I get an e-mail from a concerned parent of a young man who is struggling to find his way in life. We set up a call, and I listen for the familiar tone of angst, frustration and sadness as the parent relays to me everything that they have gone through in the last few years.
“He’s a great kid but, his temper can flare at any moment.”
“He’s so talented, but he can’t figure out what he wants to do with his life.”
“Now, all he does is play video games, sleep and isolate.”
The story is so familiar that I fill in the blanks as they’re talking. I say things like, “And when you try to talk to him, he shuts down or gives excuses, right?” “Yes, exactly!” they respond. I do my best to move the focus away from the problem and onto the solution as I feel the energy rise. We are about to bump up against the real reason they called: “What do we do now?”
I don’t normally work with parents. I’m not a parent myself, so I’m reluctant to give advice on parenting missteps or how to approach your child. However, I have a unique insight into the mind of struggling young men. One, I was one myself not so long ago. I portrayed all the symptoms listed above, plus a few extra. Two, I’ve spent almost a decade working with this population of men, so I’ve seen just about every struggle and from many different angles. And three, I’ve been able to come out on the other side and have profound conversations with my own parents regarding what they were thinking, what worked for them, and what didn’t. For those reasons, and due to the high demand for guidance in approaching these situations, I’m outlining the four reasons why you don’t talk to your adult son.
Afraid to Talk
Have you ever played that game Operation? The game where you have little tweezers and you’re supposed to pick up little piece of plastic inside the man? But, if you touch the edges, you get startled by a loud buzzing sound that means you have to start over. Over time, your hand becomes harder and harder to keep steady and eventually you’re like “F this game.” That’s kind of what it’s like living with a discontent and irritable adult son. Sometimes it’s fine, but there’s always that lingering fear that you’re going to be startled by some bizarre reaction as the frustration slowly wears you down over time.
Mothers are usually quicker to admit this than fathers, but it’s a shared core fear. Even though they may not yell or throw punches, the blame, sarcasm and dismissal of your concerns can feel just as damaging. By now, he may have become fairly proficient at manipulation and avoidance. He knows the right buttons to push, and he has plenty of tricks in his bag for anything you throw at him. “Why aren’t you out looking for a job today?” you ask. “I’m waiting to hear back from this place I applied to online. Will you quit asking me?” “If you would help me out a little bit, then I could move out on my own now,” he says as he stares at the television screen in your basement, on your couch, wearing clothes that you bought him.
You finally get him to reveal his college grades and you see that he is failing two classes and has C’s in the rest. You try to talk to him, and he blows you off as he walks out the door to get into the car that you bought him. “The professors are dickheads. I’m not talking about this right now.”
Wow! Normally you wouldn’t stand for someone to treat you like that, but this is your son. And, it’s tough to see that this whole thing has slowly been getting worse. Let’s be honest. You may be afraid to talk to your son.
Old-School Parenting Beliefs
Back in the day, it was common for parents to bring their kids into the laundry room, take out a belt, and whip their sons until they promised to never do the bad thing again. It’s not that they were evil people. It was just how they were taught, and it was looked at as a viable way to discipline your child. After high school, it was expected that boys turn into men and go out on their own. It was completely possible to find a menial job that could afford you the basic necessities. Those days are gone. We now know that physical and mental abuse is not the best way to discipline anybody, and the culture has changed drastically. It’s time to look at the reality of the situation that millennial men are in and try on new ideas.
Of course, there are parts of the old-school parenting model that are still relevant and work. The problem is some of the beliefs are oversimplified and can hamper your ability to connect with your son if that’s all you’ve got. A few that stick out are:
“He will grow out of it.”
“I’ll fight fire with fire.”
“He’s got to figure this out on his own.”
First, he may grow out of “it”, but how long will that take and at what cost to him and you? It is 100% possible that his depression gets much worse, that he turns to drugs, or that you end up with a 35-year-old living in your basement. He also may not grow out of it.
Second, fighting fire with fire is the outdated way to deal with your rebellious son. Ideally, you just overpower him emotionally, and he bends to your wishes. It’s probably not going to work. If it does, it’s not because he respects you, it’s because he’s scared of you. You could end up dramatizing the situation further and looking like a fool.
Third, it’s important that he figure things out on his own, but don’t expect him to figure everything out. No parent is perfect, and it’s impossible that you taught him everything he needs to know for the rest of his life. He could use some help from someone other than you.
In everyday life, there are a million unspoken agreements that we make with each other to allow society run smoothly. If there is a line of people waiting to order food, we agree that it is best to join from the end of the line. If someone leaves their car running, it is not okay to get in it and drive off. For some things, there are social consequences and for other things, there are legal consequences. It’s possible to get away with breaking some of these agreements, but you will not avoid consequence every time. So, what would it look like if there were no consequences for actions and everyone did what they wanted? The world would be a crazy place. We are influenced by repercussions more than we would like to admit.
Agreements still apply on a smaller scale within communities, families, and relationships. Some are spoken, some are assumed, and some are a mystery. The known agreements need real consequences in order to work. Otherwise, they are just words that mean nothing. Assumed agreements can be a huge problem because people might assume differently. For instance, you may assume that you son is working on finding a job in the near future. However, he may assume that there is no real timeline because he doesn’t think he’s affecting you or anybody else.
If you haven’t had a sit-down talk about agreements than the chance that there are agreements to be made is 100%. Every situation is different, but there are some core elements that will greatly help in approaching the situation. First, you need to connect. This is the container in which you have a relationship and it’s a big deal. Sit down, turn off the phones and TV’s, make eye contact, and take a breath. This goes a long way. Second, there needs to be an agreement on the agreement-making session. An example would be, “I’d like to talk about some things that will help better our relationship. Can we set aside 20 minutes to talk today?” It’s clear, direct and inviting. Third, be clear on your concerns and consequences. Every situation is different, and some agreements will be more one-sided than others. If you son is staying for free, it’s okay to ask your adult son to move out. Fourth, stick to your agreements. Whether it’s you, you and your spouse, or you and someone else, agree within yourself or together that you will stick with what you say. If you don’t have agreements and don’t try to make agreements, you’re both bound to spin in circles the next time you try to have a real talk.
How would you feel if someone approached you about your alleged drinking problem while they calmly sipped on a glass of wine? Or, maybe they tried to give you unsolicited advice on how to better your life when you know for a fact that they are stressed and unhappy themselves? It wouldn’t matter if you did have a drinking problem or if their advice was helpful, something about them telling you isn’t going to feel genuine. You would probably just give them that raised eyebrow look like, “Seriously?”
Much of what your son has going on boils down to a few things. Either his emotional state has him feeling stuck and unhappy, his lack of life skills has him unprepared, or he has an environment that is not conducive to his success. If you think you can fix everything on your own, go ahead. If you think he needs some help, it’s time for you to put in your due diligence and start reaching out for help whether he is open to it or not.
So, here’s come the #1 question I get from parents. “What if he doesn’t want help?” Well, you can close up shop on this whole “getting healthy” thing until he changes his mind or …. YOU can start to get help. How many nights have you laid awake wondering where you went wrong or why you can’t help him now? How stressed are you, really? Do you have all the tools, support and energy it’s going to take to get everyone back to a healthy place? Don’t kid yourself. If you care, you’ve been trying. And if you’ve been trying and it’s not working, do yourself a huge favor and stop trying to carry the weight of the world by yourself. There are plenty of skilled professionals, support groups and resources out there for people in your exact situation. The best way to motivate your son is to do your own work and lead by example. It’s going to be extremely difficult to get your son to do something that you’re not willing to do.