Our 19-year-old college student with ADHD is really struggling

John Sharry: He stays in his bedroom, has cut himself off from friends and has started drinking

In 2020, college became a rather grim experience of watching a screen isolated in your bedroom. Photograph: iStock

Question: Our son is 19, in first year of college which due to Covid restrictions has been spent in his bedroom. He has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and mood disorder and is depressed. He stays up all night and sleeps all day. He's cut himself off from most of his friends.

Having not been more than a social drinker, he has taken to vodka occasionally so “he doesn’t feel anything”. He won’t talk or get help. We’ve two other younger kids.

He's a lovely lad, just really struggling. We're devastated and can't seem to help. Many thanks.

Answer: In 2019, starting college was the beginning of a great new life stage, full of opportunities and new friendships. In 2020, it became a rather grim experience of watching a screen isolated in your bedroom.


Many people have suffered in the Covid-19 lockdowns and none as much as young people who have missed out on crucial milestones in their social development. This has been particularly difficult for young people with ADHD, for who remote learning simply may not work. Many young people have reported higher rates of depression and anxiety as they cope with increased isolation and stress. As a parent, it is hard to witness your grown-up child suffering in this way and there are things you can do to help.

Identify small things that are going well
Try to notice and build on the small things that are going well in spite of the challenges. For example, what friends is he still in touch with? – even to a small extent? How can you facilitate and encourage these connections? Also, when in the day is he in the best of form? When does he talk most do you? Then think how you can build on these moments. For example, if he chats the most during mealtimes, make a habit of taking more time to be present then with him.

Set small goals
Setting big recovery goals for someone who is depressed does not work. For example, going for a daily walk is of course a great recovery goal, but it can feel too big a step for someone with low energy and or low mood. Setting and failing to reach a goal is demotivating and can reinforce depression. Instead, the key to recovery is to set tiny manageable goals. Simply the goal of getting dressed or coming down for dinner or even drinking a glass of water might be enough to get started. Think of the smallest steps that your son can take towards making things better for himself and start to encourage these.

Agree a plan
Try to agree a plan with your son about what might help him. This does not have to involve him seeking counselling (if he does not want this at the moment) but could involve practical things such as contacting friends, small home goals and engaging in activities as society begins to open up after lockdown. It could also involve tackling some of the specific challenges he is facing. For example, you might pick a good time to say, "Listen, can we agree how we can get your sleep back into a better routine, I'm worried about how it is affecting you". Even if he initially fobs you of, be patient and gently persistent as you encourage and support him to take action.

Seek help yourself
Even if he does not want to seek help himself, you can seek help as a parent. Most support services such as ADHD Ireland and Aware provide support and guidance to family members. Consider engaging in counselling yourself to help you think through a plan of action to help him.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting and mental health books. See solutiontalk.ie for details.