Get Your Teen Ready for College By Sophia K. Havasy, Ph.D.

When a parent imagines a successful future for their child, they can see many things - a good job, a happy marriage, children of their own. On the road between birth and that successful future, there are benchmarks -- learning to walk, dressing yourself, reading and writing, going steady, playing a sport, learning an instrument, high school graduation, choosing a major, a college diploma, a first job, a first apartment. This is the time-worn path children take on the road to adult competency.

For children with even mild developmental differences, some of those life markers are going to be more difficult to accomplish and the road to them will be different. That is okay as long as we teach our children how to navigate their own particular set of challenges. What's not okay is when parents, in a well-meaning effort to see their children succeed, do not teach them how to navigate the road but instead throw them into the back seat of the car and drive them to the finish line. Once that child leaves the car, they will have no idea how to take the next step.

It is also not a good strategy to just let life take care of teaching its lessons. Children with neurodevelopmental disorders will usually find it impossible to simply learn from life's lessons - that is the essence of their disorder, and children who are shielded from consequences have no lessons to learn. This summer, the Tarnow Center will offer two programs to help adolescents make the transition to independence. One will concentrate on young adults who are either headed off to college in the fall or who have begun college only to find it too challenging. The second program will work with younger teens (15-17) to begin now helping them acquire the skills they will need in the upcoming transition to college. Each of these programs will have a parenting component to help families learn to parent for competency and genuine accomplishment.

A parent's job is to teach their children the steps they must take to succeed. It isn't enough to simply drag children to some imaginary finish line or toss them into the pool hoping they will swim. Children with even mild neurological differences are often not enough like ordinary kids to just take life as it comes. They need to learn how they are different and what those differences will mean with regard to how they learn, how they interact with their peers and what extra steps they will have to take to become the competent adults that they can, in fact, become.

Those road markers along the path to success are better understood as interconnected links in a chain of competency. The progress from infancy to adulthood is the process of building that chain. The ability to learn to distinguish sounds prepares for the acquisition of language, the acquisition of spoken language prepares for the acquisition of written language. The ability to ability to self-calm prepares for the abilities to tolerate frustration and persevere. For children with neurodevelopmental disorders, some of those skills will not come naturally. Some of them might not come at all. They cannot build a chain of competency out of the same links as other children, but that does not excuse them from the job of becoming competent adults and it does not excuse their parents from teaching them how to do this. It just makes the job more challenging.

A detailed diagnostic workup including testing and professional evaluation is an excellent starting point, because it identifies which links in the chain are missing and will allow parents and therapist to work together to build on a child's strengths and work around the deficits.

Once these strengths and deficits are understood, parents should teach real competency and expect real accomplishments. Don't look at those life markers and think, "how can I navigate this child from one to the next," work instead towards what will allow this child to accomplish those challenges on his/her own.

This is parenting for accomplishment rather than appearances. Too many children look like they are doing well only to crumble once they are expected to function as a young adult. They have no real accomplishments of their own because the only challenges they have faced are dumbed-down or handled by well-meaning parents.

I see kids all the time who are proud of the fact that they have done almost no work to get through high school. They are bright children with ADHD or learning disabilities who could have done honor's level work, but went into easier classes where less effort was required. Sometimes it is school administrators who discourage advanced classes and sometimes it is parents who don't want their child to be discouraged. Often, it is the student's choice to avoid hard work. Regardless of the reason why, the child who isn't challenged doesn't learn to work hard, and hard work is required from everyone. At some point, the free pass runs out and every child will face adult tasks. They have to be prepared to face them and parents must start early to help learning disabled children gain true competence.

Competence is the ability to do something well consistently. It comes from persistence and practice (sticking with a job even when it is hard). It comes from being able to take the uninteresting and find something in the task that makes it worth doing. It also comes from knowing your strengths and weaknesses which provides healthy self-esteem rather than an unrealistic sense of self-worth built on the appearance of accomplishments rather than actual success. When you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can develop compensatory strategies that use strengths to manage weaknesses.

Competence isn't just about going it alone. It is also knowing when you can push through and finish on your own and when you must ask for help so a problem doesn't become a crisis. Parenting for competence involves keeping the goal in mind from the start and having a plan of action. It requires that parents model success. Instead of letting your child think that you magically have the answers to difficult problems, let a child in on the process of coming up with the correct answer. Let the process become visible so children understand that parents are working hard and struggling and keeping at it until the outcome is what they want.

Children must be encouraged to problem solve and parents must help with this. They should encourage children to approach each challenge by first taking in information about the nature of the problem and the resources available to solve it. Help them break the task down into manageable parts, form and evaluate a plan of action and then learn from any mistakes.

This approach isn't reserved for the big problems. It is part of everyday life. In my talks, I often use the example of Sam, a high school sophomore who relies on his parents to get him up every morning and out the door to get to school on time. It is getting harder and harder to get him moving and his parents are getting very frustrated. They come up with a variety of strategies. They think about dramatic ways to pry Sam from his bed including pouring water on him and putting ice cubes in his bed. This will get Sam moving, but it doesn't teach Sam much about how to take responsibility for getting himself to school on time and doesn't give him a strategy he can use on his own (unless he wants to rig up a bucket of water above his bed).

They think that there are only so many more years of high school and they can just keep on yelling and cajoling and engaging in the usual morning dramatics to keep Sam on the right path, because then he will be finally out of high school and on to college and someone else's problem. Oh really? That is the appearance of success and as too many know, you can't launch a child who isn't competent. That child will just fail, return home and occupy that same bed, not getting up in the morning for boring jobs, community college and anything else that might be expected of him.

The parents also consider doing nothing and letting Sam face the consequences of simply missing school. But consequences without tools don't teach anything useful. Sam learns only that he can fail, something I will wager he already knew.

The strategy that works, the one that pays dividends, is to teach Sam how to succeed. The parents and Sam sit down and begin to problem-solve how to transition Sam into taking responsibility for getting up in the morning. The plan, which is laid out in detail and understood by everyone, involves less and less parent participation over time. Eventually, Sam will have to face any consequences from the school for lateness. Parenting is a long-term process and you must keep your goals in mind as you go along and evaluate your progress regularly, making sure that the goals are actual accomplishments, not the mere appearance of accomplishment. To do this you must support and promote your child while still holding them accountable. You must define the terms of your own involvement, but be realistic about what your child can accomplish at a given stage. This means not setting the bar too high, but also not over functioning so that failure is not a possibility. Failure can be a good teacher. It is a good idea to make written contracts, because the process of writing something down forces everyone to agree and makes sure that literally you are all on the same page.

That written contract also prevents drift. It makes sure that everyone stays on the same course.

There is no one way to be a good parent, and it is a job that demands a great deal of creativity, but when you take your eyes off those glittering road markers and instead focus squarely on developing a competent child who can navigate that road on his/her own, you will have taken great strides towards developing the competent and self-sufficient adult you imagined long ago.