There is no right or wrong answer – every situation is unique, and when complications like this arise each family has to work out its own solution. The best place to start is with a bit of honest self-examination followed by a careful evaluation of the details of the case.
The first thing you need to do is to get past the emotions barrier. We realize this won’t be easy, but somehow you’ve got to set your feelings aside and achieve a measure of objectivity. Two common emotions – feelings of resentment and failure – will contend for possession of your mind during a crisis of this nature. On the one hand, you’ll probably be tempted to say, “Why is our son doing this to us?” On the other hand, you may think, “If we had done the job right the first time, he wouldn’t have turned out this way.” Nothing of practical value can be accomplished until you set these debilitating thoughts aside. Establish in your own mind that you don’t owe your adult son anything. Then get on with the job of finding out what you can actually do, as an expression of love, to help him get re-established.
Once you’re on a positive, proactive trajectory, sit down with your son and work out some realistic goals. A realistic goal is one that all of you believe is within reach. A realistic goal is also measurable. For example, if you do decide to let your son live with you for a while, you can require that he set three objectives for himself: 1) quit drinking; 2) enroll in a course at college or a technical school; and 3) find a home of his own within eighteen months. This plan is both realistic and measurable.
When these goals have been identified, figure out how your son is going to achieve them. Remember, goals are not reached overnight. Nor do they simply happen without a plan or strategy. For example, if you agree that he must find his own place within eighteen months, don’t simply say, “Well, he’ll move out as soon as he finds the right house.” Instead, calculate the cost of rental, lease, or purchase. Include first and last months’ rent, cleaning and security deposit, moving cost, or other expenses. Then estimate how much your son can contribute per month to that fund. If it’s going to take more than eighteen months to save enough money, go back and re-evaluate your goal.
Next, decide exactly how you plan to come to his assistance. Discuss exactly what your role will be. Be specific and write it all out in the form of a contract. Here are a few examples of the kind of agreement you might make:
- “We will allow you to live at home for two years. You pay for room and board, at $300 per month.”
- “We will pay half of your rent until your coursework is completed.”
- “We will allow you to use the old pickup until next September until you can save enough to buy a car.”
It’s important to set specific, objective points of measurement. Don’t wait until the very end to find out if you reached your goal. Instead, decide on a way to evaluate progress and re-define goals and roles along the way. Establish performance standards for measurement. For instance, if your son is to finish college in two years, at the end of six months he should have completed fifteen or more units of credit. If he is saving to get his own place, he needs $1,000 saved by January 1.
Be flexible – up to a point. Remember that some goals are unreachable, and that sometimes circumstances prevent them from being reached. But don’t hesitate to explain what your position must be if your child refuses to reach these goals. Outright unwillingness to cooperate should not be tolerated.
Keep in mind, too, that you may have to sacrifice in order to keep your part of the bargain. It might mean working overtime, going back to work, or giving up golf, but be sure to keep your promises. If you don’t, you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what it could have been like if you had stuck to the agreement.
Finally, be ready to accept the consequences. No plan, good or bad, always succeeds. It’s possible that your son will come through with flying colors and live happily ever after. But he could also bomb out again and again and again. Most adult children will probably end up somewhere in between.
If you’d like to discuss this with a member of our staff, feel free to get in touch with Focus on the Family’s Counseling department. Our trained counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone if you think that might be helpful.
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