I Took Depression & ADHD to College (Thanks Mom & Dad)


I Took Depression & ADHD to College (and How My Parents Let Go)

I Was A Typical Complex Teenager

From the moment my parents finished helping me move into my college dorm, I wanted them to leave. As a teenager with ADHD (and, at that time, undiagnosed Depression), my irritability and I’m-embarrassed-just-by-being-seen-with-them levels were spiking. At the time, I didn’t realize what a difference they’d made in helping me get there in the first place, or how essential they’d be to my long-term success.

Once classes started, my newfound freedoms quickly became unanticipated problems. Without mom nagging me to do my homework every night, or dad knocking on my door four or five times each morning (and then pouring cold water on my face after realizing that “Okay, I’m up!” meant absolutely nothing), I started to struggle.

So how did my first semester go? Let’s just say, in a class designed specifically to teach time management practices, I had trouble managing my time. Because the only one responsible for me -- was me.

I Resisted Accommodations

As a kid, I never wanted to be different. I wanted to be normal like everyone else, and the ‘special treatment’ of accommodations felt like cheating or a cop-out. I resisted getting accommodations except for the minimum -- being able to type up assignments, and teachers making sure I knew my assignments and turned in my homework. I was always ashamed that I had to take medication (starting in the first grade), and by my freshman year of college, I still didn’t want anyone to know. “I made it this far without help,” I’d argue. “Why bother now?”

Change Started With Me, But Only Because of My Parents

It turns out I wasn’t the only one. A recent study found that 55% of students with access to accommodations reported not using them -- because they saw the help as unnecessary, they didn’t want aid different from “typical” students, or they were not aware that they could get assistance. I was in all three categories.

After that arduous first semester, my mother encouraged me to look into these services. Begrudgingly, I agreed. It was the first time I’d ever heard of extra time on tests, distraction-reduced test settings, recorded lectures, and note-takers. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken advantage sooner.

Receiving accommodations was like putting on prescription glasses for the first time. I got a room to myself, a computer to type up my answers, zero distractions and more than enough time. So while I was initially opposed to the idea , I would not have known such resources existed were it not for my parents. I’m thankful for them, and for myself for eventually getting off my high horse.

Letting Go Doesn’t Mean Letting Go For Good

I’m sure that it is difficult to let go when you’re a parent, but the good news is your role doesn’t end when college begins. You can establish a healthy balance between continuing to be involved in your kids’ lives and allowing them to learn for themselves what’s best for them. So before that dreaded departure date and the first day of classes, you and your child can work together to ensure a smooth transition.

Suggestions to consider BEFORE college:

  1. What’s Already in Place. If you know what helped your child to thrive in the past, let your child know. Help your child become aware of what has already been working, and strive to replicate that in the new environment.
  2. Teach Your Child To Ask For Help. Most young adults don’t want to ask their parents for help. They may mistake it as a sign of weakness, or fear that it will only worry or upset you or cause you to become even more overbearing.
  3. Get to Know Your Child. If you don’t know what your teenager struggles with, it will be hard to help them learn to manage it. Understand when they tend to experience moodiness or high energy. Listen for mentions of racing thoughts, or trouble with sleep. Pay attention and help your child know themselves, so that you can partner to figure out when something is just a phase, or when it might be more serious.

Suggestions to consider ONCE at college:

  1. Establish a Weekly Call Time. Every Sunday at 9pm, my parents would call to hear about my week and how I was doing. Sure, I’d call them sporadically during the week when I needed things (ex. “How do you write a check?”), but having that set time and sticking to it ensured that I wouldn’t stray too far and that we’d stay connected. They’d listen to my voice and know what kind of mood I was in. Today’s technology allows you to Skype or FaceTime. While communicating, watch body language or listen for social cues indicating that something may be amiss.
  2. Use social media respectfully to stay connected. Follow your kids on whatever social media they’re using, and have fun with them there. Pay attention to their quirks and habits, the kind of stories and images they share, etc. But don’t just hide behind a screen waiting for trouble. Social media is your friend. Think about it: you’re now able to watch your child from miles away, slowly becoming an adult in ways your parents couldn’t witness. So if your child posts a picture that makes you laugh, bring it up in conversation. Gauge their moods over time and use it to be supportive.
  3. Don’t overreact. If you are ‘watching’ your child on social media, don’t engage each time something concerns you. You do not want your child to feel compelled to delete or block you. Your role is to monitor, and connect -- but not to react. Pay attention to any red flags (e.g. if over a couple weeks, their posts shift in tone, or their appearance in photographs diminishes); if you’re concerned, communicate directly with them about it. Ask if anything is bothering them: “So I couldn’t help but notice I haven’t seen you in as many pictures lately. Are you just busy with school? (pause, wait for answer) Okay, I just wanted to make sure everything is alright. You know I’m here for you, right?”
  4. Don’t Wait Until Break to Find A Doctor Near Campus. The time from the first day of classes in August to the first major break in November is a long time. If your child is away from home, help them find a doctor near school who can monitor mood, behavior and medications. School can be grueling with more stress and less structure, and research suggests students with ADHD experience greater emotional distress and psychological difficulties than other students. So don’t wait until the holidays to make sure your child has supports in place. I wasn’t diagnosed with clinical depression until winter break of my sophomore year. Had I seen a doctor near school, instead of my childhood psychiatrist every three months, I likely would’ve been diagnosed and treated sooner.

Parenting Is A Full-Time Job

I’m over 30-years-old now, and my parents have been there with me every step of the way, giving me space or stepping in depending on what I needed. Living with ADHD and Depression is not exactly easy, and at one point I even lived with them again while I got the treatment I needed. Sure, it was kind of embarrassing living with my parents. But I knew it was what I needed at the time, and I’m so grateful that my parents were able to understand and support that.

Of course, every case is different and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do know this: “letting go” does not mean hiding back-stage, worrying, and whispering lines to your child so they won’t make a mistake. It’s more like sitting in the audience, close enough for your child to see; to know that you’re there when he needs you; and, in the meantime, watching the child you raised thrive in the spotlight.

Your job as a parent doesn’t end when your child turns 18. And just as the amount of hours may shift as your child enters adulthood, your responsibilities do, too. Once a parent, always a parent. And for that, your child will be grateful.

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