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It’s Hard To Let Go of the ADHD College Student

ADHD and College

Parents Letting Go

By Dr. Edward Hallowell and David Keevil, Psy.D., The Hallowell Center

Going to college is a rite of passage.  The time for college finally arrives, and with considerable fanfare our children go: they go away from home, friends, and family, and go toward a “grown up” life of freedom and independence.

As this time arrives, parents and children often have powerful and competing urges on both sides: to hold on tight and never let go, or to sever all connections and begin anew.  Of course many parents tend toward the former urge, while their adolescents yearn for the latter.

When you’re a parent, so many instincts protest against letting go.  The world is often a cruel and dangerous place, and you are all too aware of your child’s newness – their youth and fragility.  When you’re young, it’s blissful to dream of a new life that is entirely yours.  And so much in our world supports that dream: songs, sitcoms, the exalted fables of popular culture

If your child has ADHD or LD, you may feel even more acutely the urge to hold tight.  Your child may be impulsive; he or she may seem emotionally unprepared for the challenges ahead, and may have only a vague understanding of the sometimes tedious and always disciplined work required at college.  You may be particularly aware of all the effort “behind the scenes” that went into getting your child even this far – the homework assistance, the teachers meetings, the evaluations and treatments – the countless hours of “extra help” along the way.

Your child with ADHD or LD may yearn particularly for the independence of college life.  He or she may be awfully tired of feeling dependent on all the help you and others have offered.  College may feel like a chance to “throw off the yoke” and finally succeed on one’s own, free of dependence.

This tension – between the urge to hold on and the urge to let go – is very real for all of us who are parents, and it is very real for our children.  I suppose the good and bad news is that this tension is life-long: we never really outgrow these competing urges.  They just take on different shapes and sizes as we all continue to grow and mature.

What I want to tell you here – something I’m sure you already understand – is that the way to resolve this conflict is not to choose one side or the other – not to hold on even tighter, or pull away so hard that you are impossible to hold – but to mix them together, to balance them.  In order to do this, you need to stay connected.

What do I mean by “stay connected”?  I mean three things.  First, hold on to what you have.  Second, stay flexible.  And third, grow new connections.  Let me tell you a little more about each of these ideas.

Hold on to what you have.

Maybe it looks as if I’m saying that you shouldn’t let go.  Actually, some letting go will be essential, for both parent and child.  Parents will probably unpack the car, move things into their child’s room, get a last hug, and drive away.  Students will spend their first night in a college dorm, go to their first campus party, register for classes, and set their own study schedule.   But in the midst of all this necessary letting go, remember to hold on to what’s important from the past as well.

What is important from the past?  Every new college student will have his or her own list, but I hope most lists will include these headlines:

  • Your parents love you, and will continue to love you no matter what;
  • You have a home to return to, where you are welcome;
  • You have friends who care about you;
  • You have specific strengths and abilities you carry with you;
  • You have learned many essential skills for coping with your ADHD or LD, and college is a tremendous opportunity to learn and use many more.

Here’s an idea for parents: as your child with ADHD or LD prepares for college, devote some time to making a detailed, truthful, loving, and relentlessly supportive list of what your child will “carry” to college, and offer it to your child as a gift.  And here’s an idea for new college students with ADHD or LD:  make your own list of what you will carry with you, as a personal, intimate reminder of what is strong and sustaining in your life.

Each list is a testament to the connections that will endure and sustain.

Stay Flexible

In nature, the best connections – the strongest and most sustaining – are flexible.  Think of how a tree sways in the wind, allowing it to stay connected both to the ground and to the air, through its branches and leaves. Connections that are rigid tend to snap and crack apart under strain.  Flexibility allows us to grow and flourish.

What does this mean for parents, and for their child with ADHD or LD?  It means not to attach too rigidly to any one thing – to any one expectation, to any one vision of the future, to any one marker of “success.”  Think “trial and error”; think “a different drummer”; think “two steps forward, one and a half steps back.”

One of the exciting and dismaying things about people with ADHD is that we do not always follow the pack.  We may act impulsively, or “forget” to act at all.  We may make associative connections between seven different ideas, but drop the one that’s on next Monday’s test.  These and many other behaviors can lead to difficulty and risk.  And they can lead to creativity and discovery.

Parents: if your child goes off to college and marches through in four years with a high grade point average, then good for your child!  But this may well not happen.  And if you tie your happiness to such expectations – if your expectations are too rigid – then you may well be disappointed, or unhappy, or angry, or dismissive.  As a result, the connection between you and your child, and between your child and his or her positive self-understanding, may snap and crack apart.  And that’s not a good thing for anyone.  Keep the connections flexible, pliant, and resilient.  Cut each other slack, practice forgiveness, and keep your sense of humor.

And expect surprises.  Life is always a dress rehearsal, and people flub their lines and miss their cues all the time.  People with ADHD or LD may play a love scene when we expected tragedy, or start tap-dancing during the soliloquy.  There’s nothing to be gained by throwing them off the stage.  Rather, find out how your script might be re-written, and how they can accustom themselves to the action around them.  Stay flexible!

Grow New Connections

Many adolescents with ADHD or LD who head off to college have already received a great deal of help over the years.  They may be sick of help!  But if they avoid help at college they will be missing one of the most important lessons college has to teach: how to find and use help.  Think of preparing for college as preparing to find and use help: from teachers, from tutors, from other students, from administrators, from friends and family.

Finding and using help is not the same thing as offering excuses, or getting others to do your work.  It is the same thing as growing new connections.  College is a community of learners.  The vast majority of human beings learn best in community  – we learn from others and with others.  A student who has something to prove by “going it alone” is mistaking a lack of connections for maturity.

I recommend getting the K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disablities.   One of the most wonderful things about this guide is that it helps students and their parents plan the best ways to find and use help.  With this Guide you can map out new, essential connections: with colleges and universities who understand your needs; with appropriate support services on campus; with departments and faculty members who will understand, challenge and respect you.  Use this guide to start planning now, and to further develop your ability to find and use help.  Ask yourself: what kind of help might I need?  How will I recognize when I need it?  How will I go about finding it?  How will I ask, and who will I ask?  The answers you discover will change and grow as you change and grow.  Remember, stay connected, and stay flexible.

In Closing

Bon voyage!  You have an exciting trip ahead of you, climbing to the top of your own particular mountain.  If you have ADHD or LD the path may be particularly challenging and the air particularly thin at times.  But you will get there.  The people who love and respect you will not stand on the summit with you – that is yours alone.  But I hope and trust they will help you along the paths you choose (and the paths that choose you), by remaining connected with you, assisting you in ways you find helpful, and sharing with you the wonder and excitement of your discoveries.

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