For The Parents of The Ne'er Do Well Son: Adults That Fail To Thrive

A common theme in many therapy offices these days revolve around the adult son that seems to be adrift. He's often unkind, explosive, jobless, financially strapped, and feared or disliked by his siblings as they repeatedly observe him taking advantage of his parent (s) emotionally or financially.

To remind us, an adult is anyone over 18 years old. Somehow, the lines between adolescent and adult are so blurred that we have become unclear on what the magic number for adulthood is. That in itself is alarming - but many "kids" don't finish college until they are 24 years old, and insurance will allow them as dependents until 25. So, it's easy to see how a parent might want to "give a kid a break" until he gets on his feet. Couple that misdirected sentiment with the high cost of living in many areas - certainly Southern California, where I live - heartstrings are pulled towards excessive parental (usually maternal, but not always) forgiveness and generosity.

Anytime a group of people creates a name for a recognized behavior, the behavior has become a known entity across a wide spectrum, micro vs. macro. Failure to Launch spoke to the young adult living at home, after this new stage of adult (or lack, thereof) became so widely acknowledged. 

In this discussion, the Ne'er Do Well Son, I am talking about a recognized condition even more concerning than the "kid" living in the basement playing video games; it is a reoccurring theme in many families and therapist offices. Family roles are the well-established patterns of each family member - predictable, known, perhaps an on-going source of stress, or even joked about. When a role becomes a known entity, one has to wonder if a new archetype has come into existence. 

The Ne'er Do Son wreaks havoc on a family system.
Here are some examples: 
  • The 29-year old that has his rent paid by a parent because he cannot hold down a job, for a variety of ever-changing reasons.
  • The 42-year old hothead that demands time, attention, and unreasonable understanding from his parent or the family system. The family may suspect that he has a drug or alcohol problem - the parent is the last to know - or a serious mental illness, which is no excuse for immoral or illegal behavior.
  • Walking on eggshells in order to not provoke or upset him. Give him what he needs.
  • On-going financial demands being placed on a parent because son's "money hasn't come through yet" or there is a "mix-up."
  • Making exceptions for him because he was given a diagnosis at some point (e.g., ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, PTSD).
  • Helping out son after he phones, perhaps sweetly or sorrowfully, asking for additional resources (a night of lodging, a gas or food card). If the call begins kindly, but becomes hostile or explosive once a "NO" is given, take this as a grave sign of his expert manipulation.
  • Mom or Dad overcompensating for an earlier self-perceived "parent failure" - I wasn't there for him like I was for the others," "He has always needed extra help" or, "He had _________happen and I feel so badly for him." 
  • Going through money in a manner that is mysterious to all around him; "How can he need more, his rent is free and I gave him $2,500 three weeks ago?"
  • Siblings and worried family members will often approach the parent(s), worried for their financial (sometimes devastating a parent's credit rating) or physical well-being. The emotional wear-and-tear take a serious toll over time. 
  • Parent providing more funds for a sober-living or drug treatment stint, despite numerous prior "gifts" towards this goal that ultimately led to non-compliance with recovery suggestions and prior failures. (Parent: Find Alanon)
  • The adult male that takes no responsibility for his station in life, blames others and creates conflict with authority figures (bosses, teachers, landlords), often leading to conflict, unemployment, police involvement, familial cut-offs, and lack of friendships - the overall "doesn't play well with others."
  • Son uses specific comments to strike terror into the hearts of his caring (worried) family: "My roommates party all night. I have to get out of here." "My co-workers are stealing." "My tires are bald." These are known button-pushers and Mom (or Dad) usually swoop in for the rescue.

I encourage parents to avoid spending their energy on figuring out why this is happening: it doesn't really matter and won't help moving forward. Often times, I hear obvious signs of drug use - but sometimes this young man has simply never been held accountable to his own bad behavior. Low-impulse control, narcissism, explosive personality disorder are additional "reasons" behind his aggressive interactions. Often times the family members are fearful that this man will harm them or their property - either the threats are real, or simply implied. 
For a parent, the worst fears are his death - rivaled by the fear of his withdrawal, rejection, disappearance, homelessness, or his general suffering in any way. Yet, a parent who continues to do for a son what he can and should do for himself is reinforcing the idea that "you can't make it without me." How will he survive when you are gone? Our society of man is less forgiving than mom or dad will ever be and every parent wants her son to succeed!

In the primate social structure, a hierarchy exists - the Injured Monkey is the one determined by all to be helpless, weak, and incompetent, therefore, his intelligent social organization picks up the pieces for him and functions to maintain order (It's worth noting that the subordinate primate has higher stress, less food resources, less copulation and higher mortality). But, our human world doesn't work in that same cooperative fashion. In our world, this lackluster man is isolated and without social connections or romantic partners, cut-off from loved ones, and blaming others for his numerous woes. 

I encourage the siblings and loved-ones to be patient, understanding that the over-giving parent is doing what he/she feels is best (often it sounds like, "I have it to give, so why not?"). 

There will usually be a compromise of sorts, and we can facilitate parents in generating their own realistic set of rules and boundaries. If the family pressures mom to cut-off son cold turkey, her behavior goes underground and she will secretly continues contact and feels shame. After years of an entrenched relational dynamic, it's most likely that parent (s) will continue to "support" their adult son, to a some degree.
There are ways to break the cycle of enabling his helpless behavior by working with an experienced therapist. Often the parent/parents have become addicted to worrying about their adult child - it takes tremendous fortitude to change those well-worn patterns.