Family Almanac

How can a mother help her son stand on his own two feet?

(Hadley Hooper for The Washington Post)
By Marguerite Kelly
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Q. My sister and her 24-year-old son need help.

Although he has struggled with a learning disability all his life, he did go to an expensive, private college for a while and then joined the service, but he was discharged for tardiness and similar infractions. He returned to his old college after that and lived with his girlfriend, but she just told my sister that their lease will expire shortly, that they are breaking up, that he hasn't been going to class, and that he has lied about it to both of them. She also told her that the Adderall he takes has made his hands shaky and that he has been locking himself in the bathroom for extended periods and exhibiting other signs of depression.

My nephew also lost his father this year, a man who had struggled with alcoholism for years and was always trying to make ends meet. My sister divorced him many years ago. But now my nephew has started smoking cigarettes just like his dad did, and maybe marijuana as well.

My sister is at her wits' end and furious with her son, who won't return her phone calls anymore. And yet she expects him to live with her again and to support him, too, because she doesn't think he'll find a job in this economy or could care for himself if he did.

She may be right. My nephew isn't highly motivated, he has little incentive to find work, and he doesn't know what he wants to do. He once showed a passion for rowing (he was on the crew team in college for a while), and he likes computers but found computer engineering too difficult.

I've told my sister that college isn't for everyone and that she needs to pay for vocational testing and training and then set a deadline for him to get a job. But she's afraid of losing him if she cuts off financial support. I've also suggested that they both seek counseling because she explodes at him when he screws up.

Should my sister let him live on the money that was set aside for college? He may not manage it well, but shouldn't he start taking care of himself?

A. Your sister couldn't stuff her son into a mold when he was a boy, and she can't do it now.

Instead she needs to stow her anger and most of her plans. If her son moves back home, he will just get more depressed. If he lives on his college fund, he still won't know what to do when he has spent the money.

It would be better if your sister pays the rent and the utilities for an inexpensive studio apartment for him until he gets on his feet, and gives him a bus pass so he can look for a job, and enough money to buy groceries (but not enough to buy cigarettes -- or pot).

In return for this largesse, he should get a complete physical, so his mom will know that he's okay, as well as a surprise drug test since pot can cause depression and kill motivation, too. She may not like the results, but at least she'll know the truth.

He also needs to see a psychiatrist who is experienced enough to know whether he should be taking Adderall -- or any drug -- or whether he's taking the right dose, because the dose or the drug itself often needs to be changed after two years.

If your nephew does need Adderall, it probably means that he has ADD or ADHD, which would affect his ability to take notes, which college requires, and get to places on time, which military service demands. If he can't do these things, he probably has a low self-esteem, especially if he has a learning disability, too.

If your sister and her son see a good family therapist together, however, they'll probably develop a better relationship and she may even realize that he can be a good I.T. guy without getting a degree in computer science or become a great chef without studying nutrition.

Kelly is a freelance writer. Questions? Send them to

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