Keep Communication Going After Graduation

 ADHD Weekly, June 15, 2023

The weeks following graduation, whether it’s from high school or college, bring dramatic changes as young adults prepare to leave the family home and establish their first independent residence. Parents who supported their children through all the challenges of ADHD may find this an intense change, as they and their young adults seek a new relationship with each other.

Learning new communication skills is frequently at the top of the family’s list, especially when the young adult’s ADHD symptoms and social and academic needs shaped the family’s communication style throughout their educational years.

“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, director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Ramsay is a former member of CHADD’s professional advisory board.

“Hopefully, with new communication, it sets up the spirit of everyone wanting the same thing,” he says. “But [the new relationship] is still being defined.”

First steps into adulthood

The ages between twenty and thirty 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 young adults with ADHD, many of these milestone endeavors can be daunting and are deeply affected by their ADHD symptoms. Like many parents, he says, you and your young adult may struggle to find new ways to talk with each other and create new relationship boundaries.

“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. You’re legally an adult, but you’re still trying on these growing experiences.”

For parents, it’s a time of learning to let go and have their young adult take on more responsibilities and problem-solving. The young adult may feel like they’re floundering and 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 things 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.”

Greater communication can include greater emotional stress

Parents and young adults tend to talk more often than they did in the 1990s or even the 2000s, researchers are finding. This has a lot to do with cell phones enabling families to call or text more easily than before.

Your child is no longer a teenager, but a young adult—a change that includes renegotiating relationships within your family, says Dr. Ramsay. Whether a young adult lives with their family or has their own home now, older rules and ways of doing things will have to be adjusted for both parents and young adults.

“It’s redefining the adult-to-adult relationship between the parent and young adult,” Dr. Ramsay explains. “It’s always going to be a parent/child relationship, but it will be different.”

Researcher Karen L. Fingerman, PhD, and her colleagues studied communication between millennial young adults and their parents, including how often they talked, texted, and messaged one another. She found that they contacted each other five to six days of the week on average. The frequent contact had the result of greater emotional sharing between the generations. Dr. Fingerman notes that parents were more likely to be deeply emotionally affected by the things their young adults shared with them during those contacts. Parents reported having better days when their adult children shared good or happy information and a more negative mood for days when they shared unhappy or stressful information.

“Parents reported more negative relationship quality when they communicated with children via phone or text message,” Dr. Fingerman writes. “By contrast, in-person parent-child contact was not significantly associated with more negative relationships. A positive parent-child interaction appeared to ‘mitigate the effects’ of a negative one no matter which adult child caused the initial parental upset on a given day.”

Learning new ways to communicate

“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,” Dr. Ramsay 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, Dr. Ramsay 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 adult 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, as Dr. Fingerman noted in her research, 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 go; that’s one of the difficult times,” he says. “When it does get to more sensitive discussion of issues, it’s important for [there to be] 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.”

The new adult-to-adult relationship

Dr. Ramsay reminds parents that this transition is an opportunity to create a healthy lifelong relationship with their emerging adult. 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 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.”

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Join the discussion: How have you and your young adult kept the lines of communication open?