Afraid Your Child with ADHD Won’t Make It in the Real World? How to Help Your Child Transition to Adulthood


Mom hugging teen son

Parents of teens with ADHD and other developmental and learning challenges know how hard it can be just to get their child through high school. It’s overwhelming to even think about what happens after high school.

Nevertheless, it is essential that your teen leaves high school aware of his or her learning challenges. And it is essential that your teen learns how to get the accommodations he will need in college, vocational training, or in a job.

In short, your teen needs to learn how to take care of himself, to advocate for himself, and to get the resources he needs all by himself. Otherwise, his adulthood could be even more difficult than high school.

The high school years are the time to learn these skills. And as hard as these years can be, they’re much more forgiving than adult life. Indeed, young adults with ADHD, behavioral, or developmental problems often experience deeper feelings of failure as they struggle with adulthood.

And we all know that if your teen is unprepared for adulthood, they may not leave home at all and you are left dealing with the all too common problem of having an adult child living at home.

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Karen and Her Son Mason

Karen is like many of the parents I’ve worked with through the years. She hasn’t slept through the night in years—she’s too worried about her son Mason making it through high school. He tried two different schools and now takes online classes, but that’s not working, either.

Karen has resorted to sitting with him for three hours every night (after coming home from her full-time job) to help him through his homework. She’s given up trying to make him take the ACT or SAT tests for college.

Karen is focused on one goal—Mason graduating from high school. She’s not sure what will come after that.

Mason hates school. He struggles with ADHD symptoms and a mood disorder. He’s either sullen and withdrawn, or angry and loud. The whole family tiptoes around his moods.

Mason has no desire to keep going to school. College is the last thing he wants to do. But he doesn’t want to get a job, either. He doesn’t want someone telling him what to do.

Mason is a typical teen with ADHD. He is smart enough but struggles with a few basic life skills such as attending class, doing his homework, and behaving appropriately in class.

Karen is typical too. She is focused on the goal of graduating her challenging teen from high school. Karen and many of the other parents I work with see the diploma as the prize at the end of a long and difficult journey. There’s this hope that graduating somehow correlates to being a young adult.

Unfortunately, the correlation is weak. The diploma is just one step of many that need to be taken to reach adulthood and self-sufficiency.

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Adulthood is the Goal, Not the Diploma

Guiding our kids to a safe and successful launch into adulthood is the goal. Like Mason, my son hated school and was becoming angry, bitter, unmotivated, and distrustful of all learning. My son has a long list of diagnoses including ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).

But when we finally let go of the goal of getting a diploma and began working with him on what he needed to become a self-sufficient adult, we began to make real progress.

We decided that he would get his GED. It was a surprisingly easy process and one that eliminated almost all stress for him and me. He started online classes at a community college and has an eventual goal of college.

We changed our focus from the diploma track to the adulthood track. And changing our focus changed everything. We figured out what he really needed to survive as an adult. Here are some of the important things we learned along the way.

Take an Inventory of All the Accommodations Your Special Needs Child Requires

Take an inventory of the accommodations your special needs child requires at school and at home. Here are some examples of accommodations that are fairly typical: more time on tests; fidgets for movement needs; headphones to reduce distractions; timers; permissions to email homework to teachers; preferential seating; and having teachers provide lecture notes.

My son needs headphones to focus on school work and can’t deal with a lot of noise or people around when he is trying to concentrate. Now he asks for what he needs. But he had to know what did and did not work for him before he could advocate for his needs.

The key here in terms of reaching the goal of adulthood is that my son now understands what he needs and how to ask for it. And he knows how to advocate for himself.

Help Your Teen Get Organized

There are apps for smartphones, tablets, and computers that can help plan out big projects. But, getting organized could be as simple as using checklists and calendar reminders.

Either way, work with your child to figure out what works and allow and encourage him to experiment. The key here is that he understands that being organized is an important part of adulthood and is something he should be working towards. Be patient, it may take him a while to get there.

Finally, keep in mind that what works for you may not work for him. For example, you may be comfortable with a written planner, but that may not work well for your teen.

Teach Your Teen How to Talk to People in Authority

Learning how to talk to teachers, coaches, and bosses in a mature way and to make requests of them is a life skill that everyone needs. Your child needs to know that, as an adult, he will no longer have people making sure that he has what he needs. It’s your child’s responsibility to do that now. He can’t be passive any longer.

Find a teacher or other adult who you think would be willing to help. Parents can talk to the teacher first and ask them if they would be willing to coach their child. It can be as simple as meeting and talking with this person for 15 or 30 minutes a week. The key is for him to practice talking in an adult-to-adult manner.

Don’t Rescue Your Child

Look for alternative ways that your child can accomplish the tasks of school and home. Do they need to scan and email homework to the teacher (instead of forgetting to turn it in)? Do they need to use a laptop in class? Could they attach a card or luggage tag to their sports bag with a list of what they need to play? Help them learn how to help themselves.

Don’t Belittle Your Child When They Mess Up

Saying things like, “No one is going to want to hire someone like you” isn’t helpful. No one responds well to criticism.

Instead, look for the emerging adult in your child. What is he or she doing well? Tell them about that. I try to see the big picture and to trust that my son will be a functional adult, even if it takes him longer to get there.

Don’t Plan Their Future For Them

While we need to set high expectations, that doesn’t always mean college. Many parents view not going to college like a failure instead of just a choice.

I tried to get my son a high school diploma, but he refused. I could have seen his refusal as an omen of a bad future, but eventually, I saw it as the powerful, important, and mature initiative that it was.

That may be the hardest part about watching our kids become adults—they make decisions we don’t always agree with, but they have the right and the responsibility to do so.

I have learned to trust my young adult son to create his own good life. That doesn’t mean I have given up on trying to influence him. Instead, it means that I have given him control. And as he figures out his adult life, he now knows that I have his back.

Related Content:
8 Tips for Parents of Children with ADHD
Parenting a Child With ADHD: 10 Ways To Improve Their Behavior


Anna Stewart is a family advocate, writer, speaker, facilitator and single mother of 3 unique kids. She is passionate about helping families learn to advocate WITH their children and teens and supporting those with AD/HD. Anna is the author of School Support for Students with AD/HD.

Comments (9)
  • abell
    I am dealing with this issue. I don't know what else to do at times. He is smart as a whip and can do the lessons but chooses not to and is always challenging authority. I find times where i want to come to his aide but then when iMore speak with the teachers hes been doing it all year. the thing to me is that they let him get away with stuff just as i did and that is why he doesnt take the situation seriously. I dont know how to turn it around and would love to know how i can help him with out enabling him. there are times i want to throw my hands up but we cannot turn in our parent card. God didnt give up on us but He lets us make our own choices.. Im frustrated.
  • BGberg31
    What date was this published? I want to use it as a source for a project.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      BGberg31 Thank you for your question.  This article was originally published on January 27, 2014.
  • Momto8
    I have been reading your articles. I am raising four teenagers that came to me at 1, 2, 4 and 10 years of age. Three are girls and our foster son is is almost 16 now. He is bright but probably has Adhd. Since January he has decidedMore that school isnot important as he does not want to go to University. He does not do assignments and has taken to skipping class or walking out after attendance and staying in the washroom for most of class. We told him if he did this again we would pull him from drivers educatuion.. Two days later he skipped class just because he felt like it. It seemed like a challenge. We have pulled him from drivers ed. And he acts like he does not care. We have been giving him consequences and chances over and over again all year and feel that if he is not respectful to teachers, is skipping class and not doing assignments then he is not mature enough to drive. We have also assured him that we are there for him and will help him with school work if he needs help. He is mostly friendly at home and usually respectful to us. Not sure what else to do to get him on track.....he is getting very low grades and in danger of failing.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      I can understand your frustration. It can be tough to know

      what more you can do when it seems as though everything you have done up to

      this point has not been effective. I’m glad to hear you have followed through

      with the consequence you had warned your foster son would happen. Sometimes the

      follow through can be the toughest part.  It may be helpful now to outline

      for your foster son what steps he would need to take to earn that privilege

      back. This may help motivate him to make better choices in the future. Keep in

      mind, however, that consequencing a child doesn’t always mean he’s going to

      make better choices. As his

      parent, you have control over setting the rules and expectations, how

      you hold your child accountable for his choices, and the ways you provide

      opportunities for improvement. The rest is really up to him because what you

      can’t control is the outcome. Only he can control the choices he makes. Know

      you are doing what you can to help him have a better future, even if you may

      not be seeing a lot of results in the present. We appreciate you writing in and

      hope you will continue to check in to let us know how things are going. Take


  • edwartfruitman

    Just because your children aren’t good in high school

    doesn’t mean they won`t be able to do anything in the future. Many great

    personalities had a hard time in school during their teenage and childhood.

    Follow these helpful tips to support children through such times.

  • Faith and hope

    My 18 year old high school student has three months left to finish. He has all F's despite contracts, help, and  numerous conferences with teaches. No school work is being completed expect the little work done in class. Now he is skipping school, on occasion and not attending detention despiteMore his agreement to serve. 
    We purchased a car for him a year ago and hesitated to take it away as he was attending school, but now he has numerous absences to make-up and the F's. 

    My husband spoke to the VP today and will attempt one more conversation with our son. I want to set a specific time , and tasks to complete in  one week to change, or we take his car and phone away, even though he might shut down and sleep in his room. 
    In addition he received a traffic violation and has no money to pay. I asked him to start doing chores to earn the money to pay the fine again with a time limit, not open ended pay me back when you get a job. 

    Any suggestions , can't imagine our life in May no diploma not job ect......
    mom thats exhusted

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Faith and hope
      Allowing your son the opportunity to turn his behavior around or
      lose his car and cell phone privilege is a good first step towards helping him
      meet his expectations. It is going to be most effective to have clear,
      measurable goals, such as “completing all homework for the week” and/or
      “attendingMore all classes”. It will also be beneficial to have a plan for how he
      would be able to earn those privileges back if he doesn’t meet his goals on the
      first week. For example, perhaps he is able to earn his phone daily by
      completing his homework or earn his car for the weekend by attending all of his
      classes for the week. We have several articles on ways you can deal with power
      struggles that are centered around school and performance.. A couple you may
      find helpful are 10 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Better in School & When You Should Let Your Child Fail: The Benefits of Natural Consequences. With all that said, I think the more pressing issue may be
      what steps you can take if your child doesn’t meet the requirements to
      graduate. Many parents are fearful of  what the future holds if their
      child doesn’t graduate from high school and wonder if he is going to live at
      home forever.  It may be helpful to develop a living agreement with your
      son, one that outlines what your expectations are for him if he continues to
      live in your home. This could include expectations you have around having a
      job, continuing his education, or helping
      out around the house. You may find this article, which includes a downloadable
      Living Agreement you can print off, useful: Ground Rules for Living with an Adult Child (plus Free Living Agreement). We appreciate you writing in and wish you the best of luck
      moving forward. Take care.

  • Just found your site, and read a bunch of your articles. It's nice to know I'm not alone. I am pretty much single parenting an adult child who refuses to grow up, and a twelve year old boy with ADD who has recently been having some problems in school. JustMore wanted to say thanks, I needed this!

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