Parenting Teens and Young Adults with ADHD - A Discussion with Dr. Ari Tuckman

Health Writer

During the high school years, teens live in a structured environment. High school provides a place to go each day; teachers and parents work to keep a student on track and assignments give a student a goal to achieve. But once high school has ended, students may feel lost with the loss of structure in their lives. Suddenly, teens and young adults are responsible for their daily lives, for finding a job, getting up each morning, paying their bills, attending college classes and keeping up with assignments with much less, or none, of the structure of high school. Many young adults fall short, wandering from job to job, floundering more with each passing day. Some will turn to self-medication, abusing drugs and alcohol, some will simply give up and others will simply go from day to day, trying to find their place in this world. No matter how an early adult with ADHD may attempt to navigate the world, it is apparent they still need direction and structure in their lives.

Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA is a Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in West Chester, PA. He has written numerous articles on many different aspects of living with ADHD as well as two books, More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians. Dr. Tuckman's latest book, More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD, provides a wealth of information on living with adult ADHD. According to Dr. Tuckman, this book strives to "tilt the odds of success, to make you more likely to do the right thing at the right time. Not all the time, but most of the time. Not perfect, but better. ADHD takes away your ability to be consistent, so the information and strategies in this book and in this podcast are here to give you back some of that consistency". Dr. Tuckman shared his thoughts with me on parenting a late teen/early adult with ADHD and discussed many of the problems associated with that situation. This is not a transcript of the interview, but has been rewritten to provide you with suggestions on helping your child. Dr. Tuckman has reviewed this article and has approved of the wording.

When parents see a young adult struggling, what should they do?

As a teen moves out of high school and enters the adult world, he or she seeks independence and the ability to control their own destiny. However, teens and young adults with ADHD may lack the awareness of the long-term consequences of their actions.

Parents often try to step in to provide direction and assistance, telling the young adult what to do and when to do it. This advice meets with resistance because the very idea of taking advice gives control to the parent and takes it away from the young adult. When independence is the goal and the main focus of the young adult, a parent staying involved in their daily life takes away that independence.

Parents, however, see a struggling child, not a floundering adult, and clamp down, staying involved in their teen or young adult's daily life, hoping to help him or her move toward a better situation. The reality is, however, that parents also get involved in order to relieve their own anxiety. How anxious they are determines how involved they become. Parents, therefore, need to look at their own feelings. How anxious do they feel about their child's life? Do they need to be that anxious? Are there areas where they can relax their expectations? For example, if a teen decides not to go to college, is that okay?

All decisions have consequences. Some decisions will create a harder situation than anticipated and teens with ADHD must learn through the pain of poor decisions. While it is hard for a parent to sit idly by and watch their child learn through pain, it is exactly this type of experience that will help them learn the lessons needed to navigate adulthood. Telling them about the pain they may experience is not enough; some teens and young adults with ADHD must feel the pain and learn life lessons the hard way. It is important for parents to let go enough to allow their children to experience the pain.

What steps can parents take to find a balance between fostering independence and still providing for their young adult children?

As parents did when their children were younger, even as young as elementary school, choosing a few areas to focus on and letting other things go can help. Nagging doesn't work. This approach can allow important topics to get lost in the conversations. As hard as it may be to choose your battles, it is an important step to helping to foster independence.

That is not to say that parents should not have expectations. But parents must be clear on their expectations. Be clear, be straightforward, and keep it simple. For example, a parent can indicate that a child must work X number of hours per week or make X number of dollars per week.

Parents can provide necessities, such as food and shelter, but cut off additional funds for non-necessities like cell phone service or money to go out with friends. These extras may be motivators for the young adult. He or she may want cell phone service enough to get or keep the part time or full time job to pay the monthly bill.

It can be helpful to have an occasional sit down discussion to talk about what the expectations are and the reasons behind the expectations.


Although grounding is not an option once a child reaches adulthood, there are still privileges that can be removed. Optimally, consequences should be discussed when going over expectations. For example, "We expect you to do XYZ. If you do not, ABC will happen."

Rationale is important in setting up the household rules but doesn't need to be there when enforcing the rules. Stating to your child in a calm, neutral way can also help. "You have not paid for your cell phone, therefore, it will be cut off as of today." Your child should already know how much the cell phone bill is and when it was due. If you have not received the money for the bill, the consequence is that the privilege is rescinded.

Parents need to be calm and matter of fact, not emotional. When parents are emotional, the message gets lost and children only hear that you sound crazy.

What To Do When Your Child Can't Seem to Hold a Job

There are two completely different reasons for not being able to stay at a job. The first is when someone is fired because of lack of ability or skills. When this happens, talk with your child about what happened. Ask why it didn't work out and help your child find ways to improve or gain skills. If that is not possible right now, talk about what other types of job he or she may be able to complete based on their existing skills. Many times our children do not really understand themselves at this point in their life and may end up taking jobs that are not right for them.

The second reason is when someone quits or gets fired for doing something purposely or doing something inappropriate, when he or she knows better. This type of getting fired is more in line with quitting.

When this happens, your teen/young adult needs to understand the consequences of not having a job and not having money coming in. He or she needs to feel what it is like to not have money to go out with friends, not have a cell phone, not have money to buy gas or use their car. Let your child know about these consequences and avoid providing money except in emergencies.

Your child may need to work on handling and tolerating frustration. Although at this point in his or her life, they may not fully appreciate that having gaps in employment can make it more difficult to find another job, it should still be discussed. When moving from job to job, or spending time without a job, a resume either shows gaps in employment or shows too many jobs. Your child needs to understand how this looks to a potential employer.

When Substance Abuse Comes into the Picture

Parents can set limits on drinking. When setting limits, explain a focus on functional abilities, not on merits or dangers of drinking. For example, drinking each night can interfere with their ability to get up on time for work, and can interfere with their ability to do their job well. When parents focus on the merits or dangers of drinking, it comes across as nagging.

It is appropriate for a parent to take away access to a car if it is believed a teen/young adult is drinking and driving, or will be drinking or using other substances.

Although teens/young adults will always feel that parents just don't understand, the parent, in good conscience, should not sit back and do nothing.

When Nothing Works

When everything you have done has produced no good or sliding backward, parents may have no choice but to ask a child to leave their home. Before resorting to this option, you may want to try,   "If you don't have a job by _____, then you have to leave."

When giving an ultimatum, parents need to find a way to convey the seriousness of the threat.

Helping Teens and Young Adults with Finances

Finances can be a source of much frustration for both the parent and the teen/young adult. If there is a lack of basic skills for creating a budget and paying bills on time, it is okay for a parent to step in to help. The parent should, however, not take over paying bills. It is alright for the parent to do it with, but not for, the child. Set a time each month to sit down together and let your child know you will help him or her, but it is their responsibility to do it. Make sure he or she is involved in the process.

It may be necessary to set up certain safeguards beforehand. You might consider lowering the limit on a credit card or closing the account in order to prevent the teen/young adult from digging themselves into a hole.

Teens and young adults with ADHD, however, often need to feel the pain of doing it the hard way. Learning from someone else's knowledge or mistakes is difficult. More often, the pain of doing it the hard way is the only way to learn the lessons of life.

To Go to College or Not

Parents can play a role in helping their child decide if college is for them. One of the things parents may want to consider is: to what extent have they already managed things on their own? If parents had to stand over them to do everything, they probably are not ready.

Remember that the goal is not to get them into school, but rather to get them out of school with a degree and a good experience.

A parent and teen can test their readiness to attend college by spending a semester or the first year at a local community college while living at home. Not having the distractions that come with living in a dormitory can help him or her succeed in college, build confidence and prepare for living away from home.

Sometimes, teens will believe they are ready for living away from home and attending college but parents aren't so sure. Parents should explain why they feel the teen needs more time. When talking with your child, use examples (from the last month to last six months) on why you believe they need more time at home. In addition to providing examples of why he or she may not be ready, give specifics on what behaviors are needed to show you he or she is ready. For example, talk about not getting out of bed each morning without someone helping, not handing in homework, not doing their own laundry, or not completing household chores. Write down measurable goals for your child to work toward to prove his or her independence.

Although teens and young adults may believe it is their life and parents no longer have a say in what he or she does, in reality, parents often pay for college or use their financial statements to secure loans or financial aid. Therefore, parents are still able to set the rules. Children must prove they are a worthy investment.

When Teens and Young Adults Choose not to Continue Treatment

For many parents, this area is especially difficult. Parents may want their child to continue taking medication or receiving another type of treatment. Parents may have seen the benefits of treatment and see the lack of focus and attention when treatment ends.

Instead of focusing on the treatment, focus instead on the end result. Review your expectations, such as having a job, paying for certain privileges, or completing chores around the house. If your child is able to keep up with these responsibilities without treatment, leave it be. If they are not able to, or are faltering, start over, setting expectations, reviewing expectations and creating consequences for not meeting those expectations.

Ari Tuckman is the author More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD.