Writer and broadcaster

My teenage son dropped out of school, isn’t working regularly, and is now stealing from us. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I am increasingly worried about my 19-year-old son, who isn’t in regular work and who has started stealing from other family members.

He dropped out of education before completing his A-levels and has since had a series of labouring jobs where the pay isn’t good. He has never been a great communicator, but his life is a total mystery as he never brings friends home. My husband and I both work, and we have a nice home and a good standard of living. My son has a free rein and we put very few demands on him. He is able to help himself to whatever he wants from the fridge and has his own room. It is like having a stranger in the house, who comes and goes. And, while he can be perfectly pleasant, he can also be verbally abusive to me and his sister if we upset him – it doesn’t take much, such as asking him how his search for a job is going.

Sentimental items of jewellery have gone missing in the past, and when challenged he denied all knowledge. A few weeks ago, some money went missing from my daughter’s room. I had cleaned her room that morning (I have two very messy grownup kids) and had seen it. The following day, I searched his room and found evidence that he had taken it. When challenged, he said he needed the money but would replace it – although he didn’t.

My husband is furious and is angry at me for not telling him at the time. I had been trying to avoid a row by giving my son an opportunity to put the money back. The pattern of our parenting has generally been that my husband cracks the whip and I think he is too harsh and so I collude with the kids to try to protect them.

My husband says he won’t live with a thief in the house. My son does have friends with whom he can stay, but they are mostly non-working dope-smokers (just like my son, I guess). I am afraid that if we make him homeless, his problems will just get worse. 

My first thought was how disengaged you all seem from one another, and the curious lack of detail, as if you have all been bumbling along until now.

I contacted Angela Evans, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), who has worked extensively with troubled teenagers. One of the first things she picked up on was that you are cleaning the rooms of your grownup children. She feels this is indicative of something else – perhaps an inability to let go of your role of mothering (this is not to apportion blame, but it may help to identify your own colluding behaviour) and therefore your son not being able to separate and become his own person.

“Adolescence is about separating from adults,” explains Evans. “To an extent, you should be experiencing your older teenage children like a stranger.” Evans feels that your son probably already felt like a failure, finding himself out of education, with no aim or job. She thinks you should stop asking him how the job hunt is going, as this will just provoke more anxiety. Also, it becomes about your agenda, not his. In Evans’ extensive experience of working with teens, she says, “Lying and stealing is classic behaviour among difficult teenagers when they are angry and feel left out – it replaces an emptiness.”

Clearly, however, some major communication channel has broken down between you all.

You mention drugs, in passing, and I wonder how much of a factor that is. If he is on drugs, his behaviour, explains Evans, “is not driven by the thinking part of the brain”. (You may find talktofrank.com useful.)

If we take the stealing as a form of communication, what do you think your son is trying to say to you? I was especially struck that he stole jewellery from you that had sentimental value. This seems – if he were thinking about it at all – like a particularly aggressive act. Evans wonders what the relationship is like between him and his sister? “Is she the ‘good’ sibling?” It’s interesting that he seems to have stolen from you and his sister, not his father.

What to do about it? “The key is for you and your husband to be a team,” says Evans. “You need to talk and find a middle ground you are both happy with.” When you have talked, Evans suggests you then talk, and listen, to your son. “You need to draw up a contract to make family life run smoother. His growing adulthood needs to be recognised, but there also has to be no stealing. You need to make time to check in with one another and respect one another’s spaces. Your daughter could be part of the contract and family discussions too, as she will be part of the family’s dynamic.”

You all need to agree on certain standards of behaviour. “Then you all sign it,” says Evans. “If he’s still hopeless, if he doesn’t want to sign it, try to model the behaviour anyway.” If you are fair and decided, you will be confident, but it is key that you work out your parameters. There’s no point saying, “If you don’t do this, this will happen”, if you know you won’t be able to do that. I do feel you need to be more confident in your handling of your son.

Finally, says Evans, “stop cleaning your children’s rooms, let them take responsibility, encourage them to be independent”.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 15 October 2016.