Your 19-year-old son with ADHD arrived home from college yesterday. In the blink of an eye, he dumped his overflowing laundry bag, three boxes of stuff and two bulging suitcases in the living room and quickly ran out the door, yelling something about meeting his friends.
Yes, your very own, lovable tornado has returned, leaving a path of his junk in his wake. Instead of sharing the family reunion meal you’ve planned, you’re feeling disrespected again–as if no time has passed since he left in August. How can you set up a pleasant summer with less frustration and more connection?
For the past nine months, you’ve been off the daily hook of managing the lives of your emerging adults and being affected by their choices. Whether he was gaming until 2 am, spending the afternoon playing music with friends or showing up late or cramming for a quiz—none of these activities were on your radar. But now that he’s back in one piece after living independently at school, you witness, once again, his behaviors firsthand.
Often, summers are times when college-age kids and parents fall back into old, unhelpful patterns despite their best intentions. Parents may find it hard to accept their daughter’s newly developed and idiosyncratic ways of managing his life and she may find it odd to accept changes in your lives too. Then there’s the issue of when to step in and when to stand on the sidelines.
You recognize your kid’s executive functioning skills still need your support in finding a summer job or making a doctor’s appointment, yet they scream for you to stop nagging them. What can you do differently?
1). Think about their brains.
First, let’s look at what is happening psychologically and biologically for college-age kids with ADHD. Like their neurotypical peers, they are figuring out who they are, what they want to do with their lives and where they belong. While dancing between connection and autonomy with parents, caregivers and other adults, they’re also living with brains that don’t finish developing until around the age of 25.
For emerging adults with ADHD, there can be a lag of almost three years because most of this growth occurs in the frontal lobes and its executive functioning capacities–the areas most affected by having ADHD. Key skills such as planning, prioritizing, time management, goal persistence, sustained attention, emotional control, motivation, judgment and self-awareness simply take longer for ADHD brains to develop and that process is uneven.
Building executive functioning skills takes time, direct instruction and a lot of patience. The more you can focus on improving their skills for independent living, the better things will go. But sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back. Instead of judgment and criticism, adjust your expectations and offer them tools. Many young adults still need assistance making appointments and navigating financial institutions. They may accept or reject your aid in the moment–it doesn’t matter. Do it anyway.
2). Manage yourself first.
Now that your college-age student with ADHD is back in your house, you’ve got to find a way to live together that works for both of you. Your emerging adult has long mastered clever ways to get under your skin and now, as they dance with independence and connection, they are even better at it.
The first step towards peace in the house begins with you. When you react to provocations, you throw a giant log on their growing fire. Since college-age adults with ADHD continue to struggle with a limited capacity for emotional and/or verbal regulation, you’ve got to rely on your fully-formed frontal lobes to avoid a full-blown escalation.
In a calm moment, think about what happens inside of you when you feel triggered. Does your stomach tighten, your breath quicken or your heart pound? These signals are telling you to press the pause button. Create a plan to follow when you’re thinking brain is over-whelmed and put this list on your phone. Whether it’s breathing exercises, listening to favorite songs, washing your hands in the bathroom or stretching – use it!
When things heat up, feel free to say: “I don’t like where this going. I need a quick break to think about things and I’ll be back in X minutes.” It’s a double win: you’re managing your emotions while modeling how your son or daughter can do it too. If they give you pushback, stay firm, telling them an explosion won’t lead anywhere positive and your goal is making things better. At a separate time, with no expectations, you can offer to help them create their own plan.
3). Work together to establish household guidelines.
Mismatched expectations like meal planning, tidiness, car sharing and staying out late can upend family relationships. Young people with ADHD often struggle with planning, follow through, time management and remembering things. Plus, their understanding of how their behavior and actions affect others remains limited. If you combine these challenges with their newfound independence, it’s easy to imagine how living at home with your routines and requests might be tough.
To avoid conflict, work together on establishing basic house rules. First, reflect on and choose the non-negotiable aspects of living at home. Whether it’s putting their used dishes in the dishwasher, warning you when they’ll be out past midnight or showing up for family dinner twice a week, figure out your bottom line before talking with them. Since kids with ADHD become easily overwhelmed by many demands, stick to no more than three. Early on, reassure them that you want to encourage their autonomy but you also want to establish clear guidelines about their participation in the family.
Ask your son or daughter to name a few things they think could be problematic about living at home and their ideas to resolve them. Share your thoughts too. Negotiate the items on your lists until you can agree on three things and write these down. For example, perhaps you agree that before they go out, they warn you that they might not come home or send a text by midnight. This is about consideration, not control.
4). Create joint goals for the summer.
Many parents worry that their college-age kids with ADHD have little or no plans for the summer and will resort to excessive time on electronics or engaging in risky behaviors with friends. Frequently, college students desire unstructured time after following schedules and deadlines all year. Kids with ADHD actually benefit from having a summer plan with some type of a daily routine.
Many of them simply don’t have the executive functioning capacities to structure their days for themselves and gaming, television and social media become the default activities. I’m not advocating for a summer that’s devoid of free time. Instead, I’m suggesting that they have to go somewhere outside of the house each day where they can earn money or contributing to something greater than themselves.
If your son or daughter already has something lined up, I encourage you to explore with them what the demands of that job are and how, if at all, you can assist them in being successful. If not, make a specific time to talk with them about the summer once they’ve decompressed for a few days. Does their school require them to earn a particular amount of money to contribute towards tuition as part of the financial aid package? Do you?
Ask them what their thoughts are about summer plans and where they might need some help making those ideas a reality. Share some of your ideas. Do any of these overlap? If so, start your collaborative plan there. If not, ask them to pick a few to get started on. You may very well have to use incentives to motivate them. Decide together what types of things motivate them: it may be using the car, getting new computer game or other privileges.
Be clear when they will receive such rewards upon completed work. It’s important to remember that young adults with ADHD continue to struggle with picking goals, creating effective action plans and staying motivated and persistent enough to follow through on them. Much to their dismay, they’ll likely need some parental assistance, and discussing what this clearly looks like is the only way to avoid arguments.
Brainstorm a list of all the steps required to move from ideas to action to accomplishment, assign dates to them and write everything down. Keep the steps small so they don’t feel overwhelmed and set up specific times to follow up so you don’t become a reminder machine.
5). Celebration and fun.
Many young people with ADHD suffer from low self-confidence and high self-criticism after years of receiving negative feedback. Noticing when your son or daughter is trying to do things is just as important as validating a positive outcome. Baking a cake for doing their laundry or collecting job applications isn’t necessary but a genuine “nice job!” goes a long way.
Praising their efforts for doing the things you’ve asked encourages them to keep going. Having your son or daughter home for the summer is a golden opportunity to connect with them. Look for times to hang out but avoid being too eager. Make a few low-key suggestions like finding a summer television series to watch together or doing a project of their choice like painting their room. Is there something they might suggest?
If that means watching a baseball game and you hate sports, do it anyway. You don’t have to talk much, just sit together. The goal is re-establishing your relationship by being present but not pushy and conversation will surely follow.
Finally, keep your sense of humor. Your son or daughter with ADHD probably has a unique, often spontaneous and sometimes zany view of the world. You may not often understand it but staying loose and laughing at the unexpected turn of events that inevitably surrounds young people with ADHD will foster the closeness and support you both desire.
Sharon Saline, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, is a top expert in how ADHD, learning disabilities and mental health issues affect children, teens and families. Dr. Saline also shares valuable insights and recommendations in her free parenting tools via her newsletter, blog and social media presence. More information is available at www.drsharonsaline.com, Facebook and Twitter.