How well-meaning parents inhibit their children’s executive function skill development.

“We parents, we’re doing too much.”  “We have the very best of intentions, but when we over-help, we deprive them of the chance to learn these really important things that it turns out they need to learn to be prepared to be out in the world.

-Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

I recently spoke with a father of an academically gifted high school senior who had inquired about services to help prepare his son for college next year.  The father had explained to me that his son’s plan was to attend a 4-year college and reside on campus.   I began to ask questions to assess this young man’s readiness to be successful living away from home at a four-year college.  The questions and the father’s answers are below:

Q: Does your son complete school work independently?

A: I check his homework every night to make sure things are completed, often they are not. He gets good grades but I have to stay on top of him. 

Q: Does your son wake up for school on his own?

 A: No, he often forgets to set his alarm clock or sets it for the wrong time so I need to wake him up every day.  

Q: Is your son compliant about taking his medications on his own?

A: I need to tell him each morning, he thinks he doesn’t need them but he does.

Q: Can your son manage his “screen time” (video games, YouTube, internet) and prioritize when he needs to shut them off to take care of his responsibilities?

 A: He would sit on the computer all day and night if I didn’t tell him to get off and start his school work.

Q: Will your son be receptive to learning some executive function strategies if I were to work with him?

A: Probably not, he denies his diagnosis and is never receptive to help from anyone.  

Because I believe in empathetic honesty I explained to this father that his son is not demonstrating the level of independence or emotional maturity required to be a full-time college student living on campus, nor has he developed the executive function skills required to be successful as a college student.  I emphasized to the father that this school year I would recommend that the family focus on helping this young man develop his executive functioning, independence and cognitive flexibility and despite being a senior, not focus on grades.

The father stated that he was not willing to step away from overseeing his son’s school work because he wanted him to keep his grades up for colleges.  While I would expect any responsible parent to provide a similar answer I explained to him that getting into college won’t mean much if his son is unable to stay there because he lacks the ability to function independently.    Compounding the problem is the fact that this young man is so cognitively inflexible he will most likely not be proactive in seeking out support services provided at college.   

Sadly, each year between December and January I receive multiple calls from parents of students diagnosed with ADHD or (more commonly) Asperger’s who had started college several months earlier but either needed to withdraw or failed most of their classes in their first semester    This is not a result of laziness, rarely is it a result of mental health issues or because the curriculum was too challenging.  It is because their child lacked the executive function skills and ability to manage their academic career independently. 

When parents act as their child’s executive functioning for 18 years they never develop the skills or level of independence required to be successful after high school. 

Within a family in which there is a child who has executive functioning delays as a result of ADHD, learning disabilities, Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism a common dynamic often develops in which parents over-compensate for their child’s lack of executive functioning (and low frustration tolerance for anything that is not interesting to them) by doing things for their child that they should, and need to learn to do on their own.   

As kids reach middle school many parents prioritize academic performance over developing lagging skills which in turn keeps their child reliant on parents to act as their executive functioning.   My professional experience has taught me that this frequently sets the child up for initial failure after high school. 

Michelle Garcia Winner and Dr. Pam Crooke, the creators of Social Thinking created the excellent graphic below and corresponding article to help parents understand the skills necessary for a young adult to live independently.    I cannot emphasize enough that parents cannot wait until senior year of high school to begin teaching these skills, they need to start as soon as possible.  

Kids who are diagnosed with ADHD, learning differences, Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism do not generalize skills quickly.  They need to be taught concrete strategies to help them develop their executive functioning and reach a level of age-expected independence. They need repetition, consistency and most importantly, they need the ability to learn from their mistakes. 

Regardless of your good intentions, if you are acting as your child’s executive functioning you are inhibiting his or her ability to develop their executive function skills.  If you can provide your child with strategies to help them improve their executive functioning and move towards independence you are preparing them for future success. If you allow your child to experience failure and frame their failures as a learning experience rather than a mistake you can help them develop the intrinsic motivation to improve their executive functioning and independence which in turn will help build their self-confidence.  

Center for ADHD provides executive function coaching to students and their families.  Offices in Bryn Mawr, PA and Linwood, NJ.   Online sessions are also available.  Please contact us to discuss how we can help you help your child improve their executive functioning, social cognitive skills and age-expected independence.

Learn more at: www.centeradhd.com

Social Thinking is the work of Michelle Garcia Winner.  Learn more at www.socialthinking.com

Ryan Wexelblatt, Center for ADHD Director is one of the few professionals in the Philadelphia area and Southern New Jersey who has earned a Social Thinking Clinical Training Level 1 Certificate of Completion.

ryan-wexelblatt-article-center-for-adhd-director

 Graphic from Social Thinking®

6 thoughts on “How well-meaning parents inhibit their children’s executive function skill development.

  1. Can you give us an article of tips on how to do this – things we can help them set up so they can do it themselves, things we can teach them that will be helpful, thank you!

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  2. This sounds great and can work with many but not all. I have 3 with dyslexia, severe ADHD and one also has anxiety and HFASD. My one son, 15, can not do anything on his own. He’s extremely bright but starting and completing a task that isn’t of his own choice is nearly impossible. As you mentioned in the article, for him it’s all these tasks! Waking up, getting out of bed, taking meds, getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, depderent, combing hair, doing and turning in homework, half the time homework is done but not turned in, getting shower at night, getting off xbox and tv to do anything. He will even not eat. We have tried the route of scaffolding to help teach, tried lists which he liked but again can’t complete. We have tried letting him fail – it doesn’t do anything he doesn’t change his actions. He misses events with friends because he needed to complete something first like mowing or homework so he misses the event but stilll doesn’t motivate him to change for next time. So as mentioned in the article I have this very bright son who is failing because he can’t handle high school. Up till then he was 4.0 student and once 9th grade hit he gets F’s and D and C’s. This is greatly harming his chance of getting into college which we have to rely on scholarships and grants for and he could easily get if he did his work. What do I do? We have done counseling and seen different counselors. All say the same: I don’t know how to help I’ve never seen someone who literally isn’t motivated by anything and consequences nor rewards matter. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts.

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    1. Thanks for reading the article. Learned helplessness is learned, it’s not a genetic trait. I am confident your son has the capacity to be independent however it doesn’t hold any interest for him so he appears unmotivated by anything. Most counselors, therapists, etc. do not understand Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism so you’re experience going from counselor to counselor certainly is not unique. I’m happy to schedule an appointment with you as I offer online sessions. Feel free to reach out if you’re interested. Thanks again, Ryan

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  3. All of this sounds so familiar. I’m afraid w are heading down the same path with our 11 year old. Just yesterday he had a fit because we asked him to pour his own milk. He went to his room saying his parents won’t even help him and never got milk. We are in southern California. Are there services out here? And what is the cost? I am an early childhood professional And everything I have learned has never applied to my son.

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