How To Mentor An Unhealthy Young Adult (And How Not To)

How To Mentor An Unhealthy Young Adult (And How Not To)

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 079 · Duration: 00:13:50

How To Mentor An Unhealthy Young Adult (And How Not To)

Very often, we’ll have an under-functioning young adult who is close to us that we want to help, but should we help? And if so, what’s the right way to do it? We’ll talk about that and more this week!

Today, we’re answering a question from Karen. She writes:How To Mentor An Unhealthy Young Adult (And How Not To)_2

So here’s a weird situation. I am concerned about my underachieving young adult niece. Her parents are absent/unable/unwilling to provide the type of support that she needs at this critical age. Furthermore, she lives far away from her parents, but close to me and some of our other relatives. I would like to help her grow, become more responsible and in general, get her shit together without being an enabler. So far as I can see, there are two extra challenges for me that a parent would not have a) I’m not her parent and b) I’m in my late twenties and she considers me to be more of a sister than an aunt. She has dropped out of community college, has terrible eating habits, which are making her sick, smokes too much pot and struggles with managing her money. She has, however, expressed an interest in returning to community college. I am considering trying to work with her to 1) develop a budgeting system 2) begin planning meals 3) provide encouragement/a sense of urgency to get back into college. But I want to do all of this in a way that empowers her to do these things for herself rather than in a way that says “someone will always swoop in and save you”. Any suggestions for an aunt who wants to help a YA?

Thanks for your question, Karen! Yes, helping, supporting, and not enabling an under-functioning young adult is tough to do under the best of circumstances. In addition to your not being her parent and being close to her age, the most significant challenge you have is that she isn’t asking for help or asking for anything. It seems she’s supporting herself even though it’s at a low level. So we get into trouble when we want something for someone that they may not want for themselves. Or if they do want it, they may not be ready to make the sacrifices necessary to get it. So if you start out by pointing out her self-limiting behaviors, she’s pretty likely to become defensive and put you in the category of critical unsupportive people in her life whom she doesn’t need, and then stay away from you.

Let’s frame your question this way, is there a way that I can be a mentor to my niece, given that she hasn’t asked for that? And the answer is, ta-daaaaa, maybe.

Ideas To Make Mentoring Happen

To get anywhere with your niece, you need to start with accepting her for who she is, self-destructive lifestyle and all. Appreciate her good points and her abilities and when you are around her, you can set an example of healthy behavior and thoughtful, mature communication. Be a good role model. But you’ll need to stay away from anything that sounds like criticism or judgment. Encouragement, YES! Criticism and judgment, NO.

Now, your niece, having expressed an interest in returning to community college is an opening you can work with.

What if you tried this (let’s call your niece Angie)?: “Angie, it’s terrific that you want to go back to community college, I think that’s a great idea. It’s really clear that those of us who have a college education, have way better career opportunities and overall quality of life. So anything I can do to support you in that, I’m happy to.”

Then, if she’s still thinking in that direction, you can offer: “Whenever I have a goal or something I want for myself, I start by using a success enhancement tool. If you'd like, I’ll show you how I use it.”

If she bites, make a time to show her, don’t do it on the spot. If you do it on the spot, she won’t be ready to accept and utilize it.

By making a time, it creates a little drama and makes it more important, and her showing up demonstrates and supports her investment in an outcome.Click To Tweet If she declines, well, there’s your answer about being able to help her, at least at this time. If she does show up, then help her make a kind of strategic plan but we’ll call it a “success enhancement tool.

The Success Enhancement Tool

You’ll explain it to her this way, “I start by asking myself, why do I want this thing or goal, why is it important to me? And I write it all down, so let's start with that.” And do that part with her.

And then go on: “Then I list all the things I have going for me that can help me get this. In your case, Angie, you might list, 'I’m smart, I’m motivated, I have a college near me, I have the time, it isn’t expensive, I’ve been there and know what to expect.'  Then, I list the things that can interfere with success or that I’ll need in order to be successful that I don’t have or need to get. What are some other things you have going for yourself?"

Here is where you need to tread lightly Karen. See if you can get her to identify her self-limiting issues such as:

  • I get sick a lot.
  • It’s hard to stay motivated.
  • I don’t have good study skills.
  • I run out of money a lot and aren’t sure if I can afford to go.

It would be great if she could identify marijuana abuse as an issue. If not, you could bring it up by asking her if she thinks MJ use helps or hurts her chances of success. Keep things in question format so that the answers are hers, not yours.

Stay reassuring and say, “This is great, you’re being honest with yourself. That’s a sure sign that you’re growing up and are ready to take steps to enhance your own success. Now let’s talk together about how you might address these issues.”

The Growth Mindset

Karen, the idea is to coax Angie into identifying her own strengths, problems, and solutions. She may need help identifying her strengths and you can help her with that and you can carefully help her identify areas of opportunity.

We want her to understand that she can develop a Growth Mindset, in other words, the belief and attitude that whatever she isn’t yet good at, with persistent effort, that will change and she will get good at it. I’ve mentioned this in previous podcasts, but it always bares repeating; research by Carol Dweck, and explained in her landmark book, Mindset, reveals that successful individuals have the belief that if they work at something, they can get smarter and better at it. By approaching your niece and helping her build a plan to get better in certain areas, you are helping her adopt the attitude of a Growth Mindset. You can even be explicit in explaining that to her, that she doesn’t need to be ashamed of her needs to improve areas, she just needs a plan to address them.

All this being said, the bottom line is that you can’t want this for your niece more that she wants it for herself;

You can be a good role model, a good support, and offer help, In other words, be a good mentor. But at the end of the day, she has to step up and accept your mentoring.Click To Tweet You need to stay with your own attitude of acceptance and caring for who she is, more than for who or how you want her to be. She’ll smell the judgment if it’s there and will back off.

Karen, however this works out, I think you’re fabulous for wanting to mentor your niece.

To All The Mentors Out There...

I read Amy Dickenson’s advice column this morning where a father was wondering what to do about a marital decision his 25-year-old son was making with a woman he’s only known for 3 months; Amy’s advice was to stay out of it. I like reading Amy’s column and find her advice usually dead on. This time, I disagree. Dad has the opportunity to be a mentor to his son; invite him for a long walk, go for a beer together, and talk about his own experiences and observations in life. Let his son know about his concerns, pose good questions, but of course, also let his son know that whoever he marries, he’ll love her, welcome her into the family, and treat her with respect. I’m all for Amy’s advice about boundaries, but we need to mentor our young adults and when we see problems, we should offer our guidance and support.

So parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and helpers of all kinds, to help or mentor another is a wonderful and valuable thing. In so doing we harness their desire for success and growth and offer them the tools to access it. But let’s all ask ourselves,

Are we bringing our vision of who others are and how they’re supposed to be? Or are we carrying an attitude of acceptance and a willingness to help? The difference between the two is the difference between health and dysfunction.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and special thanks to you Karen for your question! Do you know someone struggling with raising a teenager or has a child entering their teen years? If so, why not get them a copy of my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle? Many parents have told me it was the least expensive and most effective therapy session they’ve ever had.

And please remember, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.


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When it comes to unhealthy young adults, we often want to step right in and mentor them. In this delicate situation, there is a right and wrong way to help.
Posted in The Healthy Family Connections Podcast.

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