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Teens Difficulty Adapting to the "Real" World

QUESTION: My oldest son (almost 19) spends almost all the time that he is at home on the Internet and it has become a major problem My husband and I have talked to him until we are blue in the face - short of kicking him out onto the street - is there anything we can do to save our family's peace of mind?

ANSWER: Your son may be having difficulty adapting to the "real" world. He may need some guidance from you in order to be able to build skills that he seems to be lacking at this time. Perhaps he is exhibiting a cyberspace depression, hiding from interactions with the world by getting on the internet. If so, you are right to believe that he is addicted. The instant interaction with cyberspace may give him a temporary boost to his flagging self esteem, but will not build the life skills needed to feel confident and competent in the real world.

Your son is an adult and needs clear direction from you and your husband about what your expectations are of him at this point in his life. Create a contract that defines his responsibilities to the family in return for living at home. Be clear about house rules. Let him know it is an adult privilege to live at home and requires specific responsibilities on his part.

Tell your son that you support him "finding himself," but that this must include either work or educational goals aimed towards his development of self-sufficiency. If he does want to remain living at home, come up with a requirement for rent payment at least, or completion of courses if you agree to support him through his education. In addition, let him know what the house rules are for living with adult roommates, which he is now!

Talk with your husband about what parameters are required in this new situation. Perhaps you have never before had adult roommates, only children. So you may not have given any thought to what your requirements would or should be in such a situation. For example, under what conditions can the television or telephone be in use? What are the duties required of such an adult roommate? Issues of noise, space, food and respect must be addressed. Necessary boundaries need to be established. In doing so, you will help your son to raise his own self esteem as well as improve the conditions in the family.

If your son does not want to live with established rules, responsibilities and goals in your house, then ask him to research other alternatives. Schedule a meeting to go over alternatives such as the cost of living with other young adults, possible living arrangements in exchange for work possibilities, or partial support to begin living independently if he has realistic plans for study or work training. When discussing these things with him be sure to point out his strengths as you see them. Reflect to him his positive qualities. Do not humiliate or treat him with disrespect. Help him address his future in a supportive and realistic manner, including helping him connect up with resources for exploring educational or job opportunities that would truly help him "find himself." Travel opportunities, internships abroad or other training alternatives could be possibilities for helping him achieve the goal of this point in the life cycle, which is to become increasingly financially and emotionally independent. Help him assess his strengths as well as weaknesses to determine what would be in his best interests at this point in his development as a young adult man. Even his interest in computers and cyberspace could provide a useful avenue for developing skills or training that could contribute towards achieving the goal of independence.

Do not be harsh or rejecting, but do expect and emotionally support your son to begin facing taking responsibility for the rest of his life. He is a beginning adult, but he is an adult. Gently, but firmly reflect this as fact, not punishment. And let him know you are behind him to help focus his energies on what goals he needs to have in order to develop a sense of himself in the world as an independent young man. Do not make him feel that it has to happen all at once, however do not back down from clear expectations to follow the house rules if he is to remain living with you for now.

It is your job to help your son launch himself into the world. This may require effort on your part. Reflect back on how your parents launched you. Did they help you prepare realistically? Did they assess your needs and help you come up with a plan for reaching your goals? Sometimes as parents we expect our children to do what we did, without the kind of preparation we had to meet the real world. This is particularly true when we were given little and had to make it on our own. When we feel we have given our children so much more, we expect them to have the same skills that we had at their age. But in reality our children may not have had to develop from a place of want. And giving our children a "better" life may have left them with little experience in developing the competency we may have enjoyed, despite our struggles.

It is natural for your son to need your support in identifying and structuring his goals at this time. Be patient and non judgmental about his current lack of structure. But insist that a plan be developed and rules be respected! In this way, you are preparing him to cope and eventually succeed in the outside world.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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