The Healthy Family Connections Podcast
Episode 162 · Duration: 00:19:48
My Son Doesn’t Like It When You’re Around
What do you do when you fall in love with someone who has a young adult child at home, and they don’t like you upsetting their very comfortable, dysfunctional lifestyle?
Today we’re hearing from Christopher of Merced, CA. Christopher writes:
My girlfriend has a 20yr old son living at home who does not work and he pays minimal rent, and he quit his job 4 months ago and only plays video games and smokes weed three times a day. He does not do any household chores or help around the house. My question is how do I get my girlfriend (his mother) to realize that she is only enabling him? He is currently getting to the point where he is coming between our relationship. He tells her he feels alone but he literally does nothing all day. I noticed this young man has no male guidance in his life and he doesn't at all want to create a better relationship with me. I think he is a bright and nice young man but he has no desire to do anything at all. I want what is best for him but at the same time I want to create and have a loving family household. He told his mother that he does not like me around so much and that she acts different when I'm around probably because when I’m around she asks him to do things such as take the trash out or to help with household responsibilities. I love this woman and she loves me. How do I create a better atmosphere and family? Or do I just run?
Thanks for sending in your question, Christopher. It is an important one because this situation with your girlfriend’s son is going on in many homes. The pandemic is one factor limiting opportunities for young men and women to work or have a fulfilling educational experience or socialize. But even with these limiting elements, it does indeed sound like your girlfriend’s substance-abusing young adult son is stuck and she doesn't know how to address it or perhaps isn’t inclined to, so there are a couple of important things to discuss here. One is getting romantically involved with someone who has children with a prior partner. The other is enabling behavior, what it is, and what to do about it.
Getting Involved With Someone Who Has Children
When you get involved with someone with children, you’re getting involved with their children, too. And looking at it from the other side, if you’re someone with children, and you get involved with someone, you are bringing them into your children’s lives. So it needs to be done thoughtfully, and sometimes it’s a good idea and sometimes not.
I’ll give you an example of a situation where it isn’t a good idea. A Dad with 2 teenage kids, living with their mother, but he visits and interacts with them regularly. One of his teenagers is not doing well and Dad knows it’s in part because of his prior parenting where he would get angry and critical, in part related to his alcohol abuse. Now divorced, with a girlfriend, he knows he can’t involve his children with his girlfriend until he repairs his relationship with his kids and has them on a healthier path toward young adulthood. And his girlfriend should know that she’ll be resented if brought into their lives since the kids want the time they get with their father to be for them and not have to share him.
Here's a situation where it is a good idea. A divorced mom with 2 children has a boyfriend whom the kids love. He adds value to their lives and the boys' father sees the value in it and supports the boys’ relationship with him.
So the question you’re asking yourself Chris is: Can I move forward in a relationship with this woman whom I love if she isn’t able to parent her son in a healthy way? Can I make things better or, will I be in a constant battle and frustrate myself and my girlfriend because I think she needs to set limits with her son and she doesn’t want to or doesn’t know how to?
Enabling Behaviors In Young Adults
Let’s talk about what enabling is since you want to help your girlfriend understand that that’s what she’s doing. The term enabling should have a positive connotation since it means to help something or someone be able to do something. For instance, a battery enables the clock to run or medication enables someone to function normally. What it has come to mean in the mental health relationship world is someone is helping someone else stay dysfunctional in some way. So enabling, in this case, is Mom is helping her son avoid meeting life’s challenges; abuse cannabis, not work, not participate in household responsibilities, essentially, not grow up. If Mom wasn’t supporting him in this way, he’d have to get off his butt and go to work, and presumably, being stoned day and night wouldn’t be a possibility if he needed to support himself.The term enabling should have a positive connotation since it means to help something or someone be able to do something. What it has come to mean in the mental health relationship world is someone is helping someone else stay dysfunctional in some way.Click To Tweet
So Christopher, what to do? Here you are, ready, willing, and able to connect with this young man, but it sounds like he and his mother are in an unhealthy relationship where he relies on Mom’s support, objects when you enter the home, and when Mom asks him to participate appropriately.
The good news is that Mom seems inclined to want him to do more. She asks him to take out the garbage when you’re around. The bad news is that when she does, this young man sees that she does that when you’re around so he doesn’t want you around. Now one might ask, why should Mom care who he likes her having around since it’s her home and he’s not 10, he’s 20. But that’s the problem. This young man is significantly under-functioning and Mom doesn’t know how to deal with it. In other words, how not to enable his under-functioning. Here are some common reasons that parents enable an under-functioning youth like this.
- I don’t want to just put him out on the street.
- I think he’s depressed
- I’m all he’s got
- He’s never been very independent
- He has social anxiety.
- I feel guilty because his father left us and I had to work.
These reasons fall into a few categories:
- seeing them as having some kind of mental health impairment,
- feeling responsible for their condition in some way,
- fear of what might happen if they established conditions for support.
Christopher, some or all of these might apply to your girlfriend. So if you get tough with her or encourage her to use a tough tone with her son, you will sound heartless and your input will be discounted. If she doesn’t end the relationship, and it sure sounds like she doesn’t, you run the risk of being the bad guy in a developing triangle and that’s the last thing you want. So what can you do before you choose the cut and run option?
Having A Constructive, Open Conversation
Here’s what I suggest: Don’t talk too much about what he’s doing wrong. Instead, talk about what the problem might be and what his mother might do about it. Don’t have all the answers, but treat it as a problem that needs attention and what you both might do about it. Approach it from the point of view of concern for the young man, not from a moral judgment perspective, either of him or of her. Be concerned about his condition, his need to do something to feel good about himself, and his need to grow his independence and self-reliance. You can talk about his need to address his substance abuse problem, and his over-reliance on his mother at age 20. If Mom’s concerned about depression then you’re concerned not only about depression but about treating the depression. If you can get Mom to begin to name the problem and name the problem with her son, then instead of Mom focusing on trying unsuccessfully to get him to do chores, she can talk with him about addressing his issues. Then, when she’s asking or even requiring him to take action, it’s not in the context of a mother-son control-battle, it in the context of using her parental role to take action, including establishing standards and setting limits.
Here is how your conversation with your girlfriend might go using this approach. I’ll call your girlfriend Candice, and her son Jake.
Christopher: Candice, I’m hearing that Jake doesn’t like me being around because you ask more of him then. What do you think about that?
Candice: I think he likes to get his way, and when you're not here, he pretty much gets his way.
Christopher: I wonder why he wouldn’t want to help out more.
Candice: I think he’s just gotten used to me doing everything.
Christopher: That makes sense. I’m concerned that with all the weed smoking and isolation, he’s going to get more and more depressed and have a harder and harder time growing up and moving forward.
Candice: I am too, but I don’t know what to do about it. I can’t make him quit pot.
Christopher: Exactly. What are you thinking about to help him address his issues and move forward?
Candice: I guess when his money runs out, he’ll have to get a job.
Christopher: Can I offer some perspective?
Candice: Of course.
Christopher: I think it would be helpful and important that as his Mom, you provide stronger guidance; that you let him know that you’re concerned that he has a pot problem, and he isn’t growing or moving forward. That as a 20-year-old young adult, you need to see him doing more for himself and that while the pandemic is certainly limiting things, you expect him to do more for himself. That you know he’s a capable and wonderful young man and he needs to set some goals and take some action towards them. Also that since it’s just been the two of you for so long that you’ve gotten into a pattern of you taking care of him and that’s been in the way of his growing up. You might add that when I’m around, yes you do act differently and that’s a good thing. If he needs help with his substance abuse, you can see what help is out there. If he needs help with depression, you can see what’s out there, whatever problems are in the way of him moving forward. Together, you can address them. But that he’s got to start moving forward.
Candice: Wow Christopher, I’ve said all those things but not a strongly or concisely as you just did. But what do I do if he just ignores me?
Christopher: That’s a good question. I think believing in Jake and knowing he’s a good kid, who loves and needs his Mom, and can and will grow and mature is a good starting point. I think if you’re clear about your expectations and strong in your presentation of them: that you expect him to get himself a job in the next week maybe two, help out at home when asked to, and even be more engaging and polite to me when I’m over, after all, Candice, I’m your guest and this is your home, you deserve to have your friends feel comfortable in your home. If you do this, he’ll be getting more of the Mother he needs and if you’re clear that those really are your expectations, I think he’ll go there. If he stays stuck, yikes, that means his problems are bigger than he is and you can talk with him then about substance abuse treatment, but for now, I suggest you go with plan A.
So, Christopher, that’s how I think you can be helpful and not turn yourself into the “bad guy” and become part of an unhealthy pattern of relationships. If your girlfriend is unwilling to take an active role in setting limits with her son, and just sets you up to be the bad guy, you should decide to not visit at her house until or unless the situation with her son changes. If it doesn’t change, well there’s your answer.
So, folks, we need to be cautious about how quickly we throw out terms like codependency and enabling behavior. Yes, they can be shortcuts to describe certain patterns of behavior. But the terms can be thrown out there as judgments without compassion and empathy for the underlying causes. And if we want to be helpful in facilitating change, empathy and compassion are essential.We need to be cautious about how quickly we throw out terms like codependency and enabling behavior. It can come off as judgments without compassion and empathy. If we want to help facilitate change, empathy and compassion are essential.Click To Tweet
A special thanks to Christopher for raising the question of coupling into a family with children and issues of helping young adults move forward.
During this time of profound disruption, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. I’m offering folks an opportunity to sign up for a free 15-minute Zoom consultation with me, so don’t hesitate to take advantage of it. If you’d like to meet me and get a brief consultation, sign up here.
If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially and emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.
If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website neildbrown.com and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.
Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.
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