parenting an 18-year-old
Just finished reading your book, Dr. B. How I wish I'd had it three or four years ago to prepare me for what we're going through now.
I have an acting-out 18-year-old son. His father and I are divorced (9 years ago); I am remarried (6 years ago). My son lives with his dad, somewhat unhappily, but by his choice (I still can't figure that one out - why would my son stay with his dad while telling me his dad is "mean," "stupid," "an *****," "a moron," "a jerk"?) Three months ago my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, oppositional defiance disorder and, if that weren't enough, drug abuse/addiction (marijuana). He's under the care of a shrink and on target to graduate from high school. My question is, what should the next step be? I'm finding it challenging to parent this legal adult.
Thankfully, he still respects the curfews I set for him when he's with us; there is no outright anger or raging going on. His father thinks he should be kept on a short leash and that going away to school in the fall is out of the question. I tend to disagree. I find myself erring on the side of giving this kid a little more independence (he is chomping at the bit to live in his own place or with a friend rather than with a parent). Wouldn't it be beneficial for my son to see, along with his peers, what real responsibility feels like?
In regard to my ex, I cannot be objective: in my opinion, he is an angry, controlling, emotionally abusive man (I lived with him for 15 years), and I think my son would do well to be out of that environment (my son actually lived with us for about 9 months last year but then went back to his dad's when his father took away his car for bad grades). My son is currently in an outpatient rehab program, taking regular drug tests, looking for a job. Unfortunately, he is in trouble with the law and faces a possession charge from an incident in January; that will be dealt with in a couple of weeks and we're expecting his being placed on probation.
This all feels so tricky to me. He's 18. Yes, he's been in trouble and made mistakes in recent months. Does that mean we should treat him like a 12-year-old for the foreseeable future? A real challenge for me recently is that I've not known how much of his bad behavior (lying, skipping school, traffic violations, etc.) should be attributed to bipolar disorder, the pot use or plain old teenage craziness. I think we're making progress, but I wonder when my "real" kid will emerge from the fog and what type of limits I should put on him in the meantime. Feedback would be welcome....my 20-year-old daughter was a breeze compared to this kid! :/
Your questions are excellent ones which need to be answered quickly, but only by the shrinks who have been working with your son. Because your son is 18, they will need his permission to chat with you, and he might not be willing to give that. A better idea might be to ask to have a few "family" sessions where you can lay out your concerns and see if you can arrive at some answers.
Again, he must agree to this, so present it by saying that you are sure that you are making him crazy with some things that you do, and that sitting down together might help everyone sort things out.
Yes, you are correct. Parenting troubled 18-year-olds is very tricky since legally they pretty much viewed as adults. But everyone, including the 18-year-olds, know that they are not really adults, and that they still need skilled parenting. Your son likely knows this as well, so perhaps he will take you up on your request for family sessions.
Good luck, and let us know how you make out.
Dr. Mike Bradley
Exhausted Parents of 18 year-old son
I have an18 year-old in his first year in college away from home. He is doing well academically in this highly rated liberal arts college. Since the end of his junior year of high school we have been providing intervention for self-destructive behavior (ie. alcohol, nicotine, pot, sex, rage, and anger). Until this point he was a straight “A” honor student. Intervention included therapists, psychologists, addiction specialist-pediatrician, alcohol awareness program court mandated for underage alcohol citation, a 21 day wilderness program, and most importantly Dr. Bradley’s book. He has always cooperated with the help we offered him and we continue a loving relationship with him per Dr. Bradley’s admonition. He is on prozac therapy. However all of his self-destructive behaviors continue. He often repents but returns to his self-destructive behaviors almost immediately. We fear that his self-destructive behavior will eventually affect his academics. We encourage him to seek help from the abundance of college resources. We are dispassionate with him. We are exhausted, he consumes our attention despite having a 16 year-old daughter to raise that is Ms. Perfect. We feel guilty that we don’t want him to come home during semester breaks and summers. We are encouraging him to find a summer job or internship away from home. We know that he will challenge any house rules we create to curb his self-destructive behavior. Under what conditions would it be acceptable not to have an 18 or older son not come home? Are we guilty of having a conditional love? He has consumed an enormous amount of our resources. We just want a little of our lives back.
First, at the risk of arrogant second guessing, have any of the shrinks considered that your son may have a form of bi-polar disorder which requires very different meds than Prozac? If this has not been looked at, get quickly to a psychiatrist who specializes in adolescents for an evaluation. Those behaviors often indicate a mood disorder requiring mood regulators (stabilizers) versus anti-depressants.
Next, poll all the professionals who have worked with your kid. Ask what percentage of his behavior might be volitional, and what part might be out of his control. For example, if he displays emotional discipline in other settings (i.e.school) and only snaps out at home, then he's "deciding" to be a punk at home. If that's the case, then remember that you've gone more than the mile with your son in attempting to provide him with all of the tools to help him get in charge of himself. The one thing that you haven't given him is the wisdom of maturity. That, of course, is the one thing none of us can give to our kids. Only life can do that.
If the shrinks agree that he should be able to exert more control at home, then I would see the next "therapy" for your son in being asked to not come home until he beats his problem. Get lots of advice from the shrinks who know your son before you do this, since he might be at great risk on his own. But I've often seen angry 18-year-olds learn to control their tempers after having to fend for themselves for awhile away from home.
Good luck and please keep us posted.
Dr. Mike Bradley
Dear Dr. Bradley
After some consultation, I e-mailed the following to my son in college:
"Hi XXXX, We need to discuss with you about coming home for Christmas and for other times in the future. Our love and support for you should be very evident. Although we want to enjoy your presence, we do not want to endure, any longer, self-destructive behaviors in our home (ie. use of nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, hookah, and inappropriate sex). In the past you have been open in sharing some of your success and failures in overcoming these behaviors. I can’t pretend to understand all the struggles involved. We are always available to help and the school has many resources. Can you understand our desire to maintain our home as a blessing, especially if you may someday desire to come home to start a career. We love you but despise the behavior.
He has not responded and I intend to approach him soon on this subject. Have you had patients that consciously or unconsciously try to sabotage anything good that happens to them? My son is a high achiever but a very anxious person. I model similar behavior. Acceptance to a prestigious liberal arts college, girlfriends of good influence, fulfilling wilderness experience, and other positive encounters (by his own admission) have always ended with self-destructive behavior. He seems to sabotage the good that happens to him. Can you give further enlightenment on this observation?
I would like to encourage you to pursue writing a daily devotion book for parents of adolescent children. I think it will give strength to our task. It can contain excerpts from your book and other encouragements and hopeful testimonies.
There are many possible explanations for these behaviors, but the only explanations that count are ones that come from your son. Since he's unwilling to address these (yet), then lovingly but firmly drawing your "line in the sand" is likely the best way to move him closer to confronting himself and whatever demons he's fighting.
I love your idea about a daily devotion book for parents of adolescents (particularly being a parent myself). But perhaps all of us "veteran" parents can best write that book together.
ATTENTION PARENTS: Please send in any thoughts you have that might be inspirational for those of us who struggle with tough teens.
Dr. Mike Bradley
This is an update. Our son agreed to the terms for coming home for the Christmas holidays. As we expected, he did not live up to the terms of refraining from self-destructive behavior while at home. We told him that he was not welcomed home for his spring break nor for summer vacation. We told him that we would pay his school tuition, room, and board but his daily expenses was his responsibility (we did not want to provide any funding for his self-destructive behavior). At first he tried negotiating with us without sucess. He told us that almost everyone on campus practice these behaviors. He is frustrated that our moral bar is so high. He has done some reflection on the demons in his life. But he has done this before. We have called him once since his return to college to assure him of our love for him. I suspect his remorse will eventually turn to anger toward us. It remains to be seen if his self-destructive behavior will continue due to a desire to be popular or some other cause or pain. I once heard that US Presidents that desire to be popular often have moral failures and that US Presidents that have strong convictions will make decisions that are not popular. I hope my son will someday mature to have the moral convictions necessary to make a difference in this world. Is this behavior part of "identity formation" and "separation anxieties"? Why is this behavior on the college campus more the rule than the exception?
Yes, this is all likely part of his identity formation, a task made much more difficult these days where so many kids seem to be so engaged in self-destructive behaviors. But the fact remains that MOST kids do not do these things to the extent that your son is, and if he so chose, he could find many kids at school who are more positive. The fact that he might surround himself with other drug-involved folks is just another issue in his identity "in-box" that he needs to confront when he's ready.
In the interim, do not give in to his argument that "it's OK because so many people do this." Respond by asking him if Nazi deathcamps, or American slavery were OK because so many people seemed "cool" with these horrors. Hold fast to your values, in a firm, yet quiet and loving fashion. Keep telling him that you love him, and that it breaks your heart to not have him home. But that you love him far too much to enable him to destroy himself.
Hang in there. Remember that these battles are marathons, not sprints. Please continue to keep us all posted.
Dr. Mike Bradley
Update: Spring break is here. My brother's family has graciously invited him to their home for spring vacation and possibly for summer vacation. We have kept in touch weekly and have expressed our love. He has maintained his academics. But he has asked us to come home for a few days to see his friends (the ones he choose to introduce him to self-destructive behaviors). He says he has stopped smoking all substances. His lack of congestion seems to affirm this. Alcohol, sex, and pot is an unknown. We have tried to involve him in the decision with considerations of extra plane fare, his uncle's plans, and his need to look for a summer job there. We are very anxious about the possibility of him coming home, of needing to extend our trust one more time, and dealing with his self-destructive behavior at home. I wrote the following to him in hopes that it will influence his identity formation.
"Hi XXXXX: As you know Mom and I are struggling about the decision of you coming home for spring break. What makes this decision difficult is that probably the worst thing you have done to Mom and I over the last few years has been to betray our trust in you. You would say what we hoped to hear and you would do otherwise. This is despite our continuous attempts to extend our trust in you. The behaviors you choose is an area that you must address for yourself. History has shown that what is popular has rarely been profitable. I am hopeful that you are becoming wiser, with more conviction, as your identity forms. I am convinced there is no better place for that to happen for you than at XXXXXX college. But I fully intend to defend the blessings of our home. Please take this into consideration before asking to come home.
Whether or not you are religious, you might want to read or reread the Biblical story of The Prodigal Son. For me, the thought is that as a parent, we must individually accept and value each child in his or her own context. I recall that you also have a "perfect" daughter at home, with whom your son likely cannot compete since he is the "family screw-up." This might make it very hard for him to reach out and try to become part of your family again.
I say all that as preface to offering what I would do in your place. I think that you have made your values lovingly but firmly clear to your son. That done, then now embrace any reaching out that your son does as a possible breakthrough, and just welcome him home. Hug him hard and tell him that you missed him terribly. You don't need to talk about the drug issues, but you do need to talk about the trust issues, that the thing you want most in the world is for him to tell you straight up what is going on.
If he falls again, then, yes, you must ask him to leave again. But do that dispassionately saying, "I know that soon you're going to beat this demon. Our door is always open to you. We love and miss you terribly." This is telling him that you love him, and hate his drug use; that self-destruction will never be welcomed in your home, but that your sober son can never lose his place at your table.
Be well, and please keep us posted.
Dr. Mike Bradley
Thank you for your timely and considerate response. I and others thank you for your love for our children. You have continued to encourage us to focus on what is important and to help us sort through our emotional baggage. It is a difficult adjustment for parents to concede to their young adults the dangerous experimentation and self-destructive behavior that is presented to them. The process of identity formation means at some point it is wise to let go. Consistent with your message I treasure the message of the book and movie, “A River Runs Through It,” by Norman Maclean. His father’s last sermon, reflecting on one of his sons, makes the following statement:
“Each one of us here today will, at one time in our lives, look upon a loved one in need and ask the same question: We are willing Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true that we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, that part we have to give…is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us… But we can still love them… We can love – completely – even without complete understanding…”
I will continue to keep you updated hoping that others may be helped.
Update Spring Break
The good news is that our son made several efforts to reach out to us during his college spring break at home. The disappointing news is that he continues to struggle with self-destructive substance use. He made large efforts to spend time with us and to share with candor. We made deliberate efforts to stay positive and dispassionate. We went to movies, dined out, and shopped together. He has said "no" to some parties and even allowed us to drop him off and pick him up from a party. He has also admitted his one time pot use and occasional nicotine use while with friends during this spring break. He continues to find value in his prozac prescription. I read recently that our faith must dictate our hopes. We continue to attempt to exercise restrain as our son goes through this period of identity formation.
Justifying pot use?
Dr. Bradley: I need help in responding to this e-mail from my son. I could not give a response that would stand up against a judge. It appears that this judge is quoted by every pro-pot web site.
"i appreciate your concern....but i have everything taken care of...i am a grown up now...and also...u should know this...the Drug Enforcement Amniistration's own administrative law judge concluded after extensive testimony that marijuana in it's natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man...im not saying i smoke pot regularly...i smoke very occassionally with a couple buddies...maybe once every couple weeks to relieve stress...cigarettes are deadly...thats undisputable and i quit those vowing never to return to them"
I don't want to ruin the progress our relationship has made.
These are blind alley arguments that you probably should not engage in with your son, but if you want some catchy retorts here are three:
"Yes, and Dr. Timothy Leary (a very smart guy with a Ph.D. , highly respected in his field at one time, swore that his extensive research proved LSD to be pretty much the answer for all of mankind's ills."
"Check out the NIH (National Institutes of Health) research that showed one MJ joint to contain at least 3 times the carcinogens of those cigarettes you see as so harmful."
"Those cigarettes you so smartly fear used to be PRESCRIBED as healthful 'medications' by physicians."
Better to just say, "Well, that's one man's opinion, and man who happens to be a judge, not a researcher or a clinician. I don't know about you son, but occasionally I disagree vehemently with what some judges conclude from the evidence they see. But, in any event, before I do risky things I like to talk to a lot of experts to see what MOST of them say. And most credentialled experts would disgree that marijuana is harmless, particularly for younger folks with softer brains. But thanks for keeping me current with the debate on this. By the way, son, does this mean that you want me to send you the opinions of other experts to consider? Let me know. Love, Dad"
The bottom line is keep doing what you've done so well so far. Keep agreeing to disagree, and let him know that you love him way to much to support his doing things you think can hurt him.
Hang in there.
Dr. Mike Bradley
Thank you for guiding me through a mine field and with short notice. My son was caught with his dorm room smoke detector covered and devices for use of pot. I saw through his half-truths that he was in trouble. It is difficult to discern the line between enabling and maintaining a loving relationship with the thought (hope?) that the overall trend is positive. With your help the following was my response to an emotionally charged son:
"I am sorry about the anxiety created. It never seems to occur at a good time. I am a parent of a young adult. You are old enough to be under the law of the state as an adult and young enough to still benefit from a loving parent. Laws are made to protect us from ourselves and to protect others. All these bright, successful leaders who have failed, failed because they broke the law or choose unethical conduct. The CEO of Enron had a phd in economics… he will go to prison.
Concerning the testimony of the judge, that's one man's opinion, and a man who happens to be a judge, not a researcher or a clinician. I don't know about you, but occasionally I disagree with what some judges conclude from the evidence they see. But, in any event, before I do risky things I like to talk to a lot of experts to see what MOST of them say. And most credentialed experts would disagree that marijuana is harmless, particularly for younger folks with softer brains.
“Even infrequent use can cause burning and stinging of the mouth and throat, often accompanied by a heavy cough. Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same respiratory problems that tobacco smokers do, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, a heightened risk of lung infections, and a greater tendency to obstructed airways (10). Smoking marijuana increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the head or neck, and the more marijuana smoked the greater the increase(11). A study comparing 173 cancer patients and 176 healthy individuals produced strong evidence that marijuana smoking doubled or tripled the risk of these cancers.”
Those fines imposed on you are listed in our parent handbook. Your offense is very serious in terms of jeopardizing the lives of others. Suspension or dismissal is possible. We will loan you the money to pay the fine. Do we write it to XXX College? You can understand that we have difficulty writing checks to your friends, not knowing what we are really paying for. As you know your half-truths and broken promises have taken a toll on our relationship of trust. I love you way to much to support you doing things that will hurt you ultimately.
We will be visiting him next week. I will read, again, my highlighted areas in my now worn book by you. My wife and I continue to remind each other of our long term hope that you have helped us see is possible.