Writer and broadcaster

I worry that my son is wasting his life. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My son is 23, lives with me and does nothing. He likes reading and spends most days on his computer, watching films and writing stories. He has registered on and off at the jobcentre. Over the past few years, he has had some placements and some training (which he attends willingly), but it ends in nothing because he does not know how to look for a job. He goes through periods of not really going out. We argue about all kinds of silly things and, although I have always disagreed with suggestions of “throwing him out on the street”, I know it would be very good for him (and me) if he could be away from me for a long while, but can see no way to arrange this. He also refuses to consider therapy. I worry that he will become unemployable, that a very decent boy is wasting his life. He does not drink and does not take drugs; he is more like an overgrown child. He finished school and college with a good number of GCSEs, although he never studied very hard.

I also have a daughter who has become quite hostile to him and the situation. Their father died suddenly when they were young and it was a shock for the three of us. I wonder now if we are each in our own way still suffering from the trauma. I had to work and life was very difficult. I  retire next year and will have a sufficient pension. I would not mind my son living with me if he was studying or working. But I can see that, as long he is at home, nothing will change.

Anon, via email

I’m sorry your husband died and you had to bring up your children on your own. Was everything (relatively) fine until recently? Or has this situation been building for a while? I think you have hit on something. I think you are all stuck somewhere in the past.

I would like to have had a few more details. I felt you were focusing very much on your son, yet there seems to be much more going on. I would like to have known just how long ago your husband died and how it was handled at the time, whether your daughter also lives at home and why she is so angry. Has your son always been like this and all that’s really changed is that he has become an adult, or has his behaviour changed?

I took your problem to Stuart Hannah, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk). He thinks that your son sounds creative and intelligent and has a resilience to him that could be worked on. He wonders what the stories your son is writing are about and how long your son isolates himself for. We need to rule out depression, self-esteem issues and autism, and if any of these ring alarm bells, you need to visit your GP.

“Does your son have any friends, any peers? Relationships?” Hannah, too, wonders about your husband’s death and how it was mourned. “What was your husband like? Was he highly functioning, very sociable? What would the expectations be of your son, if your husband were still alive? What about you? Have you had any other relationships since?”

I did wonder if your husband was perhaps the driving engine of the family and, without him, you have all got a bit lost. And I questioned if maybe your son feels responsible for you, as if he can’t move on – perhaps because he feels you can’t or haven’t. This is not uncommon in situations where there is only one parent.

I’m not a fan of the “just chuck them out” argument either: it is facile and counterintuitive, but there is a world between what is going on now and that. Hannah recommends that you could start by having a discussion about the practicalities: does your son pay rent, does he do stuff in the house, cook, clean?

You mention you are going to retire. We both wonder what your plans are. A more realistic step might be to say that you would really like him to have found a job by the time you retire (or moved out, or whatever it is you actually want). In other words, give him some notice.

Your lives sound very insular and I wonder if that is healthy for any of you. What about other family? Does your son have any other men in the family he can look up to and talk to?

Hannah stresses that any wish to change or acknowledge the situation really needs to come from him – he is old enough. I wish I could convince you all to go to therapy, as it would be good for all of you. But you can’t make anyone else go. Consider it for yourself though, or at the very least, contact the bereavement charity Cruse (cruse.org.uk), even if it is just for a chat. I wonder if you have ever had a chance to mourn.

First published in the Guardian Family section on 14 June 2013.