Help! My “adult” child with ADHD is crashing and burning out in the real world!

I hear a lot from the parents of teens who left home as soon as they could (usually right after graduation from high school) and now are facing some pretty tough circumstances in their lives, yet they won’t listen to reason or advice—and it’s stressing their parents out!  Here’s one that came up recently:

My daughter is 23. She has struggled with ADHD her entire life and it has only gotten worse. She dropped out of college, goes from job to job because she eventually gets terminated for being late or missing a shift, has had multiple car accidents, owes thousands in fines to the DMV for ignoring parking tickets and traffic violations and recently got a DUI which she tried to cover up and missed her court date. We have put an exhaustive amount of time and energy and resources into parenting this child. Psychologists, psychiatrists, positive reinforcement techniques throughout her childhood, holding her accountable for her actions… She moved out at the age of 18 a month before her high school graduation to avoid being grounded for missing curfew. However, we have still tried to be supportive without enabling. At my wits end. How do you help an adult child that doesn’t learn from their mistakes?!

Another parent was at her wits end because her son, now 18, is in denial of his diagnosis, refuses medication and help of any kind— and since he’s 18 he is considered an adult so her hands were tied in terms of “forcing” him to get medical treatment. She wanted to know how to cope with all of that.

My response to these parents:

I had good news and bad news for these moms.

First the bad news…unfortunately, there isn’t anything you can do to help an adult (with or without ADHD) unless/until they want or ask for help. Sure, you can offer information and advice, but in the end, it’s up to them—they have to decide what to do; their choices, their consequences.  Until/unless they  get to a point where they decide for themselves that “enough is enough” (usually when things are bad enough that they realize they need to start to make different choices), there is nothing a parent can do to change their behavior.

The good news is: eventually, most of these kids DO get there (except usually it’s not on our time frame or in the way we as parents wish or hope for them).  And usually they get there not BECAUSE of what we tell them, but in spite of it.

Case in point: when my son with ADHD moved out after high school, he crashed and burned too. I tried really hard to help and advise him and but it all fell on deaf, stubborn ears. He made some really bad choices and had some bad consequences…and I was beside myself not knowing what to do or how to help him. I felt helpless and scared.

When we talk about it now (he’s in his late 20s now, and is a happy, responsible, productive young man—WHEW!!), he says it best: the hard lessons and horrible consequences he experienced as a teen and young adult with ADHD were actually a huge gift in disguise. According to him, at the time when he was doing his worst and getting in the most trouble, there was absolutely NOTHING I could have said or done that would have made a difference because at the time, he truly believed that he knew everything and that I knew nothing and he believed he was fully capable of making sound decisions (when in fact, even he will admit now that he was about as far from ‘capable’ as you could get!).

The bottom line was that he simply had to learn and figure things out on his own, (even though looking back, it’s clear that the way he learned was definitely “the hard way”).

I asked him what exactly it was that got him on a different path and he said that one day he just got to a point where he did not want to keep having the same results in his life, so he decided he needed to change what he was doing.

I wish I could tell you that all the while he learning his lessons, I was cool, calm and collected. Ha! The truth is, I was a basket case most of the time. It’s terribly difficult for us as parents to sit back and watch our kids (no matter what their age!) make mistakes and get in trouble—we are wired to protect. But I now know without a doubt that is critically important that we parents do whatever we can to allow our kids to experience the consequences of their actions and decisions because at the end of the day, those consequences are what will ultimately be the reason they decide to do things differently in their lives, not our nagging, not our advice, and certainly not our saving them from the hard stuff.

It may take a long time for your teen to get to that “wake up call” moment. (Keep in mind that kids with ADHD are several years behind developmentally than their peers the same age without ADHD, so even though they’re chronologically in their 20s, they’re really a teenager still in the way their brains processes information and the way they react to things.) But the bottom line is that there isn’t anything you can do to speed this up and in the meantime, you have to save your sanity and get on with your life as best you can.

The only thing you CAN control: YOU

Here are some things you can do while your young adult figures out things on his/her own:

Redefine your role as “parent”. I know that we never stop being parents, but our “job” as parents evolve as our kids get older. When our kids become adults, instead of teacher or protector, our role shifts to mentor and advisor–which means we are there to offer advice and help IF they ask us.  (But keep in mind, there is a fine line between helping and enabling  so you must set firm limits and boundaries with yourself and with your young adult about what you will and won’t do in the name of “helping” (like rescuing and bailing out, for instance), and stick to them).

Take care of you. Even though stepping back is the right thing to do, it’s not an easy thing to do. Seek out support and get help when needed to cope with your inevitable (and totally normal) feelings of guilt and worry and to help you get through your temptation to rescue and enable. (If you want some one on one help, I’d love to chat with you! Click HERE to schedule a FREE 30 minute call.)

Also, now that your son or daughter has moved out, it’s the perfect time to create a new life for yourself! Raising a child with ADHD is exhausting and stressful and often doesn’t leave a lot of time for your own pursuits. Now that your child is out of the house, it’s time to figure out what you want your life to look like. What hobbies or interests did you put on the back burner that you would enjoy pursuing again? It’s time to fill your life with things that bring you peace and joy. You deserve it!

Focus on your relationship. You don’t have to like or condone what your teen is doing or the choices they’re making, but that doesn’t mean you should cut off contact or communication with your son or daughter. It’s important to try to maintain as positive a relationship as you can with them. Recognize and focus on their strengths and talents, spend quality time together that doesn’t include discussing your opinions about their choices.  Show them you still love them despite their choices and actions and they will be much more likely to come to you when they finally realize that you actually did know what you were talking about all along!!