Changing the Way You Communicate with Your Young Adult

 ADHD Weekly, November 4, 2021


Many parents whose young adult children are either attending college or university or have moved to their own homes—maybe even to different cities or states—are anticipating their return, if only for a few days, in the next few months. For many families, this is exciting, but in some families strained communication can make these get-togethers difficult.

Parents and young adults often find the changes that come during a person’s twenties to be a time of intense change for their families as they seek to establish new relationships with each other.

Learning new communication skills is frequently at the top of the family’s list, especially when the young person’s ADHD symptoms and social and academic needs have shaped the family’s communication style throughout high school and college.

“For the parents the hard work is pulling back and allowing young adults to find their way and solve problems on their own,” says J. Russell Ramsay, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and a former member of CHADD’s professional advisory board. Dr. Ramsay continues, “Hopefully, with new communication, it sets up the spirit of everyone wanting the same thing. But [the new relationship] is still being defined.”

Emerging into adulthood

The years between ages 20 and 30 are frequently referred to as a time of “emerging adulthood” when young adults are establishing their identities, furthering their education and career training, setting up new homes, and forming relationships and families. For those affected by ADHD, many of these endeavors can be daunting and deeply affected by the symptoms of ADHD. Many parents and their adult children may be struggling to find new ways to talk with each other and create new relationship boundaries, on both sides.

“It’s that notion that there are so many facets to adulthood—and that we’re trying these on for size,” Dr. Ramsay explains. “It’s a time of life transition. It’s a time of immaturity in which we can make some decisions that have big effects on our lives. At the same time, you’re the adult child of adult parents. You’re legally an adult but you’re still trying on these growing experiences.”

As parents let go and young adults take on more responsibilities and problem-solving, many young adults feel like they’re floundering. Some become overwhelmed by first-time experiences of success and failure. Learning when to offer advice and when to wait until asked for help is part of the parent’s struggle during this growing experience.

“The hard thing for the young adult with ADHD is taking on progressively more responsibilities and taking on more things nobody likes doing,” Dr. Ramsay says. “The hard thing for parents is to step back.”

Learning new ways to communicate

Dr. Ramsay suggests that families intentionally create time to visit to strengthen relationships and improve communication. This includes time outside of holiday celebrations.

“One thing that can be helpful, and it’s a good communication strategy for anyone and especially when one has ADHD, is to just have regular check-ins,” he says. “There’s a chance to see how things are going. It works best if it can be a set day or time and part of the weekly routine.”

If there is a bigger concern or a problem that needs discussing, he recommends setting up a special appointment, separate from the weekly visit by phone or video conferencing, to discuss that concern.

Dr. Ramsay says parents can help improve communication by allowing their young adults with ADHD to receive feedback from their environments, including friends and supervisors. Doing more listening than speaking can help, as their young adult works through a situation. But it can leave the parent uncomfortable.

“As much as it may pain the parent, it’s getting the concern on the record [by stating the concern once] and then letting it; that’s one of the difficult times,” he says. “When it does get to more sensitive discussion of issues, it’s important for empathy on both sides. It’s a little more complicated by the effects of ADHD. For parents, it’s remembering what it is like for the young adult, especially when they have ADHD. For the young adult, to be able to appreciate the parents’ concerns and need for information.”

Nancy L. Brown, PhD, the director of the Behavioral Health Service Line for Sutter Health has some suggestions for parents in fostering those communication skills:

  • Keep your young adult involved in your life and home (such as planning vacations and making summer plans).
  • Share stories about your own transition into adulthood (noting that the world was different when you were your adult child’s age).
  • Be available when they call or text. Offer advise only when asked for it.
  • Do not “fix” your young adults’ problems. Ask what they have done to resolve a problem, point them in the right direction and support their attempts to solve problems on their own.
  • Welcome your young adult home and celebrate the time your family can spend together. You might need to extend invitations to your young adult child.
  • Try to just listen, be compassionate, and remind them you are proud of them and love them unconditionally.

The new adult-to-adult relationship

Dr. Ramsay says he reminds parents that this time of transition is an opportunity to create a healthy lifelong relationship with your adult child. Many of the skills and traditions established now will continue throughout the rest of your lives.

“It’s ongoing,” he says. “That’s pretty much for how the relationship will be defined. And it will change as life changes, with jobs, marriage, children. Any one moment might be frustrating, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is ruined or we’ll never be able to work this out. This is still a team approach.”

For more reading:

How have you and your young adult child kept the lines of communication open?