Parenting --Teens/18 year old son
QUESTION: I have an 18-year old son, and in and need some advice.
I'm divorced but live in the same city as my ex-wife who is remarried. We have a very difficult son who is smoking pot, drinking (beers mostly) and hangs out with low-life "friends".
He has been trouble since he was a kid - at school, disrespectful to teachers and anyone in authority. He's an underachiever because he's dead lazy, although very smart.
His mother has spoiled him rotten, trying to win his affection with material things - all to no avail. He stayed at my place for a few months because he and his mother were constantly butting heads, but he refused to do any chores or help around the house in any way.
He has a job and a car (which his step-father gave him), but he doesn't save anything and spends his paycheck the day he receives it. His mother paid for his junior college tuition, but he failed two subjects, passing two. His mother has even been paying for him to see a therapist, but it hasn't made any difference in his attitude.
My sense is to let him out in the world to see for himself that unless he assumes some form of responsibility, he'll end up in the gutter.
I simply do not know the best course of action here.
ANSWER: Dear Brian,
From reading your question and statement, I get that both you and your former wife really love your son although you both have different ways of expressing that love and styles of parenting. Please share my reply with your ex-wife. It is really important for the sake of your son for both of you to be on the same parenting page. The ability for either of you to greatly influence his life is rapidly diminishing, so it is time for all the adults, including her husband, to put all other areas of contention aside and be consistent in your interactions with your son.
Let me first address the concept of under achiever. Having started out life as one of them, I am an expert in this area. The first course I took in grad school was from a chairman of a high school guidance department. He contended, and my own experience validated it, that the way we think about and treat underachievers is all wrong. Underachieving is usually though of as a motivational problem when, in fact, it is a self confidence and self esteem problem. Underachievers are very motivated to under achieve! It takes a lot of hard work for bright kids to fail or drop out. What is really going on is that their lack of confidence and esteem has them thinking that what they are doing will probably end in some sort of failure, so they "Voluntarily Take Themselves out of the Competition." By doing that, they avoid having to face what they are sure will be an embarrassing outcome.
Using alcohol and pot and hanging out with low-life friends (AA refers to them as lower companions) are more symptoms of esteem and confidence issues, which I believe that the root cause of all addictions.
So assuming that this is what is going on with him, how do you deal with him? The answer has a number of parts beginning with how to handle his irresponsibility and at the same time assisting him to build self esteem and confidence. Here's where the tightrope walk begins.
I have a principle called parenting by permission. You can only parent an older teen when they permit you to do so. Remembering this principle will take a lot of drama out of your relationship with him. (Drama is just getting upset about the predictable.) What this means is that, with the exception of life or death or personal safety issues, he needs to be allowed to fail or to get to a point where he ASKS for parenting assistance, either directly or indirectly (he tells a tale of woe and waits for your reply). How you reply is very important. Remember you are talking to another adult, who just happens to be your son. Talking down to him will just reinforce that he is a loosing kid. Give a straight forward answer with your suggestions without being preachy.
So what do you do if he gives you all sorts of reasons why your suggestions aren't going to work (of course before he tries them)? You do not argue, you can address his objections and then what I do is to say, "and you will do what you do," and then I walk away. Both my kids and the kids in my youth programs told me when we reminisced, years later, that they hated when I made that statement because they then had to put their money where their mouth was. Sometimes, they proved me wrong and I was the first one to congratulate them on being wiser than I. Usually, though, experience ruled and I was correct and when their way didn't work, they then tried mine.
Part of treating him as the adult he is, is holding him responsible for his actions. That does not mean punishing him. It does mean letting him dig out of the holes he has created. It is OK to provide assistance to his digging out efforts, but only so that he has a good chance of succeeding in those efforts. For instance, he gets a traffic ticket with the accompanying fine. If he is paying it off with his earnings but is struggling a lot because of other commitments, I would kick in some money but not more than he is paying. On the other hand, if he doesn't pay the fine or doesn't show up in court, even with your reminders, and has a warrant or gets his car impounded, I would not bail it or him out. If you do not want to lose the investment in the car, they he would need to sign over the title to you which you would sign back to him when he had reimbursed all the expenses of the impound and ticket.
Finally, let's talk about the self-esteem/confidence issues. All teens are, by nature, drenched in shame. Those that are underachievers are even more drenched. Their taking themselves out of the competition does not achieve its intended result of avoiding a failure because they see the disappointment of those they love (you) when they underachieve. Harping on their lack of achievement only makes their feelings worse. From now on, celebrate his wins, no matter how small. You don't have to throw a party because he finally remembered to bring the garbage pails in or cleaned his room, but your casually thanking him almost as an afterthought, would both reinforce his being responsible and his esteem.
Acknowledging what he is doing right is another esteem building tool. For instance, he hasn't missed a day of work in a month and has been regularly on time. You might say, " I really respect you for making the effort to be showing up regularly at work." Notice I said "respect" and not "I am proud of you." This is because the "I really respect you for….." is way more powerful and esteem building than the proud version. The "respect" version is acknowledging some quality in him. The "proud" version is really saying the you are looking good because of his actions.
Are their any areas in his life with he isn't dead lazy and actually excels? If there is, and usually there is at least one, that might give a clue as to how to assist him. I had a client whose son was a lot like yours. He even was thrown out of military high school because they couldn't deal with him. He didn't like school and dropped out. He smoked pot and hung out with low-life's, but loved skate boarding almost as much as he loved to decorate the bottoms of the skate boards. Because his parents were stuck on his needing to succeed with formal education, they had never really taken much heed in his great graphic abilities and love. They always considered it just doodling away his life. When they started to acknowledge, praise and support his artistic skills, he successfully and willingly took design and graphic courses and is now on his way to a great graphic career.
I am going to stop here. Mark Twain once said that it is a terrible death to be talked to death.
I hope this all helped. You can always reply with follow up questions if you want or need to. If you go to my website, http://TheParentsCoach.com There
are a bunch of useful parenting tips on my blog. There is also a parents resource page with recommended books. My favorite one, which is required reading for all my clients, is "Parent As Coach." It is low price, a quick read, and it transforms the quality of the conversations of even pretty good parent/son relationships. You absolutely need to buy and read this book. Get one for your wife and her husband too. If you click on the title it will take you right to the Amazon.com page to order it or just go look it up on Amazon, directly.
Jason Wittman, MPS
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: I appreciate your input, but his is a case of not accepting any responsibility for anything. I bail him out of financial trouble all the time, but he never pays me back or does so reluctantly when I remind him - which is constantly.
He abuses everything and shows no remorse for any wrongdoing.
I gave him basic rules when I agreed he could stay with me in my apartment - again abusing them - leaving his room in a terrible mess, coming home at 2 or 3 in the morning or not at all and not telling me. He's a mess and won't listen to reason. I've tried to reason with him in an adult fashion, but he expects his parents to house, clothe and feed him, as well as fill his tank, but gives zero in return. He has no outside interests so nothing to encourage him to do well in.
I really have no choice but to let him face the world on his own, even if it means sleeping in his car.
Thank you for your follow up questions. I appreciate that. When I answer parents questions I usually have to make many assumptions about what is going on because I am operating off of partial descriptions of what is going on in the family. It is great to know where I guessed right and where there is a need to be more focused on the realities.
I get that you currently have a non-paying guest in your house (or in your ex-wife's) who not only is not paying but is abusing all privileges. I am assuming that when you said, "I gave him basic rules when I agreed he could stay with me in my apartment ," you got him to agree on those rules. If you didn't get his buy in at that time and you still proceeded, you might have to revisit those rules and get his written agreement. I am thinking though, that you are probably too far down this road for that to occur right now.
Having raised 13 foster teens and an adopted son, I have been in this exact situation on more than one occasion. I know that you do not want to carry out your no choice last sentence, though that looks like a realistic option. If you reread the 7th paragraph of my original reply, I pretty much suggested this as a possible route. I would probably sit him down and summarize what is going on as you see it (revisiting those initial rules) and let him know that if his behavior does not change, you will not enable him by rescuing him from the consequences of his irresponsible actions. What is really important here is that he needs to understand that what he does or doesn't do (his actions) will determine your responses.
You are his parent and not a pissed off roommate, so you want to do this in a way that he understands that what is about to happen is a direct result of his behavior and not some unexplainable action of yours. Sure he will have some resentments when he is sleeping in his car, but if he knew that would be the result if he didn't change and he didn't change, then most of those resentments will be towards himself. Good parenting here is making sure that he can't pin the blame on you. No surprises here. "I promised that you would be on your own if……….. And you didn't (or did)………. So I am doing what I promised."
I can't emphasize enough that before you do something like cut him off, you need to have the cooperation of your ex-wife and husband to support this action. If they then take him in, all it will do is to prevent him from reaching a bottom where he will have to change. The message from all of you needs to be that we are releasing you with love and you can count on our support in the future when you are doing responsible things. Until then you are on your own.
Parenting is a lifetime affair. This is just a more dramatic part of that journey. He will get through this as some point so you want to do what you have to do in a loving way so that you can be in a good parenting position later on. This is without a doubt the hardest decision a parent has to make, sending their son out to an uncertain future. It took me a couple of kids to understand that to continue to rescue and enable them was way worse than most of what would happen on their own. As long as what you and the other adults in his life do is measured and not seen to be vindictive, you will be on good ground.
I went to Cornell University where the motto is "Freedom With Responsibility" For older teens, that is the parental message.
By the way, even if you ask him to leave, it is still important for you all to read that "Parent as Coach" book because it will give you many tools for the next chapter of the parenting game.
Jason Wttman, MPS