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Thoughts around a generation's journey to adulting...

Keeping ADHD in Perspective

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When I connect with situations where young adults are struggling to find their way, maybe 3 times out of 5 a parent tells me that the adult child has ADHD. So I would guess that there is some correlation between ADHD and “adulting” challenges.  

I think we should talk about it, though — because when young people with ADHD struggle on the road to “adulting,” their ADHD sometimes looms overly large in the narrative, with everyone involved perhaps being too quick to blame the coming-of-age shortcomings on that one factor. In fact, I think ADHD can become an unwelcome but convenient red herring that hides or excuses underlying adulting problems that should be addressed. 

So, I pause when mom or dad paint a picture of a young person, not in school or working, stuck developmentally or wandering through their days without purpose or structure, with a label floating over their head that reads “ADHD.” I take note of the ADHD diagnosis, but I don’t put undue weight on it.  

Johnny is blind?? Wow. That’s a serious thing. I can see how that is an extraordinary challenge.  
Johnny has ADHD? OK got it. That sucks. What else is going on?

And — at the risk of picking a fight — I have observed that for “wandering” young adults, ADHD can be a thing that rears its head situationally…  

“Did you remember to register for that class and send a thank you card to Grandma?”
“Nope. ADHD. Sorry.”
“Did you WRITE IT DOWN like we talked about??”
“Uh, maybe.” 

“Did you remember to meet Bobby at BW3 at 8:00 and call that cute girl back?”
“Hell yeah.”  

Of course, WE ALL are inclined to forget about or avoid the things that we see as an unwelcome bother – and we follow up promptly on the things that make us happy. Further, that we conjure up “difficulty points” for the things we don’t want to do, and we easily overcome obstacles to do things that excite us. 

“Did you make soup for lunch?”
“No. I hate that damned can opener and I don’t like that soup.” 

“Did you make soup for lunch?”
“Yep. I hate that damned can opener – but I was really hungry and the soup looked good so I figured it out.” 

I propose that when we are helping a young person with ADHD struggles on the road to “adulting,’ we should dig deeper to discover if they simply don’t find the prospective world of adulting to be all that compelling, or they are just not that motivated about the topics du jour. 

Let’s consider a totally true story. I know a young woman (let’s call her Juliette) who, to the dismay of her family, wandered in a diagnosed ADHD / vaping / weed-enhanced haze from the age of 22 until she was 27. Shame about Juliette – she has ADHD. Then one day Juliette decided that she wanted to be a skilled nurse and she was serious about it. She went back to school, prepared her application to a challenging nursing program, changed up a lot of her personal behaviors, busted her butt, got into that program and graduated with honors. Now at age 31 she is an emergency room nurse who takes great pride in her work.   … and of course Juliette still has ADHD. 

When I work with clients who have been diagnosed with ADHD, we start with no emphasis on the ADHD. We just talk about their life journey and experiences. When the ADHD challenge comes up, we consider it a bit and then agree to set it aside for the moment.  

Who are you? What are you great at? What do you suck at? What excites you? What pisses you off? Who inspires you? Where are you going? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? 

When we discuss past setbacks, the ADHD diagnosis often comes up – but when pressed with the “5 Whys” (google it) to REALLY explore a specific setback, we frequently arrive at an outburst of honesty that goes something like “I didn’t want to do it anyways! THEY MADE ME DO IT. It was a pain in my ass!” 

Ah, we recognize. Perhaps the problem in that case wasn’t ADHD. And I find that we can have that conversation over and over again, until the young adult comes face to face with the fact that they have just not yet figured out who really they are or what they really want – what they are WILLING TO WORK FOR — to the extent that they would get excited about it.  (check out this recent post on helping young people to figure out who they are and what they want)

Then we get to the primary endeavor of developing a vision for their life that genuinely excites them, and plans to make that life a reality.  We work on unlocking their passions and ambitions, mental models and belief systems. Along the way we capture learnings from past experiences (including the ADHD thing) – and we incorporate those into our anticipating the road ahead. Then once a vision for a successful and happy life with ADHD comes into focus, it is time to talk seriously about and make plans for how they will manage their ADHD. 

By the time a person with ADHD is in their twenties they have LOTS of experience with that condition. They have been managing their ADHD for years, and they have likely gotten related guidance on it from a number of expert sources. They know what works for them and what doesn’t; they know which approaches will help them to get things done and which won’t. So we pull that experience out in dialogue and build on it. With a bit of facilitation, they are totally able to have that conversation – maybe even eager to — especially if they are talking to a trusted coach. They know what they are capable of and what they are not, and – when pressed to consider it – what they COULD be capable of if they really wanted to be. 

If you could be seriously happy in this future vision and you REALLY want to pull this off, what do you need to do? You have been dragging this ADHD thing around in your head for years. You know it inside and out. How would you manage it? You tell me. Together we make managing their ADHD challenge an active part of the success plan for the road ahead. And we do it in a way that they have ownership, a sense of momentum and belief in the possibilities. 

When ADHD is a significant, worrisome consideration for the road ahead, we try to sort between ADHD challenges for getting education or certifications and any ADHD issues with doing the job itself when the gun sounds. It can help to see those as separate topics. The challenge may be just getting the certifications much more than doing the actual job itself.  

In the end, it’s possible that their future may be a line of work that is less dependent on the kinds of focus and cognitive performance ADHD impacts. There are probably plenty of great teachers, welders, highway patrol officers, machinists, roofers, nurses, therapists, fish farmers, and restaurant owners with ADHD.  

Regardless of the life destination, I propose that it is WAY more likely that a young person will manage their ADHD effectively while working to build a life that is interesting for them than it is to just go find some crap job or doing the thing that someone else thinks they should do. With good facilitation, the young adult can get on with building their life with positive energy and momentum, rather than wandering in an ADHD funk. 

Anyone who would like to connect with me or explore these topics more is invited to visit my website at www.otoolecoaching.com.

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Martin O'Toole

Marty is a great listener who asks a lot of curious questions. When he asks about your day or how you are doing, he really wants to know. And he comes equipped with a supply of anecdotes and stories that keep the time together interesting.

He is practical and results-oriented. He believes in showing up every day to do the work and learning by experience. He preaches action orientation, resilience, entrepreneurship, and the importance of good decision-making.