“Our 17-year-old plays no sports. He has no hobbies or friends. He doesn’t want to go anywhere. He doesn’t even care about learning to drive. He told us if he’s not allowed to drive and text at the same time, he would rather text while we keep driving him around.” Is this normal?”
“Our 18-year-old declined to go to college, because she is experiencing too much anxiety. When we suggested she find some employment until then, she said that she’s waiting for her medication to start working. But when we mention anything appropriate to her age, she tells us our pressure just intensifies her anxiety. We really feel stuck.”
“Many choices of our 19-year-old are questionable. He gave someone $50.00 to complete a job application. What a scam! He paid for three courses for a for-profit college, and then the school went bankrupt. He hangs out with this slick older guy. We’re worried that he’s going to be dragged into something illegal. We know kids are supposed to learn from their mistakes. But by then, will it be too late?”
Occasionally, I receive calls from parents with the above themes. It is not always easy to decide when to let one’s sons/daughters learn from their choices, versus reasserting control. While not deciding for them, there are ways of guiding them. There are also ways to help them think something through. Most significantly when mistakes are made, there are means of recovering and growing.
Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett describes the ages 18-25 as “emerging adulthood”. One can be gradually moving toward full maturity. . . and still be far from it. While few would expect an 18-year-old to possess the judgement of someone thirty, they have all the same responsibilities in contractual and criminal law. This is one reason this stage can feel perilous.
Since every child is unique, this article avoids ideas that are individualized. But it can help to resist the following:
1. Overly Generalizing-Comments like “You always. . .” or “You never. . .” communicate that past patterns of behavior can never be modified.
2. Saying What to Do-Even when asked, directing them to choose “B” over “A”, is inclined to postpone the day they become certain in making a final call.
3. Promising to Repair Mistakes-This can apply whether purchasing them a DUI lawyer, or just paying off an overdue credit card.
Instead of overly generalizing, reinforce when they are moving toward something constructive. Just because he/she was “lazy” six months ago, this does not mean they will be six months from now: “Your father and I have been forced to work during our weekends. The great painting job you did on the porch has made a world of difference. Have you ever thought about starting your own business?”
Instead of directing them to choose one door vs. another, respect any uncertainty: “This decision is a serious one to you. What have you thought about it so far?” Patiently listening to them ponder out loud conveys respect for their capacity to eventually think something through. In turn, this can gradually improve their self-confidence.
In case something derails, instead of promising to make everything right, ask how they might try to recover: “If your Plan A doesn’t go through, are you up to telling us about a possible Plan B?” While not exclusively theirs, the question conveys that theirs is the primary responsibility for recovering when something goes wrong.
Returning a moment to the above cases, the 17-year-old’s behavior is all too common. Just as he has probably changed a lot in the past two years, he might equally change in the next two. Until then, there is more to do than crossing one’s fingers. Take interest in what matters to him. While he might not want to share many details, he might disclose a few online details that fascinate him. Once you reconnect with him, paths to guide him can reemerge.
As for the 18-year-old, is she immediately harming herself? Or just declining to help herself? If the latter applies, she might eventually tire of her avoidant pattern. When that time arises, it can be an opportunity to gently ask “What would you like to do about what you’re going through?”
As for the 19-year-old, he may be less secretive than the younger two. If he is comfortable disclosing his notions of early adulthood, just welcoming him to express his ambitions will provide openings: “You’re right son. Interstate truck drivers are now making great money. So, do you know how to go about getting a CDL?”
Many of these parents who call view therapy for their child as the last best chance to “talk some sense into them”. However, their children are often more comfortable with the present than those who are calling. Would you like to be able to cope better when your son or daughter’s progress is feeling glacial? Would you like to learn how to better support or guide them until they eventually find their way? While you may feel that your child should start therapy; until they agree, you might appreciate the benefits of psychotherapy in improving your ability to cope and considering different ways of parenting.
Please join me at Beverly Therapists for a 90-minute discussion on how to help them to open up and create a genuine dialogue: Saturday October 2023 at 10725 South Western. Let us know if you would like to join us.
About the Author: For 25 years in public health and two years with Beverly Therapists, Eric Lindquist, LCPC, has worked with dozens of families who are trying to guide adolescents or young adults. Eric can be reached directly at (773) 875-8803.