An Expiration Date for Young People Living at Home?

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I’m hoping you can help out with my twenty-seven-year-old son. He doesn’t have a drug problem or anything, and I don’t think he’s especially depressed. He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) back in high school, and nothing has ever been the same since. He’s really just an older version of the kid he was in high school. He doesn’t hold a job very long, and he’s not ambitious at all. He started college and dropped out. Like I said, he doesn’t abuse alcohol or drugs. I don’t think he’s depressed because he has a girlfriend (about as unambitious as he is), and he hangs out with friends. He’s not listless or gloomy.

The problem is that he’s living with us. His father and I seem much more bothered by this fact than he does. To us, it’s a glaring reminder that he’s not getting on with life; that he’s stagnating. If he was living with us to pursue college or graduate school, that would be one thing. But he’s going nowhere … slowly.

Some friends have suggested that we kick him out of the house. Give him notice, of course, but tell him he has to grow up sooner or later. Living at home has an expiration date! We’d like to know what you think of that idea. In all honesty, I can’t see this happening. If we push him out on his own before he’s ready, he might become depressed and then take a serious turn for the worse. Maybe it’s better to stick with the trouble we know, and let this play out naturally?

My reply:

Here’s the contradiction I see in what you’re saying.

On the one hand, you want your son to believe in himself. You want him to develop and demonstrate the confidence required to move out on his own and become a little more ambitious.

At the same time, you don’t have the confidence that he can do it. That’s the contradiction. It’s clear as day to me. I’ll bet it is to your son, too.

You cannot give your son confidence. He has to foster this within himself. However, by acting as if you don’t believe in him or trust him to cope with living on his own, you’re implying that you don’t believe in him, either. I’m not blaming you for his problem; but I am holding you responsible for making it worse.

The only solution here is to decide on a date (with your husband) when you will require him to exit. I once had some friends who did this with their 18/20-year-old kids. They lived in a big house, and the family relations actually were pretty good. As a result, it was tempting for the kids to stay even when they were no longer kids. The parents wished to go back to traveling and doing other things they had been involved in twenty years before. So what did they do? Put the house on the market. That drove the message home really fast.

I’m not suggesting you sell your house if you don’t want to move. But I use the example to show how important it is to show your son (not merely tell him) that you mean it. You and your husband may have to get creative.

I realize you might not follow what I’m advising, even though you asked me. It’s too much trouble, and it’s too frightening. There might be a scene, or even several. I get all that. You’re probably a peaceful and reasonable person, and you don’t want to spend your days and nights engaged in melodrama.

But there’s a slow melodrama occurring right under your roof right now. It’s a crisis of confidence and self-respect, and it’s going on in your son. You know that, because you told me as much in your note.

You don’t really have a choice about conflict. Take your pick. Either postpone the inevitable and worsening problem with your son; or confront it now and get it over with.

And by the way, don’t focus on the ADHD label. Your son manages to focus on his priorities. He manages to pay attention enough to find and sustain a girlfriend and a circle of friends. He has the capacity. He’s just not utilizing it when it comes to holding a job or planning on a place to live.

Tell him you believe in him. And show him you believe in him, by putting an expiration date on his already prolonged childhood under your roof.

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