Dear Richard: ‘My adult son has turned our home into a war zone’

Dear Richard,

Since graduating with a 2:1 in the summer, our 23-year-old son has returned home but has done almost nothing since. He has got into a rut of going to bed late, getting up at lunchtime, watching daytime television, playing video games, doing no meaningful exercise and eating little other than sweet or processed junk foods. He spreads his untidiness around the house. He will help with chores grudgingly and only after being politely asked to do so multiple times.

While we do not believe in pressurising “John” to “get on with his career” or even get any job right now, his total lack of energy and motivation to do anything positive is a cause of great concern, especially as we have always been hard-working people ourselves.

John also treats us both and his sister with contempt. Any suggestion or encouragement to do something positive, such as take some exercise, have a chat, go on holiday, go for a walk with or without us, cook or just empty the dishwasher, is met with angry accusations about our wish to “control” him. My wife is still recovering from treatment for cancer, and his almost total lack of empathy towards her during her treatment is still shocking to me.

Six months down the line, we are still walking on eggshells in an unhappy and untidy home. Should we just wait for the money to run out (there is a fair amount of this thanks to a legacy from his grandfather, but it won’t last for ever)? Or stage an intervention? (And what would that look like?)

​–​Paul, Bucks

Dear Paul,

I can’t tell you how many letters like this I get. Students returning to the parental nest, degree in one hand, beer can and TV remote in the other. It’s a syndrome, I’m afraid, so at least you can take comfort from the fact that you are very far from alone. What’s more, this has been going on only since the summer – barely six months. Annoying, but again, well within the bounds of widely reported experience.

What I think you need to do now, as the new year is under way, is prioritise your concerns about John. Your letter is a pretty wide shotgun blast against him, isn’t it? Untidy. Sleeps late. Eats rubbish food. Lazy. Hostile to criticism. Watches daytime television indiscriminately. Rude to all. Unsympathetic to his mother’s health issues. Won’t get a job; bums off his grandfather’s legacy. And so on.

What is it that you are really concerned about? His selfish behaviour towards the rest of the family? Or his attitude towards himself? Are you more irritated with him, or more worried for him? Have a think about this, Paul. You need to focus before taking action.

My guess is that however annoying your boy’s behaviour may be, you are fundamentally more exercised by his total lack of direction and motivation. So what lies behind his sullen torpidity?

I would suggest it’s lack of confidence. He’s stepping from the relative security of extended education into the real, bruising world of the competitive jobs market. That would explain his aggression when challenged. He feels cornered, so he lashes out. It would also explain his self-obsession and consequent lack of empathy with his mother.

So confrontation – along the lines of “our house, our rules, or else” – though tempting, is unlikely to help. If John were my son, I’d take him out to the pub for lunch and gently explore his doubts and fears. I’m sure it’s insecurity that lies behind his boorish behaviour, and if you can get him to talk about that , you’ll be on the road to the breakthrough you seek. But tread softly, Paul. I reckon your boy’s more scared than stroppy. And if his state of mind comes to be more of a worry than an irritation, then has useful advice and contacts in the case of a loved one suffering from depression.

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