‘My 17-year-old son has become obsessed by war’

Tell Me About It: Encourage him to look at the constraints a preoccupation with something can have on his life

PROBLEM: Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, my 17-year-old son has become obsessed by war. He spends his time looking up weapons of war and military equipment on the internet. He constantly talks about atrocities and injustices in the world. I have noticed that he has stopped communicating with his friends and I am not sure if this is because he is distracted or if they got fed up with him talking about war strategies.

He is very bright young man, but he has now abandoned his studies. I have never had any real concerns about him in the past, however, in hindsight, both myself and my husband agree that our 17-year-old had previously developed very intense and short-lived random interests. About one year ago we were relieved when he developed an interest in football, as it was something he could discuss with his siblings and friends, but the interest quickly became an obsession.

Since the war began, he no longer has any interest in any sport. Our children were born in the UK, and all have British citizenship, and our son has now decided that he wishes to enlist in the British military. I do believe it is fair to support your child’s interests and passions. However, this is not an interest. It is an obsession that has grown very quickly and could ultimately hinder his studies. My husband feels that he will move on to something else soon and is not supporting me with this issue. I am concerned that as he is about to turn 18, he may act on impulse and jeopardise his safety and his career.

ADVICE: Some of what you write about is worrying. That your son’s friends have fallen away and that he has a tendency towards obsession is clearly a concern. However, at his age there is often a huge interest in the state of the world and war has always been a huge interest to young men. This is not to suggest that you do nothing, as your husband suggests, but perhaps you might engage with your son at a more adult level where he can become aware of his own patterns and take stock of his tendencies.

In order to do this, you will have to establish that you too are willing to come under investigation so that he is not the only object of scrutiny. Teenagers have a huge sense of fairness and justice, and he will spot your lack of authenticity if you are trying to hide something from him. What you are trying to establish here is a culture of self-awareness, or self-examination, in the family leading to follow-up actions that work towards personal goals. You feel that he might be wasting his potential, or giving up on opportunities, and the question for you is to check how you are doing on this same question yourself. Are you making the most of your potential and are you avoiding situations for easier, more glittery ends?

If your son can connect with your challenges, and personal development issues, he may feel more open to allowing you to share in his own self-discovery. It is likely that he can see his tendency towards obsession and the thing to do here is not tell him what you think his problem is but rather ask questions so that he hears himself talk about the pros and cons of following a particular interest to compulsion levels. You might discover that there are lots of pros in this for him and these might include immersion into a topic that brings great satisfaction in the clarity and single-mindedness that it offers. Encourage him to look at the constraints a preoccupation with something can have on his life and maybe start with something less challenging such as his football period. There is no point in you conducting these conversations at your pace, they have to happen in his timeline, and with an honest respect for his self-determination and work for him.

Of course, the danger is that he will impulsively join the army as soon as he is eligible, but I imagine the recruitment process will be thorough and you should investigate this as it might offer you some ease. As an 18-year-old, your son will have access to adult choices and responsibilities that are enshrined in law and many young men take paths that they later change with the wisdom of experience. Your son has a family that supports and loves him and this, together with your determination that he works on his self-awareness, will be a huge protective factor in his life. Interestingly, the military (should he enlist) will encourage full dependency and reliance on his fellow recruits and will force a direction in his life that cannot be derailed for some time.

While this option is not desirable for you, if it is the route he takes you can continue to work on raising the family’s consciousness and reflectiveness so that he can be immersed in this when he is at home.