I recently received a rather disheartening email from a mother of a 26-year-old man who – in her words – has "refused to grow up". She also described him as a ‘man-child’ who is totally dependent on her; couldn’t make his own bed, cook his own food and was generally as irresponsible as an eight-year-old. She was frustrated to say the least, did not know what to do and wondered how it got to the point that her son had become so "useless".
While a few choice words come to mind and how easy it is to tell her to kick his lazy rear out to the curb, this offers no solution because then we will have to deal with the issue of parental guilt. While I continue to work with my client, one thing that stuck to my mind is how she has no clue as to how her son could possibly have turned out the way he did. Just listening to her talk and share how she raised him, how she gave him everything he needed, how she never said no to any of his demands is like neon lights going off in my head and it seems ludicrous that she cannot tie this ‘parenting’ style to the child she has now. She agreed to let me share her experiences in this article so that I can possibly help another parent who is doing what she did and is unknowingly set to reap the same.
Marriage and family therapists Dennis and Robin Gibson in their book ‘The Sandwich Years’ address this issue of the ‘slothful’ adult-child perfectly and one of the first things they talk about is parents who have a hard time letting their children fail. It could be based on the motivation of not wanting your child to feel ‘inferior’ or simply more self-serving, that is, what will my friends or peers think. Therefore because of this, the poor-child is never allowed to do anything! Even their school work is supervised under the microscope and has to be perfect. The authors give an example of a mother who would not let her pre-school child colour her drawing book because she couldn’t keep the colouring within the lines – so she did it for her.
The effect of this is that the child has an unrealistic outlook to life; they never expect to fail and they grow with an unhealthy sense of entitlement, that is, life owes them which translates to them being tyrannical brats. Secondly, this child learns to look for parental bailouts and sets ‘easy’ goals, never really having to expend themselves because ‘mom and dad will come to my rescue and if not them, then someone else will.’
Another perspective is that of the parent who has not detached from the child and is now faced with the task of attempting to do so with an uncooperative adult. This is a dilemma that is in many ways similar to that of parents with addicted children because their ‘slothful’ child is as addicted to the parental permissiveness much in the same way a drug addict is to his/her drug of choice. While the Gibsons insist that a parent must wean the youth off parental dependence, they need to do so gradually. They need to apply all the principles of tough love which is simply doing what you say you will do, when you say you will do it in exactly the way you said you would do it.
The effect of this is that when a parent takes a new stance and backs it up with action, the youth is forced to sit up and notice. There is a paradigm shift in the dynamics of the relationship and the youth realises that it is no longer business as usual. For example, instead of yelling ‘you are leaving today!’, set new ground rules, clear boundaries and expectations and through your administration of them, make that ‘child’ realise that ‘my parents can actually throw me out; they can actually throw me out – it is no longer a joke.’
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