Nurturing Communication With Your Young Adult
Many new high school and college grads leave the family nest in July. As young adults, they take their first career positions, move into apartments on their own or with friends, and move away from home. Parents who have loved and supported their children find this to be a time of intense change for their families as they seek to establish new relationships with their young adult children.
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 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 young adult years between 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 your young adult affected by ADHD many of these endeavors can be daunting and deeply affected by the symptoms of ADHD. Like many parents, you and your young adult child 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 you are learning to let go and have your young adult take on more responsibilities and problem-solving, your young adult may feel like she’s floundering and becomes 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 previous generations at this age, researchers are finding. This has a lot to do with cell phones enabling us to call or text more easily than before and the use of social media as a way of messaging with our families on a daily basis.
Your child is no longer a teenager, but a young adult—a change that includes renegotiating relationships within your family, Dr. Ramsay says. Whether your young adult lives with you or have his own home now, older rules and ways of doing things have to be adjusted for both of you.
“It’s redefining the adult-to-adult relationship between the parent and young adult,” Dr. Ramsay says. “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 adult children shared with them during those contacts, often increasing the amount of time they spent worrying on their adult children. The parents reported having better days when their adult children shared good or happy information and a more negative mood for the day when the adult child shared unhappy or stressful information, which often continued into the next day.
“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
Dr. Ramsay suggests that families intentionally create time to visit to strengthen relationships and improve communication.
“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 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, 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, of the Sutter Palo Alto Medical Foundation 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 advice 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: