The college grad who won’t grow up

October 24, 2011

Q. My son, a brilliant young man, just graduated from college but he doesn’t have a job and either lives at home or at his girlfriend’s apartment. He doesn’t want us to know what he is doing, even though he was raised in a loving, easygoing family. We never pushed him, and we always accepted him for the person he was.

And why not? My son was one of the top achievers in high school — he wanted to find the cure for cancer — but he seemed to fall apart when he went to college. He even failed some classes because he couldn’t be bothered to go to them.

When my husband and I last spoke with him, we asked him to tell us why he isn’t applying for a job, what his girlfriend is like and what he wants in life. His answers were:

I don’t want to be rejected;

I don’t want to talk about my girlfriend and


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

I don’t know what I want in life.

It makes me very sad that our son will not communicate with us.

We only know that his girlfriend was emotionally abused when she was growing up; that she has many fears; that she is a born-again Christian whose family prays for our salvation every day (we’re Jewish); and that she and my son live together at times, although I’m sure her parents don’t know that.

However, she swears she doesn’t ‘live with’ our son because good Christian girls do not live with their boyfriends. When I told someone in her church that they did, in fact, live together, she said, “Oh, no, you must be lying! She is a nice girl!”

Our son’s behavior worries me more. How can we get him to talk with us about his life? And how can we encourage him to apply himself? We love our boy and don’t want to alienate him any more than we already have.

A. Your son may have fallen into depression, which often pops up in the late teens or early 20s, or gotten mono. But more likely, his adjustment to college was harder than you knew.

Although your son was a star in high school, he may have quit trying when he realized how many stars there were at his college and that their lights were just as bright as his.

Competition may not have been the only challenge that your son faced.

He might have smoked a lot of pot, for instance, which can make some people withdraw and lose their motivation, or he could have been partying too much. When the national drinking age was pushed to 21, college students began to hide their parties, and pretty soon the drinking grew and the students and the parties got even wilder. Getting drunk — and bragging about it — is the goal for many college students, and binge drinking is more common, too.

Tell the doctor about your worries and ask her to give your son a thorough physical and a drug test, too. If she can’t find the cause of the problem, she may think he needs an antidepressant and talk therapy, the combo that works best for depression.

The problem may not be that complicated however. Your son may tell you that he was afraid that you would repeat what he said, especially to a member of his girlfriend’s church. Or that he was as fearful as his girlfriend.

This fear should not surprise you, for the 20s can be much more upsetting to young adults than the teens. Suddenly, they realize that they need to know things that couldn’t be taught in school, such as what kind of careers they should have, where they should live and if they should move in with their girlfriends and boyfriends or marry them or move on.

You can’t make life-altering decisions for your son or even push him along. But you can encourage his good ideas, ignore the bad ones and listen to him without giving him any advice. He also needs to pick up after himself; to do his own laundry and to wash the windows, paint a room or do some other major chore every month, which he will do more willingly if you treat him like a man, not a child.

An adult will act like a grown-up if he’s treated like a grown-up. But he’ll act like a child if you treat him like a child. And he’ll do it for the rest of his life.

Join Kelly Thursday at noon for a live Web chat. Submit questions and read the transcript here.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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