going to college and coming back home, explore treatment options for them, and foster independence and self-advocacy.
Dulce Torres, LPC-S, BCC, ACC, and Founder of Avant-Garde Center
Dulce Torres is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor and a board certified coach and associate certified coach specializing in ADHD, anxiety, and depression. She believes everyone has a right to live a life beyond limitation.
Ms. Torres has been a featured columnist for Spanish-language newspapers and contributed to several English-language books on ADD/ADHD.