My son is increasingly opting out of life

Tell Me About It: My family are undermining how I handle my son’s lack of direction

PROBLEM: My son failed his college repeat exams. He wants to bury his head in the sand and not make any decisions about where he will live or what he will do for the next year.

Myself and my partner have just bought a new house, in a remote rural location where there aren’t many realistic job prospects for my son. My son had intended to be studying in Dublin and living with relatives so when we made the decision to buy (pre-Covid), we believed we could make the move without it affecting him too much as his interests and commitments were very much elsewhere.

Now, my relatives seem to feel I’ve done something wrong by not staying in the rented house where my son grew up, even though he had not expressed any desire to stay in the area and, in fact, had been adamant about moving away. Obviously, there is a lot of change and uncertainty in my son’s life. I’m trying to get him to talk about these and to offer him support. I’m frustrated with his unwillingness to engage in discussion about his future.

I’m also frustrated with my family’s opinion that I’m not offering him sufficient support. I feel there’s an underlying implication that I’ve been insufficient in picking up the slack for his largely absent dad. I don’t know how to address my family’s judgment of my parenting. It feels undermining.

My son has a lovely personality, is kind and funny, healthy and good looking, and blessed with intelligence. He was very mature as a child but has regressed in the past year or two. He has the capacity to be sociable but is increasingly opting out of life and avoiding responsibility and social interaction.

I feel I would be enabling behaviours that are detrimental to his wellbeing if I don’t require him to make decisions about participating in work or studies.

I don’t mind what he does as long as he does something. I believe he will inevitably slide into depression if he is left to his own devices as his strong preference is to stay in bed all day, avoiding leaving the house and avoiding social interaction. I’m really fed up with the lack of support from my family and the lack of respect for my parenting.

I have excellent support from my partner, otherwise I would be completely adrift and questioning myself.

ADVICE: You have two pressing issues, your son’s wellbeing and your family’s criticism. In terms of importance, it seems that your son’s mental and emotional health is the highest priority and perhaps you could use your family-of-origin’s concern to help tackle this issue. It is possible that their judgment is stemming from their concern for your son and if that could be turned into a resource, it would mean you feel less alone tackling his deteriorating mental health.

From what you say, this issue started pre-Covid, in that he failed his repeat exams, but it has certainly been exacerbated by the enforced restriction of social life and lack of opportunities that Covid has imposed on his age group.

The starting point is to get him some professional help as soon as possible, you could start with your GP who may be able to help with a referral to psychotherapy – most areas of the country are well served with qualified and accredited psychological services. Another option is to contact his college and speak to the student counselling services there, they may have outreach options or have a list of counsellors they can recommend.

Your son needs to engage in life and needs to see the possibility of a future for himself. Enforced isolation has been shown to increase negativity, self-criticism and hopelessness in young people and this is where your family might offer some support. Can you organise events such as hikes, volunteering, trips, etc so your son has to get up and out in the morning? This will have the effect of changing his patterns so that, at least, he is getting daylight and some exercise that should have an effect over time.

It is important that your son knows that he is loved and cared for

It seems he will not be able to do this just by talking to him and encouraging him to engage more in activities. He will need others (non-judgmentally) to turn up and organise things for him. This is where your interaction with your family needs to change.

At the moment, you are full of resentment and, while this is very understandable, it will not lead to any united support for your son. Can you shift your attitude to some acknowledgement that there is care behind their comments and then try this approach? First, ask for a time to be put aside for a discussion on your son’s wellbeing. Secondly, express your concern that you won’t be able to listen if there is criticism. Then, when this is acknowledged and understood, you can ask them what they see are the issues and concerns. Do not come to any conclusions at this stage but say that you, and they, will reflect and come back again to discuss things further. This will mean that you do not rush to conclusions but rather share the love and care you all feel in this situation.

Of course, your son should be involved in any conversations about his future; it is not a good idea to talk behind his back. Tell him you are worried and want to help him and that you are prepared to wait until he is ready to join you in coming up with a plan.

Keep him up to date on the family’s concern and encourage him to seek his own confidential supports from professionals. The most important things are that he knows he is loved and cared for and that you hold a belief of a future for him where he is free from depression and anxiety.

If you manage your own worry and resentment, you will be well placed to guide him through this very difficult period and you will surround both of you with a community of support.