The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 065 · Duration: 00:16:19



How Will My Irresponsible Son Be Successful In College?

Many parents feel the burden of pushing their teenager to manage their responsibilities, and then worry that their teenager will fail college when parents aren’t there to manage them.

Ellen of Houston Texas writes:

How Will My Irresponsible Son Be Successful In CollegeGetting my son to the finish line of high school graduation is a nightmare. We’ve had to push him every step of the way. He did manage to be accepted to college, but now I’m concerned that he won’t succeed once he’s there. Every semester was the same thing; undone assignments and needing to do a ton of makeup work the last three weeks. He always needs the Internet to do his work, but unless we policed him, he’d be playing games or watching YouTube videos. He is diagnosed with mild ADHD but doesn’t like the medication so doesn’t take it. After coming home from work, I’d have to get him to do his work, and then I’d still have emails and work to do before I could go to sleep. We had to stay on him to fill out college admission applications and get them in on time. I’m frustrated and exhausted from staying on top of him. How does a kid like this succeed in college?

Well Ellen, That’s a darn good question. How does a kid like this succeed in college? In order to succeed in college, kids need to have the desire and skills to succeed and your son seems to be lacking in motivation and organizational skills. The unknown here is how he will be when his mother is not there to organize and manage him. Has he grown so dependent on you that he is too immature to take the reins of his life and go forward, or will he step up?

Parental Burnout Is Taking Place

A lot of freshmen have a poor first semester in college. It’s the first time many kids have had the freedom to fail and need to experience that before they choose to succeed.

But Ellen, let’s look at a few things behind your question. You have been in a Control Battle with your son for a long time. It may not be a violent one, but it’s one where you try to get him to manage his responsibilities, and he avoids his responsibilities. Where has this gotten the two of you? Your son has gotten good at avoidance, and you are suffering from parental burnout.

How do I know this? Your son, at 17 or 18 years old, was able to get into college with low effort. That means he’s pretty darn bright. He has the capabilities to learning organizational skills and managing responsibilities.

You say that you are frustrated and exhausted. Of course you are. You are being his motivation for him and you’re carrying the responsibility of worrying about his success for him, that’s too much to carry. When you say you are frustrated and exhausted, those are words that describe parental burnout; where parents become chronically emotionally, mentally, and physically fatigued. You feel like no matter what you do, it won’t be enough. You have been trying to keep your son on track and wish he would do that for himself. But he doesn’t. You ask yourself, “Is his ADHD causing this? Is he just genetically lazy and unmotivated like his uncle Tim?” Both might be factors, but there is no reason whatsoever that your son can’t learn to manage his responsibilities. The real culprit is the Control Battle Beast that’s been living in your family.

Shift The Weight Of Responsibility

The main thing that has to happen now is your son needs to pick up responsibility for his own motivation and his own success; you have to pass the baton. You can’t control your son, but you can change your way of relating with your son.

You can’t control your teenager, but you can change your way of relating with your teen.Click To Tweet

Here are some suggestions:

  • Start by attending to your state of burnout.
  • Ellen, I’m going to award you a gold star for everything you’ve done to support your mildly ADHD son to the finish line of high school. Now give yourself permission to believe that it is now in his hands and he has everything he needs to succeed. He hasn’t developed good habits, but he will.
  • Take a break from being with him and thinking about him. A short trip to a fun and relaxing place for yourself would be great. Either with your partner or friends or if you’re comfortable being alone, that’s fine too.
  • Then Ellen, clarify the new order to your son. Have a talk with him that talks about the pattern the two of you have been in, how destructive it’s been for both of you and how it needs to transition to a more mature relationship. By the way, these patterns can continue well into young adulthood with parents bailing kids out of jams and putting together resources that their college age young adults don’t use. That is not what you want.

You’ll need to explain that getting himself ready for college is going to need to be his job. I assume you’ll be paying for his tuition and living expenses. I do hope that you require him to earn any entertainment money when, for instance, he wants to eat off campus, go to a concert or movie etc.

I suggest that you sit down with him and review and have him make a list of the tasks necessary to get ready to go. It could include:

  • Saving money
  • Communicating with his roommate(s) to decide who’s bringing what. (They won’t need 2 popcorn poppers.)
  • Setting up a college email account and password
  • Getting the things he’ll need ready and organized to pack, and packing it

I would also be clear with him that going to college is a privilege that he is getting and that you are happy to support it, as long as he wants it and takes responsibility for being successful, whatever it takes.

Let your teenager know that going to college is a privilege that he is getting and that you are happy to support it, as long as he wants it and takes responsibility for being successful.Click To Tweet

Review with him the resources the college offers such as a learning center where he can get organizational support and tutoring, but that accessing and utilizing these resources will need to be on his initiative. Be clear that sharing his end of semester or quarter grades with you is required for you to continue to provide funding. I would also be clear about your expectations of summer behavior and responsibilities, and summer privileges as well.

Communicating Changes With Your Teen

Here is how a talk might go. I’ll name your son Bo, as I often name unnamed boys:

Bo, We’ve come to the end of an era, congratulations to all of us. I know I did a lot of pushing and prodding, but you did get your work done, or enough of your work done, to graduate and be accepted to college. Way to go!

Now it’s time for us to change our relationship. Going off to college, you will need to have your own motivation for success and your own study skills. If you are motivated, you’ll be able to utilize the college’s resources to get the study skills and even the tutoring you want or need. If you aren’t motivated, you won’t.

Before you go off, I want to apologize to you. I’ve made it my business to be your motivation and to provide the lion’s share of your structure. I should have helped you find your own motivation and your own structure. If I’ve made you dependent on me, I apologize. That can be a handicap. But remember, even with your active avoidance of your responsibilities, you ended up graduating with good enough grades to get yourself into college. So you’ve got what it takes to succeed, and if you think you need me to be successful, well that’s just a myth that you and I created and lived in.

You are a bright capable, loving, talented and kind young man. Now your job is to believe in yourself and to apply yourself.

When you go to college in the fall, we’ll be here to support you, but not to prod or micro-manage you.

It will be your job to get what you need from us and from the college and to give each of your classes your best effort. That’s why we’re sending you and that’s what we expect from you. We will need to see your grades to continue funding and there will be no funds without the grades. We expect you to do your best which means you should get all A’s and B’s. If you have a class you are struggling with, we need to know in advance.

At most colleges, there is a huge opportunity to engage in excessive partying and substance abuse. If you want to stay in your room and play video games day and night, there is no one there to place limits on you but you. These are opportunities for failure and it will be your job to make the choice of success or failure.

If you are doing poorly and you can’t get yourself motivated or organized, then don’t get depressed or self-destructive. You can withdraw and get a job or do something else and go back at a later time if you want to. Don’t think you have to be there and do this for us; it’s totally for you. Sure, we want you to go to college; that’s because we know it will be important for your future and because we know you are college material. But if we want it for you more than you want it for you, it won’t work out. It needs to be yours.

I suggest you put some time and effort into thinking about how you will be successful when you get to college and how you and I can change our relationship. I very much look forward to seeing you as the capable young adult I know you can be and that is who I want my relationship to be with.

There you go, and now Ellen, your job will be to talk with your son with respect and not with the previous frustration you showed. If he isn’t managing his summer responsibilities, don’t fight or argue, simply shut off his data plan and when he asks what’s going on, explain that the data plan is a privilege that he gets when he manages his responsibilities. You are happy to pay for his data plan, but he’s a young adult now and you expect him to handle his end of the deal. That way he’ll know that the relationship is changing and it will give him the opportunity to see your words have meaning. No arguing, no prodding, stay positive and take action.

So listeners, we can all learn from Ellen here. Are we doing too much for our children and teens and not asking enough of them? Are we setting up a pattern where our kids become addicted to us managing them?

Are we doing too much for your children & teens and not asking enough of them? Are you setting up a pattern where your kids become addicted to being managed?Click To Tweet

It’s easy to fall into that pattern but it’s never too late to change it. If you are a parent, challenge yourself to think of at least one thing that you can ask your child or adolescent to step up to. It’ll be good for them, and good for you.

Thanks for tuning in this week listeners and thanks to Ellen from Houston Texas for her question.

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


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Is It A Control Battle?