Cecilia Ford Ph.DDr. 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 takes up a “separation predicament” faced by the middle-aged parents of adult sons. —Ed.

 

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am 55 years old and work in the financial industry in Human Resources. I have twin sons who graduated from good state universities with degrees in business. They have both had a different job every two years since they graduated in 2006.  They are disappointed easily in each new job after a few months.  They find the work “dull and boring.”  They complain that they should be doing what their managers do . . . and that they could do it better.  I am very concerned that the next job they quit could be their last job for a while in this economy.

I try to talk to them from my perspective as a member of a large HR team, but they don’t want to hear it. They both still live at home, and my husband and I pay the bills for their food, use of a car, housecleaning, and laundry. How do I help them to understand that a job is often tedious and repetitive, but that is how people make enough money to pay for housing and food and begin to save for the future?  My husband said that we just had to kick them out or they will never grow up. I am worried sick, and this stress is affecting my marriage and my health.

Priscilla

 

Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Priscilla:

Although you have written about your concern for your sons’ employment prospects, your anxiety and stress may have other determinants. It strikes me that you have “twin” problems with your twins, and they are linked: One is their employment problem, and the other—perhaps more fundamental—problem is a separation predicament.

If the boys graduated from college in 2006, that means that they are almost 30 years old, yet they are still living with their parents, and hence with each other. By repeatedly changing jobs, they are sabotaging any chance they might have of career growth, a situation that effectively keeps them locked into this arrangement. Meanwhile, you and your husband enable them by footing their bills. It’s as if your family is frozen in time.

Much as you may want to see your sons succeed, this may be gratifying to you on some level. You and your husband need to examine your motives and ask yourselves why you have made it so particularly easy for your sons to persist in this behavior. For example, it sounds as if they have been consistently employed (though they have quit many jobs), yet you have made no demands on them to help with the bills. Even if you don’t need the money, insisting that children pay their fair share is a way parents signal to their adult children that they are expected to take care of themselves. Some of them start to realize that Mom and Dad’s house isn’t as much fun as it used to be when it was free.

I don’t know if your sons are identical twins, but there are some special separation issues that arise for twins. Separation from each other can be especially painful for them, and the continued residence with you solves that problem. Furthermore, twins often feel less motivation to seek company from the outside world—they’ve always had each other to meet their needs.

As far as their career paths are concerned, I think that if they were forced to separate from you, either financially or literally, they might start to mature enough to take their work lives more seriously. If they find business boring, they should start looking at other things right away. On the other hand, almost anything can become interesting if you take the time to learn enough about it and invest in it. They cannot expect to advance to the more responsible, exciting jobs if they don’t stay around long enough to work their way into them. I’m sure you have told them these kinds of things many times, so you have to find a way to say it that will get their attention—that is, with actions, not words. It may be hard to take such a tough stance, but the message you want to send to them, after all, is: This is how a grown-up handles things; sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do in order to get where you want to go.

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  • Sharon November 3, 2013 at 10:27 am

    It is crushing when our children don’t thrive. Thankfully the invention of birth control has significantly reduced using a rainforest of babies to the many excuses people use to fail and harm others. I am thinking through telling my son, his options are a mental hospital, homeless shelter or my continued gift of support. I cannot bear to be his micro-managing prison warden or indifferent to his mental illness. It would only create an unrecoverable gap in our relationship.

    I am not alone in this quest for the fine line between teaching via a vicious world, deciding that my responsibilities ended with his childhood, or hoping for a middle of the road where reality works. His friends are a chorus of how to manage your parents for optimal performance. His personal discipline is poor. The dedication and resources of modern society have left me numb with a belief that we believe in tough love because that’s the best anyone can do.

    I have watch too many family member spiral in painful fantasies and succumb to addictions to accept doing nothing. However, I unplug my phone after 9, don’t give cash, and don’t let him live with me. Whatever mantra he has understood from my upbringing was not enough. He must live in the world that exists today and not the one I grew up in. It is too easy for institutions to tell us they are deserving of our endowments and then tells us to throw our children to the dogs when things don’t work out.

    Reply
  • Roz Warren July 20, 2013 at 9:50 am

    I was just joking around. The last thing I’d want to do is undercut Dr. Ford’s useful advice. A good therapist can change your life!

    Reply
  • patricia yarberrt allen July 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Dear Roz,

    And your response makes us all love you because you are a funny gal.

    But, it is hard for people who are stuck in relationship messes to see how they got in the situation (nearly always slowly, slowly)and very hard to understand what steps to take to move on and do so in a way that doesn’t destroy a family.

    I found this post to be especially helpful because I see so many of these young people in the decade after college these days who are afraid to move out and move on. And the parents are caught between guilt and the fear that their children won’t ever become “real grown ups”.

    I think that Dr. Ford’s advice may help more than one family do the right thing (and in the end, Priscilla, your husband is right!)

    We are very grateful to Dr. Ford who has a very busy clinical practice in NYC for taking her time each week to write a thoughtful response to difficult questions.

    We encourage our readers to send in questions.

    Dr. Pat

    Reply
  • Roz Warren July 18, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Okay, so here’s my response:

    Dear Priscilla: Your husband is right.

    But that wouldn’t make much of a column would it?

    Reply