Writer and broadcaster

My son is drifting through life. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My son is 27 and I am worried about him. He is highly intelligent but since dropping out of university he has not had any settled periods of employment and appears to be drifting with no real sense of what to do with his life.

My main worries are to do with his mental health. He lives with his partner who works part-time, but they live an increasingly precarious existence and I have bailed them out financially on numerous occasions.

He has started to reveal that he was bullied at school. He started smoking cannabis at a young age, saying it gave him a sense of belonging and was an escape from the bullying. I feel tormented that he didn’t share this with me at the time, but understand why; his older brother has autism and takes up a lot of attention. I was very aware of this and made sure that he was able to spend lots of time with his friends. He was popular, had a wide circle of friends and was identified as a high achiever. His childhood was happy and settled up to the age of nine when his dad and I split up. His father has remarried and I am on good terms with him; both boys see him regularly.

My elder son lives semi-independently with support and we all spend lots of quality time together.

I have tried to offer lifelines to my other son, helping him to apply for jobs, encouraging him to get help for his health problems; but he is skilled at going under the radar if he feels under pressure. He is a gifted, self-taught musician and gets by on teaching a few lessons and playing locally.

Rather than just give him money, I have recently taken a different tack by asking him to help me with chores and this gives me an opportunity to talk to him and try to encourage him to re-connect with life rather than bump along the bottom.

I have encouraged him to go back to his GP and ask to be referred for talking therapy. Even small steps to get his life back on track seem to be too difficult and I am at my wits’ end about how to help him.

I swing from being proactive and hands-on to taking a step back, thinking he needs to sort his own life out.

I cut your letter partly for space and partly to take out identifying details. But one overwhelming thing struck me: how much you view your son as a reflection of all the things you failed to do for him. And I can’t help thinking that’s not fair on either of you.

Family psychotherapist Tony Manning (aft.org.uk) thinks that what comes across most strongly are “your struggles and stresses, accompanied by concerns, dilemmas and guilt. Where’s your support?” he asks. Manning also asked another really salient question “what are you not doing when you’re preoccupied with your son?”

I wondered that too. There’s a huge amount of energy focused on him – what about you?

Manning also suggests you look at the dilemma of “stepping in and stepping out” of the situation and how that feels for you. “Stepping in seems to bring out feelings of frustration and responsibility, and stepping out seems to trigger feelings of self-blame for failing to be a perfect mother.”

You can’t make your son go to the GP for his depression/anxiety/weed habit (which may or may not be a demotivating factor). And I fear nagging him will just make him switch off. But you could go, for yourself. I would love for you to get some talking therapy.

Manning has some practical suggestions: one is to ask “What is the role of his dad in all this? How does he respond to this? Are his views similar? Could there be a shared agenda?”

I think you may also need to take a step back and look at which help you’ve given your son that has been the most helpful. I sense that you don’t want to step out of your son’s life completely, so you may need to audit what you do, so that the help you give is more focused and productive. But I also got the sense that you were really scared to let him get on with his life in case something awful happens. And I wondered what that was about? For whose benefit is that? Are you trying to pay him the attention now that you felt you couldn’t when he was a child?

Manning suggests you try to talk to your son (I note that nowhere do you say you’d ask him what sort of help he feels he needs) and say something like “I’m not sure how best to help you and I wondered what it was like for you when I try to help,” as a starting point.

Could you try to look at the positives in your life? You have two sons who have left home, you have dealt with some fairly complex life events and your son was motivated enough to teach himself to play music. As Manning puts it “most people have done their best in a complex world”.