Our 21-year-old son is a student who is about to start third year. We are supporting him financially with his accommodation, he also has a student loan and overdraft. He comes home during the holidays and has rarely found temporary work during these periods. He spends most of the day watching television and in the evening he goes to the pub with friends. He says he would like a job but does not do anything to find one and becomes very angry with me when I encourage or remind him and says I am always nagging. I have offered to help with CV drafting and identifying contacts. I have even said that we would match his earnings or pay him ourselves if he were to do an unpaid work experience placement. All of this is to no avail. I do get pretty cross, frustrated and upset and try hard not to nag. I worry that he may finish his degree and continue with the same lifestyle. I fear you may simply say we must either live with this or stop supporting him with the money we do give him. The latter would result in him having an even larger debt or overdraft at the end of his course. R, Inverness
I can sense you really want to help him but in many ways you are helping him so much that you’re not letting him find his feet and then getting cross with him for it. But you can’t leave him entirely to his own devices because that wouldn’t make you comfortable. There’s a fine line between supporting one’s children and actually making things so easy that they never do anything for themselves.
I get the impression that you are less annoyed about the current situation, than you are fearful of what it might lead to, ie no job, no hope, layabout son. But more important is how he’s doing in his studies: you don’t mention that at all. If he’s doing really well, then you might consider not worrying quite so much. This may be the last chance he has of just spending the whole day watching TV.
To put a positive spin on all this, you have a son in his third year at university who is still talking to his family. I know some people who would consider that a major achievement. If, however, this lack of industry is also reflected in his studies, then there may be more cause to worry.
Clearly something has to change, because you are not happy with the situation and your son needs to start taking responsibility for himself. Your approach so far is not working, at least not for you. What you need to do is provide him with support (because you say you want to) up to a point, and then you need to let him succeed or fail. Without doing this he will never take responsibility for himself. You worry about him getting into more debt, but unless you intend to bail him out for the rest of his life, at every turn, he is going to have to take responsibility for his actions at some point.
There’s a brilliant website for young people called thesite.org (I spoke to them about your situation). There isn’t a helpline to call, but it has tons of information on debt, money management, etc. You can tell him about it and let him read up on things. Arm yourself with the facts, decide what your parameters are, and stick to them. For example, you may decide that you will pay for his accommodation and food until he finishes university and no more. There’s no point telling him he has to get a job if he has no imperative to do so. But by supporting him in the basics (shelter, food), you will, I hope, feel you are helping him without propping him up.
Also, talk to him, not at him. Whether warranted or not, no one responds to nagging. The adviser at thesite.org says a good way to talk is while driving because there’s no eye contact – as long as you can stay calm, that is. Tell him what you’ve decided to do, give him plenty of warning (eg “after January we’re not going to be paying off your overdraft”), be calm, be confident and trust your son to deal with the consequences.
First published in the Guardian Family section on 4 September 2010.