Helping a kid who does not help himself
November 16, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Helping a kid who does not help himself.

I am a guardian of sorts to an emancipated foster child who is now 21 and living in a different city from mine.

Long story short, he has been screwed by both "nature" and "nuture" -- classic terrible experiences in foster care for many many years, was likely born drug and alcohol exposed, has extensive learning disabilities. At the same time, he is very verbal, bright, and funny. He has an incredible memory. He is deeply irresponsible. He receives SSI (which I obtained for him); I am his payee.

I was his foster parent for three years (his longest placement). I tried a lot of different ways to get him to do socially productive activities. I enrolled him in school; he would get kicked out. I would enroll him in a different school; he would not do the work. I would enroll him in GED; he wouldn't go. I got him tutors, assistive technology for learning disabilities, went to his IEPs, etc. I would get him jobs; he wouldn't show up. I would do nothing and wait for him to do something -- he wouldn't. Living with him was like living with a very charming raccoon.

Now I get his tiny check from the government and try to pay his bills (rent and utilities). Every single month he runs out of money (there isn't enough unless his roommate pays a share) and begs begs for money from me. Every single month I end up subsidizing him (mostly by sending cheap food via the grocery store delivery service, but sometimes more substantial amounts to deal with the latest disaster, e.g. power cut off (when power was purportedly to be paid by roommate)).

I tell him to get a cheaper apartment, get a roommate who pays her half, get a job. I send him job information, referrals to social services. I am considering visiting him in January and try to take him around to agencies but imagine he would not take advantage of them.


Example: He loses his ID card. When he lived in California I went with him to DMV to get replacement cards several times. I got him one before he moved to Las Vegas. Of course he lost it. For more than one year he has told me he would be getting a replacement card. On more than one occasion I sent him the money to pay the fee. He has not done it. In more than one year. And it's a huge inconvenience to him, but he doesn't do it. His inaction is breathtaking. It's not like he has a job or school or anything.

I've been trying to help him less and less, but it doesn't seem to change his behavior. My plan, to the extent I have one, is to stay that course -- help him the bare minimum to keep him from homelessness, but no more.

I'm his only adult relationship, as far as I know.

Any thoughts?
posted by ClaudiaCenter to Human Relations (27 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think you are amazing for all you have done for this young man, but honestly, he is an adult now. If you're always there to prop him up he's never going to get his shit together on his own. Stop subsidizing his irresponsibility. If you want to keep handling his SSI money and paying his rent, fine, but he needs to learn to live in the real world at some point and as long a you continue to bail him out, he has no incentive to figure it out. Be very clear about what you will and will not provide, and then stick to it.
posted by something something at 10:21 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

You need to cut the chord and let him sink or swim. He's an adult, he needs to take care of himself.
posted by nomadicink at 10:27 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

What are his ambitions? Has he ever expressed a desire or passion for any job or other activity? He doesn't seem focused at all; if he really doesn't want to do anything other than sit around his place and wait for others to pay for him, then you'd do well to stop subsidizing him as something something suggests.

I really, really, really really hope that he's not lying to you about the roommate paying the bills and using the money for drugs instead.
posted by Melismata at 10:27 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds as though the biggest problem he's having right now is that all of the stuff that normal adults do to keep their lives running smoothly seems to him like more trouble than it's worth. That is, the payoff he gets for paying his bills on time or keeping a job or getting a new ID card isn't enough to make it seem worthwhile given the perceived drudgery and hassle of actually doing all of that. And that's understandable. I've put off getting a new passport for a year because even though the forms aren't terribly onerous, it never feels urgent and seems like a chore.

Moreover, the stuff that he has to do to maintain a stable lifestyle is probably worse than what most of us have to do. The jobs he's qualified for are likely tedious and filled with tyrannical bosses who give nonsense instructions and then punish you when the result comes out wrong. The government agencies he has had to deal with to keep his support coming are huge bureaucracies with byzantine rules and often heartless-seeming employees. I wouldn't want to put up with that crap either, especially if all I got for it was a crappy apartment and a crappy paycheck and no real hope of making my life much better than it is now. There's no real upside to doing that stuff.

The obvious answer is to increase the downside by not bailing him out. If he does become homeless or go without food because he didn't show up to work or pay his rent, he sees the connection between work and comfort, and that makes work seem more worthwhile, even if it continues to be boring and awful. However, I completely understand why you don't want to do that to a kid who has never had a stable family to teach him how to take care of himself. I wouldn't either. Those of us who have grown up with families take for granted a certain level of safety net, even if we never use it, and I absolutely understand and admire you wanting to give your foster son that safety net in the same way you would for any of your children.

So then, the other option is to increase the payoff of doing the things he's supposed to do. Is there anything that he actually does do willingly or seems to enjoy doing? Can you get him more of that? For example, if he loves playing on the computer, see if you can get him a mentor who works in computer science to show him how to make that into a career and walk him through the steps to get there. Or, is there anything he wants enough that you could give it to him as the reward for doing the stuff he doesn't like? If he wants, for example, to own a car, tell him that you'll buy him one if he goes six months or a year supporting himself and keeping his life together without needing financial assistance from you.

One way or the other, you have to make the equation of effort=reward balance out. Because right now, it doesn't balance for him, and so he doesn't put in the effort.
posted by decathecting at 10:32 AM on November 16, 2010 [11 favorites]

I have an Aunt, and she is now 60 years old. She sounds very much like your young fellow.

She could not hold down a job, could not pay her bills, had her power shut off numerous times, had her home condemned due to her hoarding and unwillingness to clean. She was like this when she was 20. And 30. And 40. And 50. Now 60.

The one constant is that my grandfather would always bail her out. Always. She never had to worry about consequences because there are none for her. Now my Grandfather is frail and tired, and he is still taking care of her into his 80s. He is independently wealthy, and my Aunt has already spent the entirety of her inheritance, as well as a good chunk of my mothers and my other Aunts and Uncles.

Please stop and think about what you are doing. You might be helping in the short term, but you are setting him up for failure in the long term. Don't enable this anymore. Given him a short-term ultimatum, maybe three months, and after that the money dries up.

Don't turn him into my Aunt. Please.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:33 AM on November 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: My question would be: Is he capable of doing the kind of planning ahead and life management he needs to do in order to keep track of and replace his ID card? Is he capable of learning to manage his money so it doesn't run out partway through the month? Is he capable of negotiating with and standing up to a roommate?

If he is, then the sink-or-swim advice is probably right: set a deadline, set firm financial limits, whatever, and then stick to it. If he's not, then it's probably more helpful to think of him as a adult with a disability, and plan your help accordingly: keep him from being homeless, don't overturn your own financial and emotional boat. I grew up with an uncle who was brain-injured, and so my family has a lot of experience with thinking about questions like, "How do you get a guy who doesn't really have the capacity to think ahead to make his allowance last as long as it has to?" My uncle really wasn't capable of thinking, "Ma gave me $50, but if I spend it buying lunch for three friends, I won't have enough left to buy a carton of cigarettes on Friday." After my grandparents died, he wanted to stay in his home so he had roommates; they'd run short of cash and he'd let them talk him into "lending" them money. And so on. It never ends, there's no easy answer to it. In your shoes, if I believed he was not capable of doing what you wish he could, I might look for support and advice among people who care for mentally disabled adult relatives; the issues seem very similar to me and there might be some good guidance there.
posted by not that girl at 10:34 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's something I have no way of knowing:

a) If he is literally incapable of living independently, perhaps because of a mental disability of some sort, then he needs to be in an assisted living situation.

b) If he is capable of taking care of himself, but for whatever reason decides to be a burden to others, then you can either continue taking care of his needs or let him come to whatever harm he may.

If you have a way of answering this question and the answer is (b), and he does nothing to build a better life for himself, then there's nothing you can do.
posted by Nomyte at 10:34 AM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: Living with him was like living with a very charming raccoon.

You know what? Raccoons are pretty resourceful. They find out a way to survive. Even if we'd like them to be more like house cats, somehow they wiggle out of the house and get into the trash again. I guess what I'm saying is, you should separate out your own desires for him (stability, responsibility, productivity) from his own nature and capabilities. He might be comfortable living on the edge. It might not be your role to try to change that.
posted by yarly at 10:39 AM on November 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think you need to back up and start tying your generosity to actionable, provable results. "You want X? OK, I want Y. When you show me evidence Z that Y has been accomplished, I will give you X."

This could be anything. "You want me to pay your phone bill? I want you to fill out a job application at Target. Send me a copy of a Target job application -- walk into any Target and ask for one -- and I'll pay your phone bill. Oh no, I won't give you money to pay the bill. I'll pay your phone bill. Send me the paper phone bill. Here's a self-addressed, stamped envelope so you can send me the phone bill. All you have to do is fold the paper, stuff it into the envelope and drop the envelope into a mail box. If you don't send me the phone bill, it won't get paid."

When he lived in California I went with him to DMV to get replacement cards several times. I got him one before he moved to Las Vegas. Of course he lost it.

Lost it? Or selling it?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:42 AM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I agree with those above that are saying that he's an adult and you should let him sink or swim. It may be the incentive he needs to get his act together. I notice that you refer to him as being "charming," which in my experience can be an indicator of various personality disorders. You may want to consider that possibility (which may or may not affect how you deal with him) and the possibility that he is simply using you at this point.
posted by Logic Sheep at 10:43 AM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: The OP said this guy has extensive learning disabilities. If so, the "tough love" philosophy of sink or swim isn't going to work for him. He needs support. Assisted living, regular counseling, etc.

OP, please check your MeMail.
posted by xenophile at 10:48 AM on November 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I disagree with the suggestions thus far. Given what you've said, he's probably an early teen developmentally, at best. Probably just a child. It doesn't sound like he's got the coping skills to survive on his own, frankly. "I've tried to help him less and less, but it doesn't seem to change his behavior." I don't think you're going to be able to tweak this kid. I think he's going to have a rough road, and I think he needs you and a lot of other people's help. I think you're doing the right thing to stick with him, and you're also very smart to try and get creative with ways to help him without rubbing it into his face that he's dependent. My gut feeling is that cutting the cord with this kid would be very counterproductive, and that he's just not going to have an "Aha!" moment and suddenly jump ahead 15 years developmentally on his own. Here are the first couple of ideas/concepts that pop into my head:

- encourage him as much as possible to find things he actually likes doing. frankly, that might be riding a bicycle, or going to the pictures.

- express your concern to him, and let him know that you know that the way he's acting is not well-adjusted, but make it clear that you're there for him. you may be able to help in building a bridge between pleasure and achievement. maybe not. a lot of people like this die, frankly.

I just don't get a drug addict vibe off of this one. I get a vibe like you may actually be making a difference in this kid's life, and that you may be able to continue doing so. The "cut the cord" idea works in some cases, but not all. Frankly, my emotional response here is to encourage you to help him more, and perhaps in a new way, but definitely not less.

That's my two cents.
posted by facetious at 10:49 AM on November 16, 2010 [10 favorites]

Should have previewed, I am in agreement with xenophile.
posted by facetious at 10:50 AM on November 16, 2010

I'm probably projecting quite a bit, but this seems like someone who doesn't have a lot of hope for the future, so why put effort into it, why not just spend all your money right now? You may be coming across as someone who wants him to do things (e.g. fill out paperwork) that seem onerous for no apparent gain. He needs someone to help him create a future that doesn't look like an endless stream of paperwork and misery. What does he want for his future? Even if it's something completely unrealistic, the enthusiasm and encouragement could get him off the couch and making some effort in his life.

Throwing money at him won't change him. Getting frustrated won't change him. Like facetious said, cutting the cord will not produce an epiphany on his part. He could be made to see that things will get much worse if he doesn't change (homelessness), but I think the most effective thing would be if he could see that things will get BETTER if he DID change. He has to want things to be better, though, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about that.
posted by desjardins at 11:14 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to add: As much as I enjoy living in Las Vegas, it's a terrible, terrible place for people -- particularly poor people -- who need some level of structure in their lives.

Too many distractions, too many drugs, too many takers, and a government-encouraged social system designed around taking money from gullible people.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:21 AM on November 16, 2010

Have a cousin just like this guy. Screwed by genetics and his upbringing, intellect and reasoning of a 12-year-old, most likely has at least one learning disability. Family (including my parents, my brother, and I) tried everything to help him, including letting him sink or swim. Nothing worked.

After he was convicted of a bunch of crimes (none violent, mostly just stupid thefts and frauds he committed in lieu of keeping a job), he ended up getting some prison time. After prison, he was thrown out of a couple halfway houses for (surprise) not following the rules. A few more stupid crimes later, he was determined to be genuinely mentally ill, and he's lived for the past few years in whatever they're calling a prison-cum-mental hospital these days.

Really, where he is now is the best place for him. He has no responsibilities, can't get into much trouble or danger, and isn't out stealing and cheating people. I hope you do find something that works, but I know from experience with my cousin that there are just some people who just can't get it together. Ever.
posted by Rykey at 12:00 PM on November 16, 2010

Response by poster: Although I have marked "best answers," I would very much like to hear more responses.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:00 PM on November 16, 2010

Your situation reminds me of Dr. Brenda McCreight's- she writes a lot about the struggles of dealing with adult children who are not "neurotypical". You might find her blog interesting, she's also available for online counseling.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:12 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Several things you have mentioned about your young man's birth circumstances and his behaviour are strong indicators for some kind of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

A sink or swim/tough love approach only makes sense if someone is capable of learning through consequences. FASD affected people are often not able to do this because of the way alcohol affects fetal brain development. Some people on the spectrum can have normal IQ but have poor or no impulse control because of damage to the part of the brain that controls executive functioning (planning for the future, learning from past consequences). As you can imagine, this can affect things like managing money or avoiding trouble with the law.

These sites have good information and links to resources:

FASD Center for Excellence (US gov't)
California Resources; California Initiative (National Org. for FAS)

Good luck. This is a tough situation, and you are obviously a caring person who wants the best for this young man. He is lucky to have you for support.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:35 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know two families with early-20s adopted sons who are in the same general type as it sounds like he is. Very charming, and nice guys with good intentions, but so impulsive or unable to plan-and-follow-through that it's a major impediment to basic adult living.

In the less hopeful case, the young man is closer to the can't-appreciate-consequences, can't-form-rational-plans end of things. Like, he should probably be in some kind of supported living situation, but they haven't managed to arrange that. A few years ago, he moved to another state from his family and fell in with a bad crowd, got involved in petty criminal activity. He avoids talking to his parents on the phone, when they do talk he's constantly making up preposterous stories to explain why he has six phones, etc -- and his stories will baldly contradict things he should realize his parents know about, so even the deception isn't fully rational. (Disclaimer: I realize this sounds like something a normal person might do if trying to distance themselves from overbearing parents, but that is not the case here. I've interacted with this guy and he has always had the charming-raccoon quality, talking with you and working to charm you while there is a weird vacantness behind it. Hard to describe, but his case is very clearly different from the normal "making some mistakes, learning in the school of life" case.) His parents are at a loss. They got him a job back in their town (away from his bad-crowd friends) and he moved home full of promises, but he lost that job after a short time and ended up moving back to where the bad crowd is. By now there is a drug issue too, the parents are pretty sure. They have supported him enough to keep him off the streets, at other times they've tried the tough love approach but that led to him moving in with a group of the bad-crowd friends, etc. I wish I had a good answer for you on this -- but if your guy is like this, I don't know what the answer is. For some people there is a very fundamental disconnect that leaves them unable to make plans or avoid bad consequences, and short of getting him into some kind of very limited living situation, I don't know what can be done.

In the more hopeful case, the family is Mormon and the young man was able to go on a mission. (After cycling through five other plans, including joining the military, and a couple of very minor teenage brushes with the law.) The mission was in the US. They have quite strict rules, no telephones, curfew, roommate, etc, and he began by breaking their rules, apologizing, breaking the rules again, etc. They were going to have to send him home. His parents by this point had told him "if you get kicked out, you can't come back to live with us". His mom had a talk with him: You can't please everyone; if you're doing the mission just to please us, you shouldn't, because there is no way in life that you will please everybody; you need to figure out if this is part of a plan that leads to something YOU want, we will support you doing whatever the plan is, but you need to decide on a plan and follow through. After that (and presumably much coaching and threats from the mission director) he successfully completed the mission and has a plan for the next year - remains to be seen how he will do. Very nice kid, just very, very impulsive; based on very limited information, I think he is capable of appreciating consequences and forming rational plans (which it sounds like your guy may have a harder time with), but he does need a lot of coaching in that area ("what will happen next, if you do this?" etc). It seems to me he is lucky to have the structure of the church to work within, because it introduces him to other people his age who have it together more.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:10 PM on November 16, 2010

Any chance he has severe ADD? I assume he's been screened for stuff, and perhaps he isn't compliant with any medications, but has that been a factor at all?
posted by barnone at 1:33 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your story sounds EXACTLY like a friend's son. Except he has no learning disabilities, had a loving home, etc. But he is about 27-28 and is subsidized entirely by his mother and has been babied his entire. He sounds exactly as irresponsible as the young man you describe.

I also have another friend who sounds exactly like the person you're describing. Same story; loving home, trust fund, but completely babied and unaware of consequences or any sort of finality of parental financial support.

It sounds like you've tried to get him involved and engaged. Have you tried to teach him things about life and how to deal with the world? I have no idea how one would do that, but it sounds like that's what he needs.

You will at some point need to cut him loose, yes? Sooner or later he will need to learn how to live on his own and exist in the world. I know it must be difficult to not feel completely responsible for his fate, but letting him go might get him to start addressing his life. Or it could land him in jail or an institution, or end up homeless, which is an ending that could be hard to bear.
posted by MonsieurBon at 3:06 PM on November 16, 2010

Okay, two tidbits.

One of my relatives is schizophrenic. He is also an adult. He knows that he has a place to live anytime he cares to darken the doorstep of his family members. He knows that he has people who will help him get his medication, who will make sure he has food, etc. But his family cannot bail him out of every bad decision he makes, or they would all be bankrupt. He has a soft place to fall--and is thankfully functioning at present well enough to remember that--but if he chose to walk out and live on the streets and not eat, that would in the end be his decision and they aren't ready to legally get him declared incompetent, so it's left at that. I think that kind of applies here. As long as this kid *has* the financial resources that he *could* live on them sufficiently, and is choosing to live on more than that, I would not keep bailing him out. Give him the money from his SSI. If he gets evicted after that, let him know you have a sofa, even that you'll help him find a new place, but do not keep subsidizing things he can't really afford. Anything that was not a health or survival issue, I would not expend my own resources for. More money just hurts you, it doesn't really help him.

The other is a pronoun. "Her". Is this roommate a girl? Pardon for making assumptions about sexual orientation, but is this a roommate... or a girlfriend? In my mind, roommates pay rent or get evicted. A girl who lives in his apartment who rarely pays half the rent does not sound like a roommate, and I would be even less likely to be willing to contribute extra financial support if it's really going to support a third party. But telling him to get a more responsible roommate if this is really his girlfriend is obviously not going to work, and even if he hasn't *said* they're involved, I might tread carefully there. (Maybe suggest the possibility for them *both* finding a cheaper place rather than just him, etc.)
posted by gracedissolved at 3:40 PM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: I never got an ID for about a year. I just didn't need it--I mean, I kinda needed it, but being bright and creative and personable, I never NEEDED it, not even to fly.

If I walked to a class and I took a wrong turn (a possiblity no matter how often I'd gone to that same class) I might be completely fucked and unable to find my way back to class. Then what--I might just say "fuck it" and go home (and have done that before) instead of walking into class 30 minutes late or trying to explain to the teacher why I wasn't there, or trying to make up the homework...fuck it.

The things I talk about above are because I have very significant ADHD (and family issues). I covered for it a lot by pretending like I didn't really want to do X, or I didn't need to do X, or I didn't feel like going to class...

So it might seem like a motivational issue on the outside when it's actually an issue of ability. Especially with that long rehearsed "who cares" facade that a lot of children with learning difficulties have.

Is he getting proper mental health treatment, including psychiatric treatment and medications if he needs them?
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:51 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a sister who used to be like this. The advice that I gave our parents, which they ultimately followed, was for them to pay her rent directly (so that she would never end up homeless) but to let her manage the rest of her money and bills on her own. Because getting one's power turned off or going hungry a few times (with no parental bailout) is a strong incentive to get one's shit together.

It seems to have worked!
posted by Jacqueline at 5:09 PM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: My brother has some pretty heavy-duty psychological issues that have prevented him from becoming a fully functioning adult (or really, even marginally functioning). The fact that the person you describe is receiving SSI benefits is, to me, a pretty clear indicator that the learning disabilities and whatever else is going on here are the real culprits, and not just him being a young adult slacker who has been enabled into a neverland of I Don't Want to Grow Up.

The stance my family has taken is to set reasonable boundaries that attempt to maintain a balance between meeting his needs and protecting their interests and sanity. My mom/sister pay his rent and utilities, and my sister's name is on his checking account so she can keep an eye on things. They try to make sure he has a functioning cell phone. My mom passes him an extra hundred bucks a month in cash, and feeds him dinner twice a week, and other little things like that. But beyond that, we all try our best to let him lead the life he choses and/or is able to, which isn't much, and which doesn't in any way resemble what on some fronts he might at one point appear to have been capable of.

It is hard to watch, but sometimes people's brains just don't work right, and things don't get better, and their shit can't be completely gotten together.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 7:11 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the details matter here....

If the kid is really suffering from FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) or serious learning disabilities, you may have to adjust your goals for him as SomeTrickPony suggests above. My neighbors adopted a kid with FAS and provided a loving and stable home, but the kid never could really handle total independence. He works part time at a gas station and lives with his brother in a separate basement apartment.

On the other hand, I know a kid who has some psychological problems and ADHD issues. He's extremely bright, but can't quite get together enough to be independent. This kid was sent back to school and things are finally looking up for him.

I would think about what's reasonable to expect. I particularly like the carrot ideas above. If there's a job or training you can get him interested in that may do the trick.

Bless you. I know this must seem like more hand holding than you expected, but you really are making a difference.
posted by xammerboy at 10:52 AM on November 17, 2010

« Older How much should I charge for trumpet lessons?   |   Want a pre-lit tree that is pretty and not... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.