Tips for Supporting Adult Children with ADHD

ADHD is highly heritable, which means you may well have children with ADHD.  As they age, how to support them becomes less clear, as parents need to let go of the organizing support they provided their ADHD child when younger, and embrace something new.  Here are tips for parents of adult children who wish to keep their relationships strong.

This post was inspired by a reader who wrote me earlier this year about her children – both of whom were diagnosed with ADHD as adults. She noted, with some regret, the “cost of high expectations” she and her partner had had for their children.  …there was a price to pay in the way they were raised...high academic expectations, expectations for college, etc. And for my son it was tough going through 4yrs in a business school with a lot of super charged, high testosterone type A's - many who have now gone on to super charged careers.

So they now tell me they have anxiety. Who can blame them? Add my own very perceivable angst in fretting over their academic performance until I found out about the ADD, and you can see where it all came from.” 

Aside from learning more about ADHD, what can you do to support your adult children with ADHD?

First, don't beat yourself up.  If this woman had known about her children’s ADHD, it’s unlikely she would have spent so much time pushing them through their school struggles.  But she didn’t know.  Her best bet now is to acknowledge she would have done it differently – embracing the ‘otherness’ of her kids – and then move on to what’s relevant today.

Acknowledge that anxiety and ADHD often go hand-in-hand – and that may not be comfortable, but it is ‘okay.’  Anxiety is a common co-existing condition for those with ADHD, for just the reason that this woman mentions - there is an increased likelihood of struggling and/or making mistakes when you have ADHD relative to the 'norm' of being efficient and having things come more easily.  This struggle leads those with (diagnosed or undiagnosed) ADHD to wonder if they will embarrass themselves or fail in a way that will lead others to judge them.  This is a reasonable question, as during childhood, this is exactly what happens to most kids with ADHD - teachers, parents, friends all judge behaviors that stray from the 'norm.'  Further, those with ADHD often get blindsided.  They are going along in their own way (and often in their own mind) and don't realize that disaster looms.  Have this happen enough, and you can get pretty skittish and/or anxious (and depressed.)

Those who love adult children with ADHD can experience anxiety, as well, as they observe the struggles their adult kids go through.  Watching a child choose a mate who may not treat them so well, struggle through college, or have trouble putting together an effective job search is painful.  You want to help, but know that at the core you cannot lead as you may have in the past, when your child was younger.

As a parent, your best course of action is to focus on accepting and loving your child for whom he or she is.  That means taking off the 'expectations' blinders, and setting aside some of the traditional paths you may have dreamed your child would follow.  Your child may be very bright, but the ADHD symptoms provide a roadblock to always demonstrating that intelligence at the time, or in the way, that others can best see.  If you, as the parent, are judgmental about the successes or struggles your child faces, then that child has no safe haven to go to where s/he is accepted solely because s/he 'is.'  Everyone needs that, simply to be mentally happy.  (And by judgmental, I mean either 'judging' or simply 'expressing disappointment' rather than being overtly supportive and eager for them to follow their path.)

This does not mean parents should lower their standards.  Expecting that a bright child finish college is different from hoping that s/he will finish in four years, or won't get any bad grades.  Requesting that your child be gainfully employed doesn't mean she has to be a banker or a lawyer, tied to doing many repetitive tasks that don’t fit well with ADHD.  Perhaps she will be an environmental pioneer of some sort and work mostly outside, instead.

I also don't mean you should abandon input, particularly if you see your child heading towards being unsafe (for example, moving towards alcohol or drugs to respond to anxiety or depression.)  I'm simply urging you to think as broadly and supportively as you can, and take a deep breath when tempted to 'push' your adult child with ADHD in a direction with which he will struggle.  You don't have to support hare-brained schemes, certainly, but you don't have to 'push' a child towards 'the norm,' either.

Here are some very tactical suggestions for dealing with anxiety and the challenges of adult ADHD:

  • Explore mindfulness training - the ability to be more aware of the feelings that are inside you, and to choose whether or not to engage with them or simply observe them and let them pass, can be exceptionally helpful for both parents and those with ADHD.  As an example, when an event makes you anxious, mindfulness training can help you observe that you are starting to feel anxiety and then make the decisions to self-calm
  • Encourage the ADHD person to fully optimize treatment for ADHD.  For more information on this, go to my online treatment guide - make sure to download the free chapters from Couple's Guide to Thriving with ADHD.
  • Create time to be together to simply celebrate your child and show him/her that you are engaged with what they are doing and that you love them unconditionally
  • Consider journaling to explore letting go of any long-held expectations you might have had about what your child should do professionally (for example "I've always thought you should be a doctor" even as that child struggles mightily in school.)
  • Stay engaged, and in the most positive way possible.  Do fun things together, celebrate your child's talents, etc.  Life can be one tangle after another for those with ADHD and it is a real gift when parents just 'let loose' and enjoy the moment with them.
  • Remind yourself regularly about all that is wonderful about your child (to stave off the urge to criticize, if you have it).  Some do this with gratitude journals, which I find a very effective tool for staying on the positive side when life is throwing you lemons.