Emotional Health · Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: ‘She’s Back on Our Hands, and She Won’t Look for Work!’

Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week she counsels a mother whose college-graduate daughter’s irresponsibility leaves her frustrated and furious.

408px-Comburg_Kanzel_07She’s bored and unmotivated; is it the deadly sin of sloth, or is it depression?

Dear Dr. Ford,

I am writing about my daughter, who won’t listen to anything I have to say. She graduated from an Ivy League school two years ago. She was a history major with a finance minor, and she has not been able to find any job since graduating. 

I am sure part of her problem is the way she looks. She was heavy when she started college, and I am certain that she drank a lot as well as ate at night, as so many college students do. She is now 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds.  She dresses in black and wears lace-up, military-style hiking boots. 

She goes out with friends most nights, sleeps till noon, eats by herself, and makes no contribution to life except to make both my husband and me very anxious. We have talked to her about the need to pull herself together so that she can interview successfully. We gave her a membership to a gym for Christmas. But she is unwilling to make any effort.  We have a son who is finishing his third year of college. He got a summer internship in November for the coming summer. He seems very focused on his future.  I am facing a summer with both of them at home, and she could be a bad influence on him as well. I offered to pay for some time with a life coach or a career counselor, but she said that there were just no jobs for graduates from Ivy League schools with a liberal-arts degree. 

I think she is smoking pot in addition to drinking. I know she has to be depressed—because who wouldn’t be in this situation?

What can my husband and I do? We are at the point where we are thinking about forcing her to move out. We are ready to sell the house—seriously!—if it means that this is the only way to force her to be responsible for her own life.  I can’t ask friends or work colleagues to give her an internship, because she is so negative. I now regret all that we did throughout her life to make things easier for her: tutoring in high school, hiring an Ivy admissions specialist for her when she was a sophomore in high school so that she could be competitive with other students for these colleges. And she went as a legacy as well!

I know we are not alone in this situation, but that doesn’t help us much. What are our options?  Where do we start?

Constance

Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Constance:

Your questions, like many that I get, involve a problem that is being caused by someone else in your life. The solution usually requires you to take a step back so you can force the other person to take responsibility for herself (or himself).

This is particularly difficult, however, when we are dealing with our own children. No matter how old they are, we are always their parents. Even when we want to (and sometimes we really, really, do), we cannot outgrow our feelings of responsibility for their welfare and growth. The trick is figuring out what skills are needed at each developmental stage.

Though your daughter is a college graduate, she is still a “late adolescent,” and this stage of development is not always acknowledged to be as tough as it is. While going off to college is seen as the point when kids “leave home,” it is more like a way station to independence. For most children, parents are still paying bills and supervising housing, vacations, and healthcare. The college itself is providing structure in their lives that is pretty much exactly what they’ve experienced since the day they entered preschool.

When they graduate, however, the world turns on its head: no more structure (unless they go straight to graduate school, and quite a few kids do this for just this reason); no more institutional umbrella; and, worst, no more parental support.

Many late-adolescents (and their parents) are surprised to find that when confronted with the need to separate “for real,” they have trouble. Their anxiety about leaving the nest may be entirely unconscious—indeed, they may rail against their parents’ “intrusion” in their lives—but nevertheless it is scary for some kids to move on, particularly if they don’t have a well-formed sense of self or a clear idea of their goals. Your daughter sounds as if she didn’t have an entirely positive time in college (who does?) and may be depressed. The signs you report—inactivity, overeating, sleeping, poor personal appearance—all point in that direction. This too may be keeping her from the motivation to get going finding a job and moving out.

Your suggestion that you sell your house and move is absolutely wrong-headed. You want your daughter to change, but dismantling your life and pulling out the rug from under her are both bad ideas. For one thing, you do not need to worry about your son this summer: He is a different child at a different stage of his life and there’s no reason to confuse the two issues. With your daughter, you need to name the problem and then start taking small steps. For example, assuming that we agree that she is depressed, your first step is to tell her that she must consult with a therapist as a condition of her living with you.

Then (depending on the therapist’s recommendations), within a few months’ time, demand that she contribute to the household expenses in some way. You can offer again to pay for a career counselor if she wants to look for a serious job, but either way, she must contribute, even if it means working at Starbucks. Further down the road, you can make more demands, depending on her progress, but the general idea is that you are helping her to take responsibility for herself, creating structure and a feeling of competence (by working, even at a menial job), while at the same time allowing her to remain at home while she works through her separation anxiety.

You may want to consult a family therapist if the going gets rough. It won’t be easy for you and your husband to change course, since up until now your daughter has been in the role of a dependent child, and you have seen her and treated her that way. It is hard to change your parenting style after all these years, but if you recognize that the needs of an adult child are different from those of the child you once knew, it will be easier.

Some things remain constant; they don’t change, no matter how old we—or our children—get. We parents should give our children roots—love, support, firm guidance, a home base, and also wings—for your daughter, that is knowledge of the power she has to leave home and become the competent adult she will eventually be.

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