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.
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 He’s either sullen and withdrawn, or angry and loud.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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.