College student son depressed and unmotivated.
October 31, 2013 7:24 AM   Subscribe

My 19 yr old son has decided to drop out of college after this semester to find himself. The problem is he is without a plan and I believe very depressed. He has been to a therapist in the past and has an appt to see the therapist next week. In the meantime he has called us sometimes crying and saying he doesn’t understand why he is in college. snowflake inside

He came him this past Sunday afternoon from spending time with high school friends in Boston. I was not happy since he had not let us know he planned to come home and my husband and I had made plans. Our other son who is at home was working (there is another kid at home too but he can’t drive yet) so there was no way to get older son back to school that night. My husband started asking him how school was and he immediately got very emotional and a little weepy and stating how much he hated it and everyone is horrible etc.. Older son has always been much more emotional then my other kids and is a sensitive soul. OTH he has great ideas and no motivation to see them though. This has happened before, last year at another further college and he transferred to a closer school because he couldn’t possibly stay another semester at his previous college (his choice of words not mine). I believed all was well with the transfer and we encouraged him to look for study abroad programs to see the world - which he said he wasn’t in the right field of study for(?) He changed his major suddenly etc.

This past Monday morning before we dropped him back at school we urged to see the school counseling office, they even have an anxiety group therapy session which I thought he would benefit from. Nothing. He did call his therapist but in the meantime we got a couple of weepy phone calls from him. I then called his therapist alarmed who called my son to see if he could come in earlier. My son was furious with us for contacting his therapist and sent me a bunch of angry text messages.

I guess I’m looking for guidance. It seems we can’t force him to seek help and yet as his parents we don’t want him to just drop out without some sort of plan. He seems to be all over the place emotionally. he spends too much time with his friends from high school who aren’t in college and doesn’t seem to join anything at college. He is still very immature. Do we let him just take a leave of absence and how do we encourage him to look toward his future? He is very resentful from things we’ve held him back from (going back literally years to when he was a kid) but not coming up with any alternatives?
posted by lasamana to Human Relations (54 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I ended up taking a year of in college, and the only reason I was allowed to do that and live at home was if I had a job to support myself. Maybe tell your kid he is welcome to take some time off provided that he can pay his way.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:30 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to add my husband was gone during much of my kids younger childhood and I admit to being less then a stellar mother when my kids were little and being very overwhelmed. I grew up in a dysfunctional family (and spent time in foster care) and parenting has been hard. This kid was always the "good" kid. He was very responsible almost in hindsight too responsible for his brothers. He has always been the kid who was first to help bringing in groceries, picking up etc. At the same time, he was always very clingy and never really wanted to go too far without a parent or someone to back him up.
posted by lasamana at 7:31 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like he's not ready for college. That doesn't mean he won't ever be ready for college, but leaving your friends and family when you're still emotionally and physiologically a teenager is hard.

If he's going to move back home, I'd ask that he gets a job and contributes to the household. Being in the workplace will probably be good for him. And seriously, trust that he'll figure it out eventually, but forcing his hand isn't going to help with school if it's not right for him at this juncture in time.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:34 AM on October 31, 2013 [12 favorites]

My mother has always told me how much she wishes she'd been allowed to take a year off before college. She simply wasn't ready and had no idea what she wanted to do, and she feels in retrospect that she might have had a more interesting career if allowed to make that choice, rather than being required to just power through with no clear goal.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:38 AM on October 31, 2013 [14 favorites]

we don’t want him to just drop out without some sort of plan.

And what sort of plan would this be? Plenty of kids go to school, muddle through, graduate, and still don't have any sort of plan. Hell, I went to school (a great school), did fine, and graduated without any sort of plan. College isn't some kind of magic plan-creating machine.

For what it's worth, my little brother dropped out of college when he was about 20. He wasn't doing well in his classes, he had no idea what he wanted to do, he was angry a lot (he's always been an emotional kid), and he felt like just being there was wasting our parents' tuition money. My parents said he could come back home and live with them as long as he contributed, but he didn't want to move home. I'm gonna be honest--he struggled. For a while. Worked a bunch of shit jobs, didn't work, had some personal problems, etc. But now (about 4-5 years on) he is one of the most responsible, hardworking grown up people I know. Never went back to school, but he's got a job that he loves (blue collar, but it suits him) and he's supporting himself, so who cares?

Everybody's different. Not everyone is magically ready for college as soon as the turn 18. Not everyone is suited for college, period. I'm sure my parents never planned for my brother to be a college dropout who works in a warehouse, but my brother is fucking happy, and that's enough.

I guess my point is just to set some basic expectations (e.g. "you need to be able to support yourself, so even if you move back home you need to find some form of employment") and let the rest fall where it may.

It might take him a while, but as long as he's making an effort to contribute and be responsible, let the kid find his own path.
posted by phunniemee at 7:42 AM on October 31, 2013 [31 favorites]

I've never been a parent so please disregard if I'm talking out of my ass, but from having had friends in that situation back in my college days I think the best you can do at this point is tell him you love and support him, and let him figure this out on his own. He has a therapist and knows you want him to be visiting more, AND he knows that you want him to have some sort of plan if he intends to drop out. You can't force him to do either of these things, or to do them well even if he does. Especially if he's immature right now, it's not going to help him to have his parents continuing to steer - figure out what boundaries you want to establish (can he stay with you if he drops out? If so, for how long? How much rent will you expect?), let him know you love him, and step back.

For whatever it's worth, one of my college friends sounded exactly like your son, only he also had the added "fun" of a newly-developed drinking problem (along with a tendency to smoke what was probably too much pot). After dropping out of college his sophomore year he struggled for a good several years working minimum wage jobs, got several DUIs and lost his license, and otherwise just really foundered for a while. Eventually, though, he went back to school for something he loved, moved overseas for a while, and now in his mid 30s is happily married, living in a cool city, and employed in a career that he finds rewarding. So it's worth taking a long view here: sometimes people just aren't ready for college right out of high school but that doesn't mean they'll be stuck as they are forever. 'Not all those who wander are lost,' yeah?
posted by DingoMutt at 7:42 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

as his parents we don’t want him to just drop out without some sort of plan.

lasamana, I totally get where you are coming from, but man.... I watched my parents do this to my brother when he was 19 and it didn't turn out well. What they should have done - and what you might consider - is to support his decision to drop out and not make him feel like a loser for not listening to your advice.

For his sake and for yours, tell him whatever he decides to do is OK and that you'll support him all the way without any judgement or recrimination.
posted by three blind mice at 7:42 AM on October 31, 2013 [12 favorites]

I took 5 years off from school because I hated my school, was full of ideas but not the ambition to match them, didn't fit in socially, etc. I came into my ambition later than some and got sick of jobs that couldn't match my ambition, but not qualifying for jobs that did because of my lack of a degree. Some people just need longer to find themselves. Now that I'm back in school, I'm doing great, have had study abroad experience, know what I'm doing with my life, and leadership opportunities and great résumé experience seems to be falling into my lap. The time I took off from school wasn't wasted -- it was valuable time that I needed to make my degree and career mean something. So don't despair that he doesn't feel ready for college right now -- that is perfectly normal. Just make sure he is doing something with his time. I ended up working full time for 5 years. Maybe he should work, maybe he should join the peace corps. Maybe he'll find a career that he loves and can support himself with financially without a degree -- great, lots of people do that. Maybe he'll figure out what he wants to do with his life and go back to school. He's young, his life is full of time and opportunity. Be supportive while he figures things out for himself -- that's what my parents have done and I appreciate them so much for treating me like an adult but always being there to prop me up when I needed it.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:44 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Taking time off college, or attending a bunch of colleges, is not the end of the world. I would let him come home, with the stipulation that he has to look for a job*. Maybe also require him to enroll in a class or two at your local community college, just to keep him in the college mindset and give him the chance to explore his interests cheaper than at a university.

*Saying he has to "get" a job might be too ambitious in this climate where unskilled jobs are hard to come by. But he should put in a good faith effort to contribute somewhat to his own living expenses.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:49 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

My sister was in a similar situation when she was in college, and she took a year off, moved back in with my parents, and started working part-time at a gas station and part-time at a pharmacy. It helped her clear her head, and ultimately discover what she actually wanted to do in college. She went back the next semester (fall), and promptly enrolled in a pharmacy program. YMMV, obviously, but in terms of a plan: encourage him to get a job and/or find meaningful volunteer work, and maybe see if he could find something that he is otherwise curious aboout? I have friends who did a similar thing and took time travelling (if he/you can afford it) and/or working abroad. Sometimes taking time to clear the head rather than just go straight through college out of inertia can actually be a really effective way to mature and/or get out of a bad situation. Good luck!
posted by likeatoaster at 7:50 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I dropped out of college at 19 because I couldn't stand it. My mother, god bless her, allowed it. I had no business being in college and forcing myself to show up and apathetically fail on a daily basis was a psychological nightmare.

I bounced around jobs and apartments for a few years, eventually working up a pretty decent resume managing little boutiques, then getting a office job, and eventually went back to school and got straight-As because I knew why I was there and I knew what I had to do and knew I never wanted to clean another toilet that didn't belong to me. Now things are pretty good. Some of my friends that finished college on time are doing much better than I am. Some much worse. In the long view, everything I could control turned out okay.

My mom supported me with cash when I asked, but I was determined to make it on my own as best I could, but it was good to know I had something of a safety net.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is: be supportive. Getting a job isn't going to be easy for him. Getting his head to a place where he doesn't feel like he Failed isn't going to be easy. Encourage the therapy. Discourage idleness.
posted by griphus at 7:52 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was a smart kid but completely unmotivated throughout high school and fortunately had the awareness to realize that I was not at all ready to go to college. I took a year off which turned into several years off, and when I finally went I was totally ready, excelled in my studies, graduated with a great GPA, etc.

In those years off I did all sorts of odd jobs (machine shop, courier for pathology service, ink factory, IT work, etc.) that helped convince me that I did indeed need a college degree.

It's not the end of the world if he doesn't want to go now - it's not even a bad thing. Him taking time away from school doesn't mean you've failed or he's doing something wrong.
posted by komara at 7:56 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I don't know how you would do this -- I wouldn't suggest the methods by which I was introduced to the concepts -- but let him know that what he does for money doesn't have to be spiritually fulfilling. Colleges tend to run that "find your PASSION" crap on kids, and then many of them end up miserable because they think their 9-5 must feed their soul. It's nonsense, and if he's planning to start working as a 19-year-old with a high school degree, let him know to expect little more than money for labor. Satisfaction on top of that is a bonus.
posted by griphus at 7:58 AM on October 31, 2013 [32 favorites]

He might find the trades more to his liking. Electricians, plumbers, welders, carpenters — it’s work that is hands-on, shows actual physical results in the end, AFAIK are in high demand these days, and can pay extremely well.
posted by at 8:10 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

If I could favorite griphus' comment a billion times I could. People like to hammer the "find your bliss!" "you can do anything if you set your mind to it!" bullshit into teens all the time.

Probably the single most useful realization of my adulthood was that a boring, unfulfilling job was simply the means with which to get money to fund the fulfilling things you do outside of work hours. Like, it's great if you happen to be the 1 in every 300,000 folks who is wildly successful working their dream job. But it's just not realistic. And that's OK.

Rent and food come first. Then you can see about that bliss.
posted by phunniemee at 8:11 AM on October 31, 2013 [15 favorites]

I think everyone suggesting you just give him unconditional support and reassurance of your love is right here. It sounds like he's struggling and in pain and I'd guess that coming down on him with tough love and a bunch of demands isn't going to help him.

And to be honest, the question "Why the hell am I in college?" is totally fair. It's not like it was even a generation ago, where a college degree gave you a near-guarantee of professional employability, a career and a reasonable level of job security. A college degree these days qualifies quite a lot of people for training as baristas (which is a fine job but not what most people want a BS for.)

He's very young. He has time to dick around and figure some stuff out. If he wants to go to college, it's better that he go back later having discovered a compelling reason to be there: he loves pharmacy, or film making, or has become really passionate about forestry. Or, maybe he'll discover that he's really well suited to a trade like plumbing or auto repair. Either outcome is awesome because it gives direction.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:16 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the things that for me was really helpful when it came to leaving for college was the knowledge that there was no social safety net for me back home. All of my friends were leaving for college in other states, my parents had jobs and other siblings they needed to concentrate on, and there was really nothing for me to do at home. There was nothing for me to go back to once I left for college. A new stage had begun and the previous stage was most definitely over. Not just over, it was gone. And to be honest, my friends whose memories of high school involved spending time with their siblings and knew their closest friends were still in the hometowns nearby or attending community college really struggled because they were constantly confronting with the fact that they were tied to another life which they had emotional ties to and an emotional (though not practical) draw to return to. It sounds like your son is in the latter category in a lot of ways.

He still needs training wheels for his post high school life, and you'll have to ease off the training wheels a lot more slowly than other kids will experience. I do not have any specific advice, but this is the way you will have to look at your son's situation.
posted by deanc at 8:17 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

A couple friends were college counselors and both say it's a tough call on whether a student should take a break or not. Some students need parents to give them a vision of the endgame--they'll meet more people as time goes on, they can choose better housing, in a year they'll be studying a chosen major, they can go abroad or take a semester at another college, etc. Your son can't see any of that now; he hurts too much. Do not underestimate how chaotic college life is--noisy, disorderly, and much worse than that. The environment can exacerbate depression.

It might be a good idea for one of you to visit him at school to apologize for panicking and calling the counselor and that you will leave that up to him. Be clear that you expect him to handle this right away and that it will help him. So counseling is the priority.

Help him form a clear plan to finish out just this semester ". . . and we can help you take it from there when you come home at Christmas." (You can leave the big discussion for later. Right now, help him deal with the now.) "Tell me where you are with your work. Anything we can do to help you sort it out?" (Is it possible he's failing?)

If he's somewhat on track, you can suggest that he visit his school's writing center--he's probably got a slew of papers due and upcoming mid-terms. Maybe you can help him work out a schedule for this. I'm shocked by the college students I tutor that high schools have done so little to prepare them in basic study skills and planning. It's not your son's fault if he doesn't know how to juggle his work. Suggest that he make it a habit to work at the library, not in the dorm. Are there any study groups in some of this classes? Join up with them.

It's important to help him get through this semester. . . if it's still salvageable. College students get long breaks. There will be time to discuss plans when the semester is over. When that time comes, and he still wants out, then lay out some scenarios, each of which should include taking at least one or two community college courses so that he continues to see himself as a college student and knocks off some of his college's requirements at the same time.

Any eventual take-a-break scenario has to include a discussion of money--how will he fund his break, continued therapy, etc. Right now, he wants to run away from something, not to something. As a parent, you sometimes need to provide a vision of what that something is. It's the "Have you thought about" talk. "Have you thought about what kind of job you'll need to have if you come home?" "Have you thought about what it will be like to be living a little like you did in high school now that you've had some independence?" This all needs to be done in a supportive and gentle tone--more listening than talking. IMO, many kids shouldn't go away to college as soon as they do. The problem is what they should be doing in the meantime. But you can help him sort out options he's too depressed to think about right now. But first, the counseling. Good luck.
posted by Elsie at 8:20 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would see if the two of you can sit down with him and the therapist and basically say "we're adults, we have a problem, let's work together to solve it." If he brings up things that you did in the past that he feels resentful about, you can say, dude, I'm sorry, we did the best we could, we can't go back in time to fix it, resenting us won't help you get where you want to go in life, what can we do today to move forward?

I think the message needs to be, we love you and we want you to call us when you have problems but it's not really fair to call us with problems and then expect us to not do anything (because we love you) so let's come up with a plan together. Encourage him to put himself in your shoes. I'm not a parent but if I had a kid at college who kept calling while crying, I'd be inclined to call the kid's therapist too. Ask him what he thought you should do in that situation and what he would have liked you to do in that situation.

Anecdata: My sister is very smart but she's also moody and would act resentful towards our parents for all sorts of random stuff. She studied biology/pre-med in undergrad, applied to medical schools, didn't get in and was depressed after graduation. My other sister sort of made her apply to the MPH program at the local university which was just starting. She dragged her feet but lived at home and started going to work on her MPH, eventually earned the degree, went to med school, and now she's a doctor. I think our parents were kind of like, we'll get off your back but you can't come live at home and not do anything.

I don't think it's unusual for there to be a young adult freak-out at some point in one's life and I think that parents can help people come out on the other end by encouraging the young adult to think forward with an attitude of, what can we do to help you get where you need to go? Good luck!
posted by kat518 at 8:21 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Three Blind Mice to some extent (that is, let him drop out after you have a better understanding of the situation and he has some alternative plans like getting a job, developing a skill, etc.).
posted by Dansaman at 8:33 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it's way deeper than that and that you and your son are talking at cross-purposes. He transferred to a school to be closer to home- you are trying to promote study abroad programs. Obviously that's not what he wants. He comes home for support, it's an inconvenience because you have better things to do...that's harsh, he's an adult and all that but he is crying out for support and not receiving it. I also think it was very undermining of you to call his therapist. I think maybe going to therapy together would help as it sounds like he has many anger issues from the past.

It sounds more complicated and deeper than just 'let him drop out but make sure he pays rent'.
posted by bquarters at 8:33 AM on October 31, 2013 [24 favorites]

Have you or has your son considered medication to treat his anxiety and depression issues? I know it's hard to think about medication for something that seems like an environmental/situational depression, but if your son was already tending toward anxiety/depression, such a big change in life, his biochemistry might be reacting toward college with added stress and depression. It sounds like his depression/anxiety is interfering with his ability to participate in daily life activities, which is, my my non-expert opinion, when antidepressants are something to talk about as an option.
posted by shortyJBot at 8:36 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

(I tried to cancel my prior comment at the last minute, I don't want to sound harsh but I had some of the late teen/early 20's angst too so I kind of feel where he's coming from. Families are complicated, as is college, work and adult life!)
posted by bquarters at 8:38 AM on October 31, 2013

Could you encourage him to take a few courses at community college while living at home -- or even just one? It sounds like he's not ready for the full-on college experience. That way he can keep progressing towards his degree, get out of the house, and be in the company of others who are moving forward. (If he goes that route, make sure he visits the disabilities office to arrange accommodations for his mental health issues -- he may need extra support.)
posted by Wordwoman at 8:42 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

It might help you to know how incredibly common this is. Colleges don't like to trumpet the statistics, but many of them have extremely low freshman retention rates, and fully 30% of students drop out during or after their first year. But many of them go on to pursue their education later and complete college. I'm one of them - I dropped out after my freshman year at a large state university, moved home, worked, and went to community college, then transferred to and graduated from a (much better) liberal arts college.

This is by no means the end of the world. First, your job now is to listen to your son. He is really in need right now, and he's being honest with you about it. How fortunate for you to have this opportunity to help him, rather than have him suffer in isolation while he wastes time and money in a program he doesn't want to be in.

This kid was always the "good" kid. He was very responsible almost in hindsight too responsible for his brothers.

So he probably also feels a strong sense of guilt for disappointing you, and is worried that you will reject/be angry/think less of him for not being able to get through this year. It took a lot of courage for him to come to you for assistance.

The first thing he needs is probably some rest and help. The therapy appointments are a priority. I also agree that he needs to get engaged in something. But please, both you and he should be thinking on the shorter term right now. Job one is to get him feeling stabalized and mentally healthy. He doesn't need "a plan" right now if "a plan" means a life plan, a college plan, a major, a career plan. What he needs is a plan to get through the next year or so to become more secure with himself as an adult making choices. He isn't feeling secure about it right now - not ready to make the choices, not ready to understand and meet the expectations of college, not able to see the intrinsically motivating goal of what college is.

What I did in this position was, first, worked at a summer camp I'd been working at for several years. It was a good place to return to, a place where I felt capable and supported. Then in the fall, I moved back home, got a job at a newspaper and started attending community college. I also started volunteering with a local kids' theatre group to get more teaching experience, and helped them put on events. Great experience. I was busy, but had a good environment at home that let me start to get a full understanding of what college and working life were, and what I wanted out of them, before spending thousands and thousands more dollars and casting myself into a very isolating and unrewarding environment (which college can be when you don't want to be there). By the time I completed my AA degree, I applied to 4-year-colleges knowing exactly what I wanted to do and knowing I would be successful at it. I needed a couple more years to mature. It worked out beautifully, and I'm grateful to my parents for being understanding enough to provide the additional 18 months of shelter and support while I got my act together.

A deal is a good idea. I didn't pay rent, but I did contribute to groceries and did a lot of the housework while I lived at home.

The idea that everyone, at age 18, is ready to leave the nest and fly on their own is just no longer true. College isn't a perfectly designed environment, and not everyone is well equipped to just jump into that transition with little or no real psychological/emotional preparation. Which is fine; it's fair to really question the assumption that they should be. Most kids in college are pretty much spinning their wheels anyway - I tend to think we send people to it much too early for them to have the faintest clue what they should be doing there, or what they want to do with their Some people are going to need more time to adjust, and to be healthy they need the support of their families. I think pressure is the wrong thing to apply - but support is the right thing. Help him stay organized with the therapy, and sit down open-mindedly to talk through a short-term plan for the next year or so. It's likely that he'll want to try school again, but not before he has some concrete goals for things he wants to do and be, and can see that school is the route to get to them.

I'm afraid parenting doesn't end at 18. It's hard, but this may be a time your son needs to rely on you even more than when he was younger. It's a little wobble before takeoff, but being supportive now can really pay off in the long run. Help him build his own structure, not just slack around, but also offer patience.
posted by Miko at 8:45 AM on October 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

First, pathologizing his unhappiness isn't helpful. Unhappy in college does not automatically equal mentally ill. As many commenters have related, college just isn't the right place for every 19 year old. There's nothing wrong with that. Maybe your son's depressed, maybe college simply isn't right for him. Furthermore, he's legally an adult and unless your son has signed a release form allowing you to communicate with his therapist, you are not a part of that relationship. I would feel outraged and manipulated too if my family and therapist were communicating behind my back without my consent (it's unclear from the details you gave, but that kind of thing can also be illegal and a huge professional ethical violation on the therapist's part.) Privacy and confidentiality within your son's relationship with his therapist is a big deal and if you really want him to utilize the mental health system, stop undermining the trust he has with the people he works with.

This is a stage where you have to step back as a parent and let him try (and yes, possibly flounder or fail.) If he doesn't have a plan, it's okay. If it takes him a little longer than some of his peers to finish school (or maybe he'll find a fulfilling path without college!) that's also okay. This is a rough life stage for MANY but most pull through it just fine.
posted by horizons at 8:53 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

On posting, I noticed Elsie's' comment that you could look to problem solve for the current semester and plan from there on out. She asks:

(Is it possible he's failing?)

And it certainly is possible, or possible that he's doing very badly if not outright flunking. He may be overwhelmed by deadlines, work he doesn't know how to attack, a sense of inadequacy, etc. Let that conversation open up, as again, he might not want to let on that he, the "responsible kid," isn't handling it all. Try to find concrete ways to be of support, resources he can use to stay afloat, etc. And let him know this isn't unusual at this time in one's life.
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm with the "talk about finances" folks.

Some of my least happy years were in college. Grinding through yet another humanities course trying to figure out what a fuzzy thinking professor wanted to hear, trying to reconcile citable studies with knowing that what the professor really wanted was a regurgitation of the false statements made during lecture, wondering why I wasn't able to make sense of a lecture topic until we hit the subject that I already knew cold and realizing that the professor had no clue.

When I finally found my way clear to get a job and drop out of college, I was so happy. Productive work. Learning things. Mental stimulation.

Not everyone is blessed by the set of skills and the cultural timing I was able to take advantage of (yay for computer geekery), but even if it's "get a job in the trades and study for the test for your contractor's license after the requisite two years of indentured servitude", actually having a path that leads some place concrete rather than "well, grind through four to six years of this busywork, get the sheepskin and figure out what you want to do after that" can do wonders for a mental outlook.
posted by straw at 9:00 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Please support your son's decision. Tell him he need to try to work and be employed in some fashion, but let him take a break from school until he figures out what he wants to do for a career and what education he needs to do that. It will be easier for him to return to school knowing what he wants to do after leaving now than it will be to get a useless degree and have to do the school thing all over again to get a decent paying job while trying to hold down a full time job as a capital A adult. Financially, he may never even be able to do the second option if he can't live at home until he's 30 or has a spouse to support him. Ask me how I know.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:00 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

He sounds like a really good kid going through a hard time.

*Can* you be supportive of him? If so, then do it. Think of it as making up for the early bad years, if you need to, or think of it as laying the groundwork for his care for you in your old age, or just think of it as what you can do for someone you love.

If you can afford it, and if he wants to come home, I would let him take a leave of absence from school and come home. Pay for his therapy *and* psychiatry (if he is depressed, medication can really help). Tell him you love him and want him to be mentally and emotionally happy.

Ask him to work with a therapist to come up with a plan for how he can best use his time, and then you will discuss the plan with him. Perhaps part time paid work, perhaps relatively intense volunteering, perhaps more intense exercise and meditation, whatever would be good for his mental health (menial jobs can be great for getting you out of the house and feeling somewhat productive) and also make you as his parents feel like you are building towards something, not just helping him squander time.

You might be scared that this will last forever, but I wouldn't worry about it yet. Treat it as a temporary but long term illness. If it looks like it's dragging out or that he's in danger of wallowing, then you can revisit. But for now, giving him a warm place to land and some support may be the best and, in the long term, quickest, path to him being an independent and healthy person.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:10 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wanted to come in to address the issue you discussed about your son possibly having too much responsible for his younger siblings during what you described as your less-than-stellar parenting years: I was also that child. I have three younger siblings, the youngest of whom is 14 years younger than I and the oldest eight years younger.

I have parented since I was 8. When I was 10, I was taking a bus in NYC to pick up my sister. By 14, 15, I had responsibility for three children. Babysitting, making meals, picking up from school. So when it was time for me to head to college, it just felt like one. more. obligation. I ended up muddling through college but I would have really benefited from a year to just figure out who I was outside of the family pressure and expectations. Maybe if you frame your son's year off this way ... as a chance to really define himself for himself, he'll be better able to handle planning for the year ahead. Just a thought.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 9:13 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Whoa -- your son was me at 19. After I basically flunked out of an expensive private school my parents had insisted upon, and despite my protestations that I just wanted to work and f off for a while, they pushed me to register at a state college, and then when I didn't apply myself there, a community college. I finally dropped all that and moved across the country to get away from them, but the student loans I accumulated during those 4 years haunted me for a decade after. Some kids are not meant to go right off to college -- I certainly was way too emotionally immature to apply myself or to even really get much out of therapy/counseling. I got very homesick and was more concerned with socializing than studying.

6 years after dropping out and moving, I went back to school on my own terms and have since finished up undergrad and a masters degree and have a successful career. My parents now admit that they should have listened to me and let me "find myself" back then.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:17 AM on October 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

One of my brothers sounds a lot like your son.

He's really smart, and easily got into our state's big State U. When he actually got there, he completely failed to thrive. He was just seriously unhappy.

He ended up transferring to a smaller but less prestigious college in our hometown, where he did great, got a good degree, and is now a software developer. He is now the most successful of all of us, in the classic career sense (he, like, Gets Promotions and stuff!).

Based on this, my advice to you is somewhat to let him be, and let him drop out if he really wants to. Be supportive of the fact that he's not happy at school.

That said, I would definitely stress to him that he should be in school (or moving toward something like a trade), and that he needs to look into transferring rather than wandering aimlessly. I mean, maybe he takes next semester off or something, sure, but there needs to be a light at the end of that tunnel.

FWIW, I also took some time off college and grew up to be just fine. (Though in my case I do feel like I sacrificed some future career success and earnings potential, and my aimlessness was more of the truly aimless Get It Together, Kid variety rather than depression.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and just to clarify because he's transferred before -- I think this transfer should be to a school that is at home, so he could live closer to home. "See the world" is a recipe for homesickness, culture shock, and depression.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having a life plan is not treatment for depression. Treating depression is a necessary thing to getting a life plan. If he's going to move home or something, I'd say that yes, you should expect him to be doing something, but by "something", maybe at first you just look at "making an appointment with a psychiatrist or GP about meds and continuing to go to therapy". Then transition towards getting a job, any job. Then towards thinking about what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Baby steps are very, very important with depression, and as much as a lot of people want to deliver a Kick In The Ass at times like that, they're rarely very useful. If you have the resources to help, here, help; obviously if you don't really have the resources then that's another story entirely, but it sounds like that part isn't a problem.

He's nineteen. He still is a kid in a lot of ways. A lot of people really aren't ready to make lifetime decisions about careers when they hit college, and a lot of those people still turn out fine. It really sounds like you've been putting a fair amount of pressure on him to have all these things figured out already, like changing majors is a big thing that indicates his lack of stability, and even before throwing in depression this sort of uncertainty is entirely normal. Seeing the world is a great idea, but it's harrowing when you barely know how to handle getting out of bed in the morning.

Finally, yes, please, avoid contacting his therapists and other doctors unless you have some indication that he is going to harm himself or someone else.
posted by Sequence at 9:49 AM on October 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

I want to echo griphus' excellent post.

I was much like your son in college. I got in to my dream school in a city and place I loved, and I still felt so directionless and clueless as a freshman that I nearly dropped out.

My main issue was that I had bought in to the lie- I call it that deliberately- that college is about coming in with an amazing career plan, and that this career should always be fun, fulfilling, enjoyable, profitable, you name it, and that everyone can change the world with the work they do, and if you aren't... then you're just a useless slob.

As a young person it is easy to get sucked in to this fallacy, and then when the inevitable realities of life happen, you get depressed and feel lost. It could be a bad class with a poor teacher in a major you thought you would love, an awful paper or project that makes you question "whether I really want to study this anymore," et cetera.

It isn't just about college, either. Too many young people then step into the workplace as twenty-somethings and expect that it will be fulfilling, that they will change the world, that they will always go to work excited... and when it doesn't happen, they break down, quit, bounce between jobs, or give up on careers and spend the next ten years working service jobs and "finding themselves."

After my college experience, I spent the next several years working in social work and trying to change the world, all without a healthy work-life balance. It broke me down and I fell apart. Only after I started a new career was I able to realize what the realities of life are, and what a healthy work-life balance looks like.

Have a talk with your son. Tell him that college, work, and careers will always be challenging and frustrating, and no matter what the career, everyone has those days where they feel like they are just going through the motions to make a buck. And that's ok, because in a capitalist system, our employers are specifically relying on us to provide X+Y dollars of value while only paying us X dollars in return. Fairness and changing the world are nice ideals, but they don't always happen. A healthier perspective is to acknowledge that this is life, and it's ok! Instead, rather than investing all that emotional energy into insisting that work must be fun, fair, and fulfilling, invest it into your family, your friends, your hobbies. He is not a failure for feeling inadequate. On the contrary... everyone is inadequate when facing such impossible expectations of themselves.

I wish I got this talk. It took until my late twenties for things to click, and I now see my work and career in a healthy way. Help your son get there sooner!
posted by Old Man McKay at 9:53 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Aw, man, poor kid. That sucks, both for him and for you - you obviously care a great deal.

Not everyone is ready, mentally or emotionally, to deal with college. College can be hard, and not just academically. I think some kids need a little more structure or support, or a little more time, to develop the maturity and the sense of direction they need to get the most out of higher education or career training.

While he might not have any mental health problems, it's not unusual for things like depression to manifest at that age, which makes living away from home so much harder. It's wonderful that he's being honest with you about this, instead of hiding it and either quietly flunking out or harming himself. I can see why he was upset about you calling his therapist. I probably would have been too. In future, I would avoid contacting the therapist unless you are actually worried about him harming himself or someone else, because that could really harm your relationship with him.

If he feels strongly about coming home, it might be worthwhile to look into what it would take to get a leave of absence from school for a semester or a year. If you do that, come up with a plan together with his input for his time at home - will he pay some nominal amount of rent? Should he try and find a part- or full-time job to give him structure and responsibility? Failing that, what about volunteering? Should he try and continue a class at the local community college so that his academic skills don't get rusty? If he lives at home, will he be required to keep a regular therapy appointment?

Ultimately, whether your son sinks or floats in the short or long term is up to him, and I hope that you don't take his choices too personally either way. The best you can do is provide him with a support structure, hope for the best, have faith in him, and keep reassuring him that you value him and believe in him.

Good luck. People grow up and change a lot in their early 20s. This bump in the road doesn't have to be some kind of giant failure spiral, even though it might look that way to him or to you now.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 10:29 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my case, I was unready for college... partly because of the why am I here/what's my path and largely cause of some depression, childhood father abandonment issues, and so on. It took a lot of time off and a conscious decision to stop beating my head against that wall of fail, expectations, anxiety and stress and to just quit college. period. I got in a relationship, did even more therapy, and really attacked the roots of my failing (negative self image I got from my dad leaving) and now, maybe, I am ready to try again.

But no way in hell was I ready at 19, and my poor mom happened to make it worse by trying to get me back in over and over. She did, however, let me sleep at her place for a while when things were really bad.
posted by Jacen at 10:36 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

1. It's only been since Sunday! Give him a week or two to chill out and collect himself. See if he can get a note from his therapist to be excused from classes. This isn't about slacking, this is about removing himself from an emotionally overwhelming situation so he can plan what to do next with a clearer mind.

2. It sounds like he's grown up feeling a lot of responsibility and being the oldest kid in a stressed family. And it sounds like he's internalized a lot of expectations about having to achieve and know exactly what he wants to do and how to be successful. And if you've "held him back" from many things he wanted to do while growing up, the immense freedom he suddenly has now combined with the immense pressure to pick a major NOW and be motivated by that for the rest of his life...he's probably feeling a lot of anxiety about what will happen if he chooses wrong. And that's enough to make anyone snap.

3. I may be projecting a little. The stuff about growing up with high expectations (whether self- or externally imposed) and being discouraged from things I wanted to do really resonates.

4. Don't blame him. Don't blame yourself.
posted by casarkos at 10:38 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Lots of kids are mixed up at 19. Some stay mixed up a while longer than that. I was a little bit like this. I turned out OK.

> Do we let him just take a leave of absence

Not "letting" him isn't really on the table. You can try to pressure him to stay there, but I think it would be unwise, somewhat cruel, and probably fail anyway.

> and how do we encourage him to look toward his future?

Well, he needs to get a job, as many others have said. I would also consider telling him that he needs to move out and find and apartment or room with one of his buddies. You probably won't like how this goes for a while--but he'll be happier, and it is one way for him to leave the nest in an independent way, which one way or another, he needs to do.

If he is very messed up mentally (suicidal, for example), or if his friends are worse than slackers (junkies or criminals), I wouldn't go there immediately, though getting him out of the house should still be a medium term goal.

> He is very resentful from things we’ve held him back from (going back literally years to when he was a kid) but not coming up with any alternatives?

My overall impression is that you need to step back and manage him less. It is time for him to start charting his own course in life, even if he does it poorly for a while.
posted by mattu at 10:44 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'll second Miko that students having trouble in their first years of college is incredibly common. So common. Even very bright kids, even kids who really want to please. It is no surprise that he is having a hard time.

College is lonely, and if he's a get-attached-to-people type of guy, it's much harder to find people/authority figures who will reciprocate his attachment in the way family or even high school teachers can.

College also poses much greater challenges in scheduling your own time and in academic self-discipline. Right now is when midterms are coming back, maybe he is getting some bad results in classes, or maybe he is realizing how much behind he is. Again, this is common and not a character failing. (If there is a dean of first-year students, that person would be a good person to get in touch with to make a plan, if he did want to try to catch up - they could get in touch with all his profs. But honestly, if he is far behind, it may be futile to try to catch up at this point.)

The last thing you want is for him to feel like he has to stay in school, no matter how miserable he gets, or else you will think he's a wimpy quitter. That is a recipe for disaster.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Taking general education requirements at community college while working part time wouldn't be a bad way to spend next year.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:02 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think part if the difficulty of transitioning to college is that it's less structured than high school. Meeting new friends, studying, meeting goals and joining clubs or hobbies takes initiative and it takes a skillset of soft (social) skills and hard (getting to done) skills that nobody bothers to explicitly teach you. You're supposed to learn by osmosis, I guess.

The problem with moving back home without a plan is that that going-home-again world *is even less structured* than high school or college. Plus you get to add on all the angst and old habits and pushable buttons that being with your family always entails.

I was missing a lot of social skills in college. I made a couple acquaintances total the whole time and no friends. I finished all but two classes in three years and I had a plan to finish those two classes via correspondence.

Those two classes took two years. It took most of another year after that before I had a retail job. In the meantime, I did have therapy and the real impetus for getting a job was when I had my first adult romance and I realized that I didn't have to be a schmuck, but that wasn't possible without all the therapy and trial and error.

Which is all to say, any momentum to keep getting credits or moving towards a career and to keep a schedule that requires leaving the house is important, even if it's taking one easy class at the local community college.
posted by Skwirl at 11:57 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

not everyone needs a plan. not everyone has to go to college. not everyone has to study abroad. it is okay to be depressed and weepy and anxious. it is okay to have unresolved issues from your childhood about what your parents did or didn't do for you. reading your post it seems like you don't even really like your kid that much, which probably comes thru to him, which is a real bummer. you probably had all these goals and aspirations for him and he's not living up to them. that's not his fault, they weren't his goals. you should help him and love him anyway.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:37 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for commenting - I've been reading your answers during the day and I realize I'm projecting my own fears and BS onto him and it's unfair. He is a lovely person who is his own person and we need to realize it. I have found him harder to parent then my other kids in part because he is more sensitive and I'm more then occasionally like a bull in the china shop - just bulldozing my way through.

bquarters you're very right (it was just a little harsh) - I have been talking at an opposite purpose from him. He really does need to have my support and I have been trying to push him out in the real world. I called his therapist in part because my husband and I were both so worried about the crying and how he seemed emotionally fragile. It's hard to hear your child in so much pain. I'm sorry but I would do it again, he's my kid whom I love.

I really thank you for showing me he needs support and freedom at the same time and his life is his to do with.
posted by lasamana at 12:44 PM on October 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

I don't know if this helps but my dad was a community college professor for forty years. He hated teaching teenagers because they were often drifting, unfocused and were just there because they felt they had to or their parents made them. On the other hand the older adult students showed up on time did their homework and knew why they were there. Many of those students went on to four year colleges etc. You can't force him into being a happy or willing college student. You can tell him that if he wants to live at home he can only do so if he's a productive member of the household.
posted by bananafish at 1:45 PM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I see you've asked about your son before. I can see why the military with all its structure and hierarchy of progression would be really appealing to an ambitious kid who is unsure about what he wants. Did he decide to study engineering? That's not an easy first semester at any school.

I think it's important to let him know he doesn't need to have his entire life charted out right now. Having plans is nice and all, but it's okay to hit pause and revise your plans when things don't turn out the way you expected.
posted by casarkos at 2:10 PM on October 31, 2013

Response by poster: casarkos This is not the same kid - I have 4 sons. That kid is still going to the military and has applied for the 4 yr ROTC scholarship.
posted by lasamana at 2:53 PM on October 31, 2013

He is still very immature. Do we let him just take a leave of absence

College is expensive. There is no point in that if he's not ready for it.

Encourage him to finish out the semester with the best grades he can, it might be easier for him to do this if he knows that you would approve of him taking a break after that.

You seem to feel he needs help with contacting therapists, help with arranging transportation, and for you to allow him to leave school -- if he needs all this help, he's not going to be able to come up with a plan on his own. If he moves back in with you, he needs to apply for work -- you can't have much more of "a plan" than that, it's not as though any of you know where or whether he would get work.

He's 19, and legally he can drop out of school if he wants to. He might stay in school when it's not a good idea for him out of a desire to please you, but that's not something that can sustain him all the way through getting a degree. He might not have enough life experience yet to have his own concrete motivations for attending college.
posted by yohko at 3:05 PM on October 31, 2013

Reading the responses here makes me feel a little better about dropping out of college when I was 20 or so. But I have very mixed feelings about how the OP should proceed. On the one hand, I can totally relate to the kid... but at the same time I did waste a lot of time wallowing in angst, and I worry about the risk of the OP coddling the kid when it's possible what he needs is a little kick to the butt to force him to get moving again. In hindsight, it's possible I would've benefited from something like that.

I would say, be as supportive as you can to this kid, but set rules and stick by them. He needs to have some kind of goals. Say he has to get a job, or he has to look at trade schools, or he has to show you that he is serious about his therapy. If he needs some time to figure out what to do, that's OK. But he needs to actually figure it out, he can't just have a breakdown indefinitely. The risk is that he will regress, that he is going to run home to you guys and just stay there being depressed and lost and unambitious for way too long, while his youth ticks away.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:24 PM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, I disagree with the people who say he should be happy to settle for a day job and follow his passion on the side. It is way too soon for him to settle. This is the time when he should find his passion, and chase it. This is when he should be working for free, paying dues and doing a lot of shitwork so he can get the job he really wants. All that "you can be anything you want" stuff gets less true as you get older, but if it's ever true, it's true for him right now.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:29 PM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

If I had been able to delay college until I had some kind of idea what I wanted to do, that would have completely changed my life. I would not still be loaded down with student loan debt and a degree that is about as useful as a sea sponge when it comes to getting a job. I agree with others that if the kid is going to be at home he should be expected to hold a job and pay some form of rent and bills.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:35 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is a little late but I just wanted to add another anecdote to the many that others have shared... My most brilliant friend from high school, who got a perfect score on his SATs and a scholarship to NYU's Gallatin School, dropped out after one semester, moved back home, and worked in retail for like, 10 years before eventually getting an engineering degree from a state school. He was fine, just on his own path. The HS-straight-to-college trajectory is not for everyone, and that's ok.

That being said, I agree that taking a class or two at a community college would be a good way for your son to maintain some sense of structure and forward momentum while he figures out what's next, and it would probably be easier than trying to get a decent job in this economy. (You mentioned you're near Boston? Maybe UMass Boston could be an option.)
posted by désoeuvrée at 5:32 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tell him to do Americorps or some sort of structured program like City Year or the Peace Corps.

I was in his shoes a few years ago and would have benefitted greatly from some time away from the pressure grind that is college and I wish my parents had been more supportive of my pursuing a volunteer-based opportunity. He just needs a semester or two off. I'd tell him to apply to one of these programs and take adult responsibility seriously, complete with getting a job to cover his bills and zero parental, financial investment.
posted by lotusmish at 11:21 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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