8 Tips for Supporting a College Student with ADHD

"Help!  My 20 year old just got diagnosed with ADHD and we are falling into many of the patterns you describe with ADHD and non-ADHD partners.  I recently punished her for something and she's so mad at me she moved out.  I'm worried to death because she is about to embark for 4 year college, and has had trouble even taking our local college courses and passing.  What do I do?"

This is a synopsis of an email I recently received from a worried mother who is trying to figure out how to strengthen her relationship with her now adult daughter and help her survive college.  She is understandably worried - many students with ADHD fail in their first year as they move away from the structure mom and dad have provided at home and have to 'make it' on their own for the first time.  They have trouble organizing themselves effectively for college, and keeping themselves from being carried away by the temptations and distractions of college social life.

The good news is that the daughter has a diagnosis now, and has access to both treatment and support she might not otherwise have had.  I'm hoping she and her parents might read my e-book on optimizing the treatment of adult ADHD (see the home page for this free download!)  The bad news is that the mother/daughter relationship is in tough shape at the moment.  It needs to be changed.

8 tips for helping your ADHD college student

  1. Move out of your old parenting role - the one in which you told your child what s/he should do, and expected it to happen.  Your child is in charge of his/her life now, and your acknowledging their power to choose will strengthen your relationship.  If you have information you want them to know, offer it up for your child's review, with an overt understanding that it is up to your child to decide what to do with the information.  (Note:  this doesn't apply to finances.  If you are paying the bills or there is a scholarship involved, you have every right to dictate the terms of that assistance, including expected GPA to continue (the case with many merit scholarships), how much your child must contribute and what happens if s/he doesn't meet the terms.)
  2. Try not to have pre-conceived expectations about what your child 'should' do for a career.  It's particularly important that those with ADHD pursue what naturally interests them, as this helps them stay motivated, in spite of their ADHD.  I know one young adult with ADHD who has gone into organic farming (likes the outdoors and exercise) while another who has become a circus acrobat (and is much happier now that she is no longer trying to make it in an office job.)
  3. Stay in touch - not to oversee what your child is up to, but to listen to his or her stories of success.  So call or text regularly - but not TOO regularly!  If s/he says something that worries you ("I got really, really drunk last night...") don't give a lecture about bad choices, just make yourself available as a back up.  ("Are you all right?")
  4. Ask...don't assume.  If you just saw a really great book on ADHD treatment, or are curious about the resource center at your child's college, ask them if it's okay if you send the book along, or do a bit of research about programs at their college (with a promise to share anything of interest you find.)  This helps change the nature of your relationship from one of power (parent) to one of less power (child) to a relationship that says "you are in charge of your own life now...I'm just here to support and love you as I can."  This is a hard shift for many parents to make, particularly if they are concerned that a child is going to stumble.  Just remember - your child is going to make his or her decisions no matter what you do...so what you are really doing here is positioning yourself as a loving resource for a time when/if they are ready to ask for your help.
  5. Don't discipline.  Once your child is an adult, you are officially out of the disciplining business.  For better or worse, your child gets to learn from his/her mistakes.  There are some exceptions to this one - if your child is becoming addicted to a substance or breaking the law, an intervention is often appropriate (this isn't really disciplining...but similar enough to mention here.)
  6. Think in terms of giving gentle 'advice,' but know that your child might not take it.  Parents have a lot of accumulated wisdom.  But that doesn't mean your child will accept yours.  Think back to your own early 20s and you'll know what I mean!
  7. Celebrate successes!  Your child may or may not struggle, but there will be many successes.  Make sure to notice them and tell your college student how interested you are in what they are doing and how proud you are of him or her.
  8. Ask about grades each quarter...not so you can oversee them, but so you can help or encourage your student to get the resources needed if s/he is falling behind.  Don't be judgmental (as your student will stop sharing their grades.)  Rather, be pro-active and helpful.