Fixing A Toxic Mother/Son Relationship


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 159 · Duration: 00:17:19

Fixing A Toxic Mother/Son Relationship

What do you do when you’ve tried to get your college graduate son, who’s sheltering at home, to get a job and all you’ve gotten is a toxic relationship?

Fixing A Toxic Mother/Son RelationshipToday we’re hearing from Melissa from Chicago, IL and Melissa writes:

My young adult son has graduated college and is home with us in large part due to the pandemic. The problem is that he’s playing a lot of video games and not much else. He says he doesn’t want to take a "go no place job" like being a supermarket checker, so he isn’t doing anything. I’ve been pushing him to do something, but I’m not seeing progress. He says he’s sending out applications when something opens up but isn’t seeing much. At this point my relationship with him is very toxic. If he talks to either of us, it’s his father since his father doesn’t push as hard as I do. I’ve read your book and told him that his phone is a privilege and if he’s not trying to get a job then he’ll lose the privilege. I don’t know what else to do.

Thanks for writing, Melissa. Your son is experiencing a problem I hear about often now. Young people right at the age of needing to go out and get some new experiences, learn about the world and themselves, are limited by the pandemic. It’s putting the breaks on their social, emotional, and vocational development.

That being said, we can face the situation and do the best we can or sink into depression and defeat and we don’t want that.

Stuck In A Control Battle With Your Young Adult Child

Melissa, there’s a couple of things that stand out in your question. The first is that you say you have a toxic relationship with your son. You push and he’s barely talking to you. In other words, you’re in a Control Battle, you’re pushing and he’s resisting. As long as that’s the case, your parenting, your concern, your effort to help, and your setting limits are being defeated and are doing more harm than good.

A second issue is your presentation of the phone as a privilege. The concept of earned privileges is appropriate for kids and teenagers through high school. After high school and into young adulthood the concept shifts somewhat.

This age group of young adults, this developmental stage being the last stage of adolescence, now have legal responsibility for themselves. Yes, they still need parental support, social, emotional, and often financial support. In your case, you’re supporting your son with room and board and the phone.

So for this age group, the concept moves from earned privileges, because privileges shouldn’t be coming from parents anymore, to terms of support. Now, what do I mean by that?

When we are in a position to help our young adult children the question becomes when does helping help, and when does help undermine growth and development. Often parental help to young adults becomes enabling of negative behaviors and interferes with growth and development.

Often parental help to young adults becomes enabling of negative behaviors and interferes with growth and development.Click To Tweet

Life is a good therapist. If we face it, it teaches us a lot and if we don’t face it, we may never learn what life can teach us. Melissa, if you and your husband weren’t there, what would your son do? Perhaps get a (what he calls) "go no place job." Maybe he’d work more actively to get a job that fits with his college background and is aligned with his career goals.

Right now, you could say your support or help is enabling his under-functioning. What he calls a "go no place job" can teach him a lot. After I graduated college I was a bartender, supermarket checker, busboy, and a waiter before moving into the helping professions and then going to graduate school. Every one of those jobs taught me something of value. I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here and you want to see him be more productive. But that’s not going to happen while you are in a Control Battle based relationship.

The Root Of The Control Battle

Melissa, if you can think about what elements have led to your being in a Control Battle with your son, then we can figure a way out of it and be able to support and not enable your son. For starters here, the challenging relationship with your son didn’t begin when he came home from college.

One supporting element of your Control Battle could be a difference between your son’s temperament and yours. You sound quite clear about the right things to do and how to behave and you strike me as being an extrovert. Your son, on the other hand, seems content to be alone in his room with his devices and isn’t expressing concerns about moving ahead, doing something productive, and is more passive, perhaps introverted as well. This difference in your temperaments could be contributing to why you have become quite frustrated and negative in your tone. You are trying to get him to do something different or what I call in my book, being other person focused.

One supporting element of your Control Battle could be a difference between your young adult's temperament and yoursClick To Tweet

Melissa, think about it. You can’t get your son to do anything. It’s not just frustrating to get him to move, it’s impossible to get him to move; only he can do that. You are not in charge of him, you are only in charge of you.

This may be a leap here, but I’m suspecting that you felt a strong need to “do the right thing” as a child, be highly responsible, perhaps in response to parental pressure or seeing adults being irresponsible and wanting to do the opposite. Either one of those could lead to an inflated sense of responsibility with a certain amount of personal insecurity or feelings of unworthiness underneath it all, and in part driving it. I could be way off here but it would be common. So the two issues of your different temperaments and your heightened sense of being productive and responsible could both be playing a role in driving the Control Battle.

How To End The Control Battle

With all that conjecture and analysis, what to do? Here’s what I recommend.

First and foremost, deal with the negative tone in communication with your son. Take out the toxic tone. Go back to basics here. You love him and are concerned about him. He went to and completed college, so he’s smart and essentially responsible and competent. Those are good things, right? So let’s have some faith in him and let’s bring some empathy to the limitations that the Corona Virus is placing on him. There could be a certain amount of depression going on too that’s keeping him back. Let the reality that you are coming from a place of love and concern shine through, instead of frustration with his under-performance.

Next, you and his Dad can discuss what the terms of support are. I’d suggest that they include actively searching for a job and getting a job in short order. If for any reason he’s too depressed or anxious to do that, then therapy to address those issues would be important. The truth is that working and getting off his devices would help both depression and anxiety. So yes, he needs to get a job.

I’d also suggest that being a quality household member and participating with his mother and father in home life could be part of it as well, particularly since he’s not going out with friends right now.

Melissa, if you can get back to a healthy vision of your son and your love and concern for him so that you’re ready to change the tone of the relationship, then you and your husband can engage him productively and have a Control Battle ending talk. The issue of terms of the relationship should be presented positively and not with a threat of consequences. It could go like this. I’ll call your son Andy:

Melissa: Andy, I want you to know that I’m really sorry and regretful that our relationship has become so toxic. I realize that I’ve been pushing you way too hard and even threatening you with taking the phone away. You don’t need that and it’s been very stressful for me too. I know we’ve always had a little bit of tension in our relationship, sometimes worse than others, but my love for you is uncompromised. I just express it by trying to fix problems that I shouldn’t make mine.

Andy: (looking a little shocked says) Thanks, Mom.

Dad: These are really hard times for kids your age, and Mom and I understand that. It’s awfully unfair that after all the work you put into college and graduating that now you are sheltering in place with your parents. That’s got to suck.

Andy: True that.

Dad: I have faith that this isn’t going to go on indefinitely. For the next year or so there will be a lot of constraints in place. After that, things should be pretty much opened up and you should be able to do what you want to do where you want to do it. Mom and I are concerned that if you don’t bring your best self to the crappy situation you have now that you won’t be in a good place to take advantage of things when they are more normal. If you can’t get a job that you really want right now, just get something. No matter what you’re doing to be productive, it will make you feel better and it will help get the next job, a better job. Andy, that is our expectation, that you get a job within a week or so, no longer than that.

Melissa: Also Andy, I would like to enjoy you more around the house. If you’re around when we’re making dinner, come join us, help us chop onions, have a beer or glass of wine with us. You’re a young adult now; what you think and how you see things is far more sophisticated than when you were a kid. Let’s have a more adult level relationship together.

Melissa, do you get the idea? You can do this! The fact that you’re writing to me tells me that you want to change and I’m offering you a way to make a big change. I realize that this is not how you’re used to talking and that’s because it’s not how are you’re used to thinking. But if you shift out of an attitude of “I have to always be doing the right thing and I have to be sure my son is too,” to an attitude of “I am responsible and do a lot of things right and I don’t have to be perfect and I can give my son a chance to learn and grow, he doesn’t have to be perfect either. He’s a great kid and will find his way and I need to let him know that I know that.” With that thinking will come a quality relationship and better movement forward by your son.

Thanks for tuning in today and a special thanks to you Melissa for raising a challenging issue for many parents of young adults.

My heart goes out to all those teenagers and young adults who are being limited in their chance to be with peers, pursue careers, and live independently. This will end, but for right now, it’s really hard, so don’t hesitate to reach out and get help and support. Your local mental health resources are very much there, mostly using video platforms, and that works just fine, phones work too, and sometimes you can be seen in person as well.

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 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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