Crucial Skills®

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The Power of Habit

Helping Your Adult Child Build Better Habits

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do I help my 23-year-old daughter understand that she has to change her habits to get different outcomes? She recently moved back home. She is always late to work so she can’t hold down a job. She puts off things that I ask her to do around the house. It never changes.

She struggles with ADHD, but I feel she uses this as an excuse to be unproductive. She says she wants to be independent and move out on her own, but she does nothing to make that happen. When I try to teach her basics of work ethic and explain she needs to save money and so forth, she gets defensive.

I want to help her, but I don’t want to hover over her like she is a child. I also fear that without help she will continue to fail and become even more apathetic. What can I do?

Honing Habits

Dear Honing Habits,

I appreciate your question and your concern. I’m a parent of four children myself, and no one ever told me that the hardest part of parenthood is parenting adults. Anne Frank once wrote about raising children, “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

For your role in advising and helping your daughter find the right path, I’d like to focus on your initial question. Understanding how habits work can be a huge advantage for anyone wanting to bring about positive change in their life. Modifying and applying Frank’s quote here, the forming of your daughter’s character lies in her own “habits.”

For any discussion on habits, we must begin with a proper definition. In our course The Power of Habit, we define a habit as “something you do (mentally or physically) that starts as a choice and then becomes a nearly automatic pattern.” Simply put, habits are automatic behaviors.

Habits are important because they affect outcomes. But they also affect how we see ourselves and how others see us. Think of habits like a two-way mirror. A two-way mirror is a piece of glass that is a mirror on one side but can be seen like a window from the other side. For us looking into the mirror, our habits act as a reflection of who we are. What we see in the mirror is a collection of our daily habits. For others looking through the window on the other side, our habits are a manifestation of who we are. What they see, and their judgment of us (right or wrong), is a product of those same daily habits.

While others’ opinions shouldn’t be the reason to change, those opinions can open doors and provide opportunities or become barriers to our goals. What does matter is how we see ourselves. The goal for your daughter and all of us is to build our habits in line with who we want to be. That will drive what we do and lead to what we get. There are three key factors that will help in this process: belief, outcomes, and behavior.


To change, we must believe we can change. In our training we speak of “The Lag.” The Lag is the time between when we should change a habit and when we change. The longer we are in The Lag, the harder it is to believe we can change.

Belief can be fostered by learning how habits work. Belief is also buoyed through many sources, including family, friends, divinity, social proof, and evidence through our own behavior.

More than likely your daughter is probably experiencing the impact of living in the lag. She may also have a limiting belief related to her diagnosis of ADHD. While it’s important to acknowledge and understand limitations, it’s equally important to not allow limitations to define us. I once heard a parent with a child struggling with ADHD share that her son’s disability was “intense normality.”

Your daughter is intensely normal. Her diagnosis doesn’t have to define her, it can refine her. Awareness brings choice. Share your belief in her and help her see that image in the mirror.


Habits matter when outcomes matter. You mention that your daughter wants to be independent and to move out on her own. But does she? Is this claim a reflection of what she wants or what she thinks you want? Her current behavior seems to demonstrate the latter. Help her see what you are seeing.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes of what he calls identity-based habits. He says that when habits are tied to our identity, they give us a sense of purpose. More than what we get, it’s about who we are, who we want to be, and what we can become. Clear suggests asking the question, “Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?” Rather than just focusing on the result of living on her own, help her connect her habits to her identity and her belief in herself. Help her see herself as independent and becoming independent.


If you can help your daughter identify what she wants to achieve and what kind of person she wants to be, then ask her what she needs to do on a consistent basis to make those desires a reality.

Remember, your daughter won’t change overnight. Help her make small changes in the things she does most often. Rather than focusing on moving out and living on her own, help her identify behaviors of an independent lifestyle. Create small wins and celebrate. Not only will it get her closer to the end goal, but it will also build her belief and keep her moving forward.

Having this conversation with your daughter may be a Crucial Conversation. Share what you really want for her and for your relationship. Share with her the gap between what she’s saying and what you are seeing. Ask her to share what she really wants. Have her paint the picture of what it looks like. Discuss any of her limiting beliefs and share your confidence in her. Identify the behaviors that will help her progress and help her do the things that independent people do.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in The Power of Habit

9 thoughts on “Helping Your Adult Child Build Better Habits”

  1. Denise

    I think you all are underestimating how much ADHD impacts people, especially in terms of executive function. Finding ways of establishing useful habits may require experimentation and hopefully the parent can manage to be cooperative and non-judgmental while helping her daughter to do so (rejection sensitivity looms large for most folks with ADHD as well). The ADDitude website ( has the best selection of resources for living with ADHD I have ever seen.

    1. Deena

      Came here to say this. Thank you.

    2. Desiree

      I came here to say this too! ADHD can make planning out long term tasks really difficult (often tasks need to be broken down again and again into small and approachable chunks and tools like body doubling can go a long wat towards helping achieve those goals). It also doesn’t help that kids get lots of support for disabilities in school and it sharply drops off in adulthood. It’s likely her daughter needs accommodations and coping strategies, not lectures or lessons on work ethic or how to build habits.

    3. C. P.

      A third vote for ADDitude, it was super helpful to myself in understanding my little brother when he was diagnosed, and as an adult, understanding some of my own behaviors.

      Time blindness is super common with people with ADHD. I’ve had to learn things like timed playlists so I can tell time is passing so I’m not late to everything.

  2. A good mom with a great son

    Something that has helped me parent an adult child with fairly severe ADHD is to learn to love the son I have, where he is right now. Sure, I can see his potential and want him to grow into it, but I also have a wonderful person right in front of me today. With that as a starting point I worked on finding the ways I could sometimes help or give advice, and stepped back and let the consequences of his decisions be the teacher instead of me being the nag. Tough love was part of it, but not the biggest piece. Don’t let every interaction become about teaching or lecturing – forge a relationship with an adult peer, and treat them like the adult they are. If you wouldn’t say it like that to a close friend, don’t say it to your kid. Believe me, they know their failures and beat themselves up about it continually, which serves to immobilize them. If you want to help, paying for a good counselor with experience treating ADHD to help develop coping skills like chaining together good habits until they become routine is a great investment in their future potential. My son today is responsible, loving, has a great work ethic, and I have discovered he thinks about things and feels things deeply, which was a surprise to me. Our occasional heart-to-heart talks mean the world to me. Focus on the relationship first so they know you trust them to get things figured out, even if it takes a few years longer than you both thought it would.

    1. Catherine Waiyaki

      I was also going to say that the most important part will be to love the person you have now. To give them a safe space to be open, and only then can you INFLUENCE them, after you both understand each other better. And to walk the journey of how they are doing based on what they decide to do with them.

  3. Chris

    Many good points and pieces of advice here. The one thing that I think is missing is the reminder that we cannot control anyone else’s behavior, we can only control our own. It’s implied in the article, but not explicitly stated, that change will come not based on what the parent wants, but what the adult child wants. You can try to influence her behaviors in a way you think is helpful, using her beliefs and values to establish a mutually desirable goal – but it if doesn’t work, that is YOUR problem, not hers. Resenting someone for being a different person than you wish they were is a waste of time and a great way to damage a relationship.

  4. Amy M.

    The things “Honing Habits” describes (putting off chores, being late for work) are characteristics of ADHD in girls. She can be helped by identifying how to address those characteristics – they are not a character flaw of the daughter – she probably WANTS to do well (hence her comment about wanting to be well-off enough to move out). Start with researching ways to mitigate those habits you describe – Does she need to set alarms for certain time allotments to get ready to go to work?; Does she experience object permanence (where everything she needs should be visible or it doesn’t exist)?; Does she (or mom) need to learn “body doubling” where someone stays in the room with her or she listens to a podcast to help her get started on a task so those chores can be done? Helping her would be better accomplished by understanding how ADHD presents itself in females and learning to address those characteristics. (One last note: If she also has Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which is a common partner with ADHD, the advice you’re giving – “you need to do this” or “you should be doing that” may have the opposite effect of her wanting to form different habits.

  5. Henry Killingsworth

    You made an interesting point when you mentioned that belief can be fostered by learning how habits function. I am trying to help my teenage son learn some good habits, but I worry that I am not the best teacher for him. It might be a good idea for my son to go to a youth conference that focuses on helping teenagers develop good habits.

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