What to do? Teenager is a Bum.
February 28, 2014 7:19 AM   Subscribe

What do we do about this depressed / unmotivated / lazy kid? Snowflakes inside.

How do we get Kid to behave like a productive person?

My wife’s son has struggled with depression for years – possibly all his life, although he was only diagnosed a few years ago. Kid is smart, but most semesters struggles to get motivated at school. He has always self-medicated by plunging into video games, which destroys his grades, increasing his anxiety, provoking more games. Vicious spiral. In the past two years he has successfully completed one summer class and one regular semester (in which he flunked only one course).

Now he is 20. He dropped half his classes this term. He’s flunking two more. Of the two he could pass, he likes one, and seems to be doing really well in that. But he is still to be found most mornings in his bed, playing a video game, at least until I make a scene about it.

I’ve insisted that during working hours he either do school work, go to school, or actively look for a job. But it is always a scene. He is looking for a job with some energy, but he expects a medal for his efforts, and seems to think he’s no longer obliged to go to school.

I have no idea if he’ll actually get a job, or keep one. He’s never held a job in his life; his father has always given him money for free.

Kid has social anxiety. On a bad day he thinks his jaw is deformed; he wants his dad to pay for him to get leg-lengthening surgery because he thinks he's short. (He’s normal height and not bad looking.) He dropped a gym class because he wouldn’t be able to wear tall shoes in it.

Kid has started therapy any number of times but always drops it after a few sessions. Kid does not indulge drink or drugs. While he's here, he's on anti-depressants. They improve his mood a lot, but his productivity only a little.

I’ve always been a driven person and a self-motivator. I don’t understand someone who just lies around. But I’m not really looking for understanding. I want him to do something productive. Or I want to be off the hook for feeding and clothing him. When we cut him slack for his depression, it’s hard to tell if we’re being gentle with a depressed person or enabling a lazy one.

When he’s feeling good, he tells us he loves us. And he promises to get his act together, pull his grades together, do his homework, etc. When he’s not feeling good, he’s a lazy, ungrateful jerk who expects to be supported while he plays games in bed. He can be one in the morning and the other in the evening.

We could kick him out. He would go live with his father. His father will yell at him. Kid will go off his meds; he has every time he has gone to stay with his dad for more than five days. He will call us in desperation. I don't think we're ready to say, "tough luck, kiddo" when that happens, and it takes months for him to recover some equilibrium after a short visit to his dad.

What options do we have?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (72 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You are in a difficult situation as his stepfather. I would consider stepping back a bit and thinking about what you truly want here. Do you want to stop financially supporting him? Do you want to stop living with him because he says rude stuff? Do you want him to contribute money to the household? Do you want him to cook three meals a week?

Focus on how his behavior directly affects you, not on his character or his flaws. Then take your reasonable requests to his mother, and hash it out. Depending on how functional he is, you might then decide to include him in the decision-making process.

I can tell you that without his mother's cooperation, you're going to have a much harder time getting what you want. You're going to hurt her if you call him lazy, or even strongly imply that you think he sucks, so avoid that as much as you can.

Ultimately, you can't control his behavior and that is going to cause you endless frustration if you really invest in it. Big step back.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:31 AM on February 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

What does his mother say about all of this?
posted by MeghanC at 7:34 AM on February 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

This might just add to the things you'll end up being frustrated that he doesn't do... but... I would try to insist that he get on a program of his choosing to work on his depression on a daily basis. It could include exercise, meditation, CBT, whatever, but it should be something proactive that he is expected to do long term. Maybe have him suggest what the consequences should be if he doesn't do it?

Another option is to give him a LOT of work to do at home to contribute to his "rent" if he's not doing things that you're willing to support, like go to school full time. Cooking, cleaning, painting, upgrades, etc.

Also, I don't know what the family dynamic is, but putting his mom in charge of the issue might be best.
posted by metasarah at 7:34 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you are not going to kick him out, you are going to have to get really tough about privileges, and really clear with him about what it means for him, as an adult, to be living with you. By "privileges," I mean the video games, any internet access he has, and the television. Be prepared to password protect and take away if he won't follow rules like "go to class" and "do your chores."

You're right that he's self-medicating, and it's going to require a lot of effort on his part to stop doing that. You can help him along by taking shit away. As a parent, that's your job. He's gotten to where he is through his parent's behavior (I am not sure how long you've been there--it wasn't clear from the question). He's only 20, so he's basically still acting like the teenager that his parents raised.

You could wait him out. Most people will eventually get their shit together, I believe, but without a push, it takes some people a lot longer.

I do have two things to ask, though:

1. Are you more angry about supporting him or about the fact that he's not productive? I think that this is an important distinction. If he's a real drain on resources, that is one thing. If you're just annoyed that you're paying for his life, when it is not actually hurting you, well, that's just what family does, in my book. It's just money.

2. If you ARE that annoyed about him not being productive, I want to ask you to try very hard to understand that not everyone is like you. Some people are not as driven. Some people really struggle to get their shit together, particularly if they're depressed and have what sounds like a kind of crappy father. It's harder than you can possibly understand, if you have always been a driven, productive person, to suddenly become driven and productive.

So, basically, I think the kid needs a kick in the butt, for sure, but he also needs more empathy and less judgyness. Try to help him with love, rather than with irritation.
posted by hought20 at 7:35 AM on February 28, 2014 [17 favorites]

Of the two he could pass, he likes one, and seems to be doing really well in that.

Additionally, has he been screened for ADD? Uneven academic achievement is a classic ADD thing, as is the video game stuff. If that's not getting better with his current meds, he's not being adequately treated--he sounds nonfunctional.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:42 AM on February 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

Can you just ride it out for a couple of years? I was a slacker that dropped out of college and lived with my parents until I was like 23. I started real life a couple of years late, but I eventually got into IT and now I'm making a significant amount more than my parents did.

What I would do if I were you is sit down and try to figure out how to minimize the impact he has on your life. Cut out unnecessary expenses like a phone bill. Tell him to make sure he's quiet when he's home, etc. Really, how much is he hurting you, if he hangs around the house all day playing video games? He sounds depressed and aimless, but he doesn't sound hopeless. Give him some time and space to figure out his life. You don't need to support him an excessive amount, but you don't need to feel responsible for him 'being a grown up', either. He'll do it on his own eventually.

In fact, I don't know your financial situation, but if you have a few grand laying around, suggest that he go backpacking somewhere for a couple of months. It'll get him moving AND out of your hair for a while.
posted by empath at 7:56 AM on February 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yes, I hope your wife is on board. Your post comes across as mostly "I, I, I," and people here are going to jump all over you for that. But you don't say one way or the other, and if your wife is content to let you make these kinds of decisions, that's fine.

One thing you might consider is kick him out and offer to pay his rent for three months in a place that is not his father's house. My mother did this to my sister, and it was very good in making her think "oh, I'm an adult now, I need to think about what I want instead of just being lazy while waiting for the family's check to arrive." She bounced around a little and eventually settled down, more or less (she is still an artsy flake and always will be, she will never be ambitious and make more than the minimum amount of money she needs to do her art and yoga). Are there month-to-month leases or rooming houses in your area?

Also, agreeing with others that different medications should be looked into, if they haven't already. Oh, and thank the Lord/whomever a million times that he's not doing drugs. This would be a million times harder if that were the case. (If he were, my answer would be kick him the fuck out and be prepared for the most aggravating, heartbreaking life you've ever known.)

Good luck! You have my sympathies.
posted by sockerpup at 7:57 AM on February 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Oh and yes, this sounds more like ADD than depression. He might have the wrong diagnosis or medication. Get a second opinion.
posted by empath at 7:58 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I recognize that this is a hard situation and you sound frustrated. I think the first and most important thing for you to realize though is that neither you nor your stepson can control mental illness and that compassion is what you should be practicing, not judgement. You need to choose empathy and understanding in order to support this young man as he tries to overcome his illness, rather than look for more futile ways to coerce him into being the type of motivated person you're demanding he become.

You have the potential to seriously ruin whatever small progress your wife's son has made over the past few years if you continue to be this negative force in his life. Do some research about depression. Go talk to a therapist to get a more honest understanding of what your stepson is going through. Just check yourself before you wreck this kid's life. You owe it to him and to your wife to reexamine your style of impact here. Your perspective on this situation is the problem here.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:59 AM on February 28, 2014 [35 favorites]

He is an adult and he has a responsibility to take care of himself. The school thing, it's a loss, I'd suggest that he stop faffing around with it for now.

What the kid needs is a job.

Your wife, his mother, needs to be the one to lay down the law on this. Not you.

1. In your home, there are no video games. Full Stop.

2. He has to have a solid plan for getting a job:
A. Must apply to 10 jobs per day on line
B. Must go to 5 locations and apply for jobs per day
C. Must make a list of what jobs have been applied for and meet with Mom to discuss.

3. There is a list of chores he must do as a contributing member of the household.

4. Once he gets a job, he pays 20% of his Net Earnings to you as rent.

5. Once he gets a job, he saves 50% of his Net Earnings towards what he'll need to move out on his own.

6. If it works out for all of you, then he can pay rent indefinitely, if it works.

7. He stays on his medication.

8. He stays in therapy.

That's the deal.

No one owes an adult a living, but clearly there's more to this kid's struggle than entitlement (although I'm sure there's a hefty dose of that in there.)

He may have NO clue about how to get up and get going, so provide him a roadmap.

It's important that the whole plan comes from his mom, from a loving, teaching perspective. "We're doing this because we want you to be a successful, contributing member of society."

The problem is, if this goes on for too much longer, he'll lose his chance to turn his life around.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:01 AM on February 28, 2014 [17 favorites]

The problem is, if this goes on for too much longer, he'll lose his chance to turn his life around.

I wouldn't use such a dire characterization. He's only 20. The most interesting people I've ever met were mostly complete fuck-ups when they were that age.
posted by empath at 8:09 AM on February 28, 2014 [59 favorites]

My brother was very unmotivated until he was 23 or 24 (although he was not depressed or ADD). Now he is 31, has a master's degree and is working in a field that he loves. It took him a bit longer than normal to "grow up" but his life was not ruined by 5 or 6 years of faffing around. My parents insisted that he pay rent and do household chores, but they also supported him even though it was very difficult for them.
posted by muddgirl at 8:13 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would say, "You really need to leave the decisions to his mother and father," and leave it at that. But for whatever reason you seem to feel involved as a parent, and I would explore why. Have you been encouraged to take on this role? How does your wife feel about it? I would work things out with her first. Now, maybe you've done that, but it doesn't come across in your question.
posted by BibiRose at 8:14 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can't speak for the job thing but his mom should do whatever it takes to get this kid on the right meds and keep him in therapy. There's so many things in your post that scream out to me that this kid needs help. Getting a job might not fix his issues.

I understand your frustration but quite frankly I don't care about it nearly as much as I care about a young person so miserable with life. If it sucks for you imagine how much it sucks for him.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:16 AM on February 28, 2014 [23 favorites]

(I should say that my brother was never diagnosed with ADD, but it was not a very well-known disorder when we were kids)
posted by muddgirl at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2014

Kid has social anxiety. On a bad day he thinks his jaw is deformed; he wants his dad to pay for him to get leg-lengthening surgery because he thinks he's short. (He’s normal height and not bad looking.) He dropped a gym class because he wouldn’t be able to wear tall shoes in it.

This is not a "bum." This is someone with serious issues. Whatever you decide to do, I suggest you drop the resentment. You chose to marry this kid's mother. He had no choice.
posted by BibiRose at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2014 [70 favorites]

OP says in the question that he is not looking for understanding for himself.
posted by Melismata at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2014

It's hard, but you need to stop calling him things like "bum" and "lazy" and "unmotivated," even in your head. If that's how you see him, odds are good that he knows it. The problem with those sorts of labels is that they imply more-or-less permanent traits, so if he internalizes those labels he's not going to feel any motivation to change.

His problem is that he is not taking responsibility for himself. Whatever else is going on with him, that's the crux of it, and that's what's directly affecting you and his mother. "Taking responsibility" includes going to school, finding work, and taking care of his mental health. He may be able to do only one of these at a time, but the good news is that once he starts improving in one area, he will start to gain enough momentum to tackle the others. Start with mental health, because it sounds like he's got some serious issues that aren't being managed, and taking care of his mental health will help him do better with school and work.

Talk about all of this with your wife; it's absolutely crucial that you're both on the same page. Together, establish some rules that will light a fire under his butt. These include goals: going to therapy consistently for X months, going to classes, spending X hours a week looking for work. Cut down on anything that he should be doing for himself: don't buy him clothes, don't stock junk food in the house, and if he drives and you pay for gas, give him a strict gas allowance. Take away privileges if you must, but making his life miserable will backfire - he's already miserable enough.

And recognize where he is putting in an effort:

He is looking for a job with some energy, but he expects a medal for his efforts

Well, he kind of does. Job hunting is exhausting and demoralizing, especially on top of depression and anxiety. If he's sending out resumes and applying to places every day, that's huge. You're right that his efforts shouldn't stop there, but do give him some credit when he does honest work. Positive feedback is a huge motivator, more so than punishment.

These aren't dire sink-or-swim years for him, but this is a very good opportunity for him to start learning how to take better care of himself and establishing adult habits.

(I am not a parent, but I have been a depressed and unmotivated kid.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:22 AM on February 28, 2014 [29 favorites]

But I’m not really looking for understanding. I want him to do something productive.

As someone who has wrestled with mental health issues in the past, this attitude is really galling. You sound like you're saying "I don't really care about what's hurting him; I just want him to pretend that nothing is wrong." You know he has health issues, you know they're not being adequately treated; why do you expect him to be "cured"? If it was a physical condition that was being poorly managed rather than a mental one, would you have this same attitude?

I had terribly undermanaged depression when I was an adolescent and in my early twenties. It was very hard. I managed, finally, to get good treatment, and now I am happily married and the mother of two children and a productive member of society. But that happened because my illness got treated, not because I was bullied into no longer being a "bum."
posted by KathrynT at 8:23 AM on February 28, 2014 [109 favorites]

When we cut him slack for his depression, it’s hard to tell if we’re being gentle with a depressed person or enabling a lazy one.

I think the best option is to try and do both. You can be emotionally supportive while still laying some basic ground rules that will help him be more independent and get on his feet. I agree with those who suggested that maybe he should withdraw from school entirely and do some work instead. Maybe make some rules that he do x chores per week and x applications per day until he gets a job and pay rent like others have said but also suggest that he works on his mental health and don't let on that you think he is being "lazy" or "a bum" because he probably senses that and I'm sure it's actually very counterproductive.

Maybe as a 20 year old with similar issues I am projecting but I find it extremely disturbing that you have said you aren't looking to understand him and that you're calling him a "lazy teenager"--what? I think of a 15 yr old with no mental issues bunking school and getting high or something when you say that, NOT a 20 yr old adult with family problems, poor self-esteem, and diagnosed mental illness. I suspect he is more averse to your attitude than your suggestions. If you come from a place of understanding and suggest manageable goals, I can almost guarantee he will be way more receptive than if you suggest those same goals but with an attitude of disdain and frustration which is...kind of how you sound here.
posted by hejrat at 8:33 AM on February 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

Speaking as a university-level academic advisor, you guys are wasting your money sending him to college right now. A transcript full of failed classes is not doing him any favors and every class he fails or gets a D in is money you just flushed down the toilet. He doesn't have the focus or the drive for college right now.

I agree with Ruthless Bunny - you and your wife should sit down with your step-son and have a serious discussion about setting up expectations, and a plan for his next year or so. He should be focusing in therapy and medication, finding a job, and helping with household chores and upkeep.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:34 AM on February 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

Kid has social anxiety. On a bad day he thinks his jaw is deformed; he wants his dad to pay for him to get leg-lengthening surgery because he thinks he's short. (He’s normal height and not bad looking.) He dropped a gym class because he wouldn’t be able to wear tall shoes in it.

I want him to do something productive.

I'm sure he would also like to be doing something productive, but social anxiety is debilitating at the level you are describing. You mention meds for the depression which make him more pleasant to live with, but that seems to be your only focus. That's great for you guys, but what is being done to help him with the anxiety that is clearly crushing him? A tough love approach isn't going to work if he can't function.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:38 AM on February 28, 2014 [19 favorites]

I think it would really help u to realise that "depressed / unmotivated / lazy" aint the same.
posted by Ted Maul at 8:45 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

As someone who is naturally motivated, you may be completely unaware of the steps you naturally take to get things done, and thus be taking it for granted that your stepson knows what those steps are.

During a phase of my own depressed bumming, I got a lot of "just get a job" and "just do this specific thing" and very little if any guidance on HOW. It was really expected that I should just know. When I actually dug in and tried to get help on the HOW, I got a variety of replies that showed me that, honestly, most people really have no clue either. A lot of people have their jobs from pure luck or nepotism, from channels I wouldn't benefit from.

It seems to be human nature that when one has naturally succeeded by luck and chance, that they then turn around and sneer at those who didn't that it must be their own personal failing causing them to struggle.

So if you actually know how one would go about accomplishing things while suffering from depression and severe anxiety, teach that to your stepson. If you don't have any clue how (and you clearly don't), do what you can to find someone who does.
posted by Dynex at 8:47 AM on February 28, 2014 [21 favorites]

This is a bit out of left field, but I knew someone like this who did an Outward Bound-type program for young adults (18 to 30ish) with depression/anxiety/similar with excellent results. It removed him from his electronic coping mechanisms, gave him a month (I think?) of pretty intensive therapy so that he had time to get with the program and commit to staying on his meds and sticking with therapy, removed him from the dynamics of his home and social situations that were reinforcing his negative behaviors (or making him feel worse about himself), and gave him a lot of things to focus on outside his anxiety (like making camp, cooking dinner, etc.) so that he wasn't just dwelling in his own head.

It wasn't a magic cure but a break from his life (and electronic coping mechanisms) combined with supportive therapy combined with achieving some concrete things (hiking 20 miles, learning new camping skills) combined with physical exhaustion, good sleep, and lots of nature -- that gave him a "reboot" and, with appropriate aftercare when he got back home, he was able to approach long-term treatment for his depression with a lot more hope and confidence, and he was much better able to make long-term plans for school and jobs and so forth and know he could succeed at things.

(Actually he eventually became a therapist and rock climber and back-country hiker and now works at wilderness therapy programs, so it worked really well for him! But when he first came back he took like a janitorial job and started back at community college after a while and so on. It wasn't immediate.)

Just a thought.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:49 AM on February 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

Yeah, ADD. Look into it. Sounds entirely possible.

I'd echo people saying that you're not going to solve this, and are in fact likely to make it much worse, by approaching it with the attitude you're taking. Don't get me wrong, I know how frustrating it can be to deal with this. But you really need to make the leap from realising the issues that he has, to realising how hard that makes him to do any of the things you want, and that thinking of him as a lazy, useless, ungrateful asshole is going to make this even harder for him. Don't think that he doesn't realise how you feel about him or that he doesn't care. He does, and then some. You're his father figure right now, regardless of how he reacts to/displays that.

If things are as bad for him as you describe and he's still making a serious effort to look for jobs, he does deserve a goddamned medal and you should reward him with real acknowledgement and respect.

Not giving him that, or allowing him the comforts that get him through the day, and expecting him to make a huge effort to turn things around at the same time, is a recipe for a meltdown. But if you go through the frustrating process of working out the right way to approach him, then he's probably open to the idea of making larger steps to achieve what you both want for him. It's also the right thing to do.

People saying that he may well be wasting his time in college right now if it's not going anywhere, may well be right. The expectations of what he'll do/have to do with his degree may be a large part of what's crushing him down; getting permission to shed that weight for a while, start moving forwards, and come back to it later when he has the focus and self-knowledge to make the most of it might be more useful.

Good luck. This is a tough situation.
posted by Drexen at 8:52 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Every kid wants to be successful, at least in the eyes of his parents. He wants to see pride reflected in your eyes when you look at him. So I agree with the comments above, try to look at his challenges from a different angle. Yes, as adults it's easy to label the behavior, but what is more likely going on is a medical issue.

If you thought of one of your own peers who seemed to be down and not able to get anything done, you would probably be more likely to wonder if something was wrong with him rather than just label him a "bum".

Our teenage years are fraught with major changes in body chemisty, and sometimes those changes don't always fire the right way. Or they take longer to take affect in some than in others. If you do some reading about depression, you will find that it most often starts to manifest when we are teenagers and young adults. It's related to the changes in our body chemistry. Some people manage to get through it okay. A lot of us need medical intervention.

Right now is the time for you to advocate for him, for his good health. He is still a kid, and kids don't know how to advocate for themselves.

With long-term, chronic conditions, kids don't know that it can be a medical issue. They just think it's who they are inside. So they don't know how to ask for help. They have good intentions of doing what you ask (go to school, get a job, etc), but when it's a medical issue (low energy, depression, mental fog, what-have-you) they just don't know how to get from A to B.

Get the boy a full medical work-up. Every blood test the doctor will order. Check his hormone levels, his vitamin levels. Simple things like low vitamin D, B, or magnesium levels can have a HUGE impact on our mental health. Get the other testing suggested above, for ADD rather than depression.

You might be surprised what you find out. With a full battery of results he might be able to make some simple changes that will bring about dramatic results.

One more thing, try to take a different tack with his mother as well. I suspect that you may be putting pressure on her to force her kid to get a job. Try to be supportive of her. She is probably worried sick about his health but also stressed that she needs to please you by putting pressure on the kid. This is not the kid's problem and it's not her problem, it's a family problem. Even if you came to the party late, it's your family.
posted by vignettist at 8:53 AM on February 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

Sorry, Ruthless Bunny, but your list is totally impossible for someone suffering from depression. It's way too much. Just way, way, way too much.

One of the secrets to dealing with depression and getting your life (back) together is small, incremental changes. Those aren't scary. The cost is low, and thus the fear of failure is lower.

Start small. The very first thing this kid needs to do is come up with an actual plan--at minimum including regular therapy and probably medication taken regularly, not just when he is with you--for addressing his depression. I would actually suggest that leaving school entirely right now is his best bet.

A job is out of the picture right now. Either he will be paralyzed by failure if he can't get one, or he's too unstable to hold one for very long. Either way, the end result is back to that vicious spiral.

So start slow. Does he do household chores? If not, he should start. Again, small: responsible for washing the dishes after each meal, within an hour of the meal being over. Get him on that habit, then slowly expand his responsibilities. A job and being productive at school is more of an end goal here, not tools to get to an end goal.

I disagree that your wife is the one who should be making all these decisions and presenting them to him. You are his step-parent. You are part of the family. What is important is that you and your wife arrive at decisions regarding him together and present a unified front; biological relationship is irrelevant.

The most important thing, however, is that you gain his buy-in and engagement on a plan to address his depression. Imposing rules by fiat simply will not work, I promise you.

You may wish to look into inpatient programs for depression and mood disorders. I'm only familiar with Canadian options but there must be some wherever you are.

I suffer from intense depression; feel free to MeMail me or email via my profile if you have questions.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:01 AM on February 28, 2014 [22 favorites]

I know everyone here is giving inspirational "I was like your stepson, and my parents were patient and eventually a grew up and got a steady job", but my parents were pretty confident that this would work out with my brother, and instead his mental health issues were just allowed to fester and he developed the idea that my parents' job was to financially support him no matter what along with never having his issues treated. It hasn't really worked out, and now he is pushing 40 and not really self sufficient or possessing of good judgment about how to get through life.

Things may not naturally happen, and you have to address his mental health issues instead of figuring he will one day discover self motivation and the ability to handle college or trying to figure out the "magic words" that will spur him.

If he had severely damaged legs, we would obviously think that he would need to attend regular, long term physical therapy before he would be expected to handle running and hiking.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 9:03 AM on February 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

If he had severely damaged legs, we would obviously think that he would need to attend regular, long term physical therapy before he would be expected to handle running and hiking.

This, exactly this, yes. Depression is like being in a car accident. It takes a long time and a lot of physiotherapy to recover from one. You can't just be like "oh, okay, I'm going to fix ALL THE THINGS now."

Go read what Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half) has to say about depression, she sums up some generalities of the experience very well.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:08 AM on February 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

I agree with the folks who are advising that he forget about school for now. It's not working out, and if he has no direction then he won't get much value out of it anyway. Right now it's just a distraction from the more important issues of dealing with his mental health and learning to support himself.

If you want to be off the hook for clothing and feeding him, then maybe you and your wife should discuss separating your finances somewhat so that she's covering the extra expense of supporting him.

As far as what you should personally do to help, I think backing off and being involved as little as possible is your best bet. You clearly look down on him, so I can't imagine your involvement would be very helpful. Honestly, you're a bit of cliché. None of the other resentful stepfathers have had any luck bullying their no-good stepsons into being real men, and neither will you.
posted by sam_harms at 9:10 AM on February 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

I know everyone here is giving inspirational "I was like your stepson, and my parents were patient and eventually a grew up and got a steady job"

virtually no one in this post is suggesting that OP just wait it out/almost everyone suggested to taking active control in helping the stepson improve his mental health...
posted by hejrat at 9:11 AM on February 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Kid has social anxiety. On a bad day he thinks his jaw is deformed; he wants his dad to pay for him to get leg-lengthening surgery because he thinks he's short. (He’s normal height and not bad looking.) He dropped a gym class because he wouldn’t be able to wear tall shoes in it.

This goes well beyond garden-variety social anxiety into probable body dysmorphia, which is a sign of serious (though treatable) mental illness/depression. He's really sick and he really needs medical treatment first and foremost. This is not a layabout kid who just needs structure and a kick in the ass.
posted by blue suede stockings at 9:13 AM on February 28, 2014 [33 favorites]

If you want to be off the hook for clothing and feeding him, then maybe you and your wife should discuss separating your finances somewhat so that she's covering the extra expense of supporting him.

On a generally philosophical basis, this is probably not a good move. You're a family. Family expenses are borne together. That's what families are and how they work.

What your kid (because he is your kid too) needs is love and support, and engagement with his own treatment plan.

Healing from depression is a lifelong process. It is also a very slow process. Get used to that idea.

And yeah, what blue suede stockings said, on preview. I missed that part. This kid needs careful diagnosis and therapy ASAP. But, again, you need to get his buy-in and committment for that to work. Do not institute 'punishments' for not achieving goals. Goals achieved need rational, proportional rewards for success. Goals not achieved need to be re-evaluated as to whether they are realistic goals at this time.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:16 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I tend to agree with Ruthless Bunny, except for the part about banning video games. If video games are the one thing in life he enjoys, then the answer isn't taking away those things.

And if he accomplishes all the other things on the list, it won't matter if he interleaves those tasks with video games. Only that he does them.
posted by tel3path at 9:24 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here is the thing that's hard to understand. You sound like someone who can "muscle through" problems. Things go bad and you tough it out and eventually you triumph. Your kid is not made that way. He cannot do what you're asking and he can't do what you would do in his spot. Part of the heartbreak of children is realizing that our kids don't inherit all of the things we like about ourselves.

The transition to adulthood is difficult even without mental health issues. He's not ready to be a full-on adult yet. Your role as a parent is to help prepare him for that transition. (I'm assuming here that as a step-parent you're part of the parenting team. Step families are complex.)

A few ideas:
Stop asking him to go to school full-time. He's failing at it and it's hurting his already fragile confidence. Instead, discuss taking a leave of absence or going to the part-time enrollment. Not everyone thrives in academia, if you have some idea that the kid needs a degree then you need to let that go.

Therapy and meds are both non-negotiable. It is a condition of living with you. All that stuff about "if he had broken legs" is true. Here's what's also true, no one wants to go to physical therapy but you'll heal crooked without it. He needs therapy to help him heal and recover. If you make a hardline anywhere it's here - he must get support to stabilize his mental health.

Once his mental health stabilizes a part-time job is should be encouraged. Working can help fill the time that was used for escapist gaming. It also allows him to build a sense of adulthood and self-reliance.
posted by 26.2 at 9:25 AM on February 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

And I would also suggest phasing these things in: for one week, he must apply to 1 job per day online, then escalate that to 10.
posted by tel3path at 9:26 AM on February 28, 2014

you know, even beyond the "turn his life around" point of view, he could just have a bucky fuller attitude toward the purpose of life. Which may sound specious to you, but plenty of successful people have agreed... Perhaps your stepson just needs to find something that sincerely interests him, rather than being forced to do "something productive" that he actually sees as pointless and depressing.

And there are middle grounds to be reached. If a person enjoys the feeling of making stuff and doing projects with people, "work" of almost any kind (whether it is truly necessary or not) may seem obvious, but for people whose temperament is more solitary or contemplative, the purpose of a day might be defined differently from the social norm. The social norm may not actually be the only beneficial way to spend time. If your family can afford it, I'd encourage him to explore potential areas of curiosity and interest rather than just diagnosing him with problems and telling him to get over things. Maybe he's just a little different and needs to find his own path.

What class at school was he enjoying? Are there volunteer groups, non-profits, political or artistic collectives he might think were worth his time? Has he checked out local video game stores/groups/meet-ups? Does he have friends or peers he connects with?
posted by mdn at 9:26 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having been the parentish person in a similar situation at one time, I will offer this as a roadmap: when mental illness is not a factor, then a 20-year-old's job is either to be in school or to be at work. When mental illness is a factor, then that 20-year-old's "job" is to get on top of his mental health treatment and use it as a first step toward his goals - or if it's bad (and it sounds like it is), then as a first step toward believing that goals are possible and they matter and he's capable and worthy of them.

I suggest NAMI in your area. If you are calling a depressed, anxious young person a bum, then you don't understand the fight he's fighting. Other families who have/are struggling with similar situations will be a great resource and outlet for you ... and help you become a better resource for your stepson.
posted by headnsouth at 9:31 AM on February 28, 2014 [14 favorites]

I think it's telling that you say nothing about what your wife, the kids' mother, wants/feels beyond you don't think that we are ready to say tough luck kiddo.

The two of you together need to address how you want to handle your son and his future. (I note, you didn't say step-son, so I'm running with that).

Despite diagnosed mental illness, I don't think letting him have unlimited electronic game time, and a disrupted sleep schedule are helping the matter any (I'm assuming that this wasn't recommended by the p-doc).

Some great things for the two of you to discuss:


Your son completely dropping out of school. A lot of F's will be harder to overcome than a leave of absense.

Videogames/internet/phone limiting (I don't know enough, but I don't think from the situation they should be removed fully, but a few hours on weeknights, and a few more hours on weekdays seems reasonable - systems should probably be secured when he's not allowed access).

What tasks/career/hobbies/endeavors your son can realistically look to accomplish.

Reasonable expectations for your son (going to sleep at X, waking at Y, hygiene, chores at home, reasonable steps of self improvement (non-fluff reading, internet courses (pre-printed if needed), practicing a skill, etc).

Whether to bring in the boy's biological father to these planning sessions on the boy's father. It would be great if your son couldn't play one side against the other.


Despite not looking for emotional understanding, you might need to look within yourself for practical understanding of what this boy's future will look like. Since you seem to be all right with throwing money away at schooling, I think you're not seeing the full picture.
posted by nobeagle at 9:32 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get the boy a full medical work-up. Every blood test the doctor will order. Check his hormone levels, his vitamin levels. Simple things like low vitamin D, B, or magnesium levels can have a HUGE impact on our mental health. Get the other testing suggested above, for ADD rather than depression.

I just wanted to second vignettist here, so much. Also, add thyroid and sleep apnea to the list.

I came down with a medical illness from this list last year. I'm normally a very motivated, driven person. Add in the illness and I was a mess -- exhausted, couldn't sleep, couldn't keep a regular sleep schedule, barely keeping it together at work, unable to exercise -- it was a nightmare. And I was coming into it with a pre-existing job and schedule that mostly kept me on track through the worst of it. Without that it would have disrupted my life even more seriously. Add in pre-existing anxiety or depression... man.

So yes, do what you can to push for a medical assessment, in addition to follow up with the pdoc.

On a related note, there is a growing body of research on the importance of sleep quality and sleep consistency, so anything you can do to provide structure around sleeping hours (adding blackout curtains? removing video games from his room? turning off the internet after/before a certain time?) would also be huge there.
posted by pie ninja at 9:42 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing everyone's comments that you shouldn't confuse having mental health difficulties with being lazy.

Also, if he's only done talk therapy, a structured course of CBT for social anxiety might be a better fit.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:54 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

People have given lots of concrete pieces already, so I won't.

I will say that I think the turning point in me being able to deal with my mental health issues was being able to say something like "This is not my fault, but it is unfortunately still my responsibility. I would further say that of the people I have observed in similar situations, those who have done better have mostly gotten to their own version of that place.

Please do not mistake the simplicity of the above for ease of implementation.
posted by PMdixon at 9:57 AM on February 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

He is looking for a job with some energy, but he expects a medal for his efforts

So give him a medal. What works best when someone is trying to improve, pointing out the things that are still wrong or the parts where they have improved? Hint: one of them is almost always very counterproductive.

You can't do it with condescension, but if you think he is trying quite hard for a job, given that he sounds to be seriously ill, then why doesn't he deserve praise from his parents?
posted by jeather at 10:10 AM on February 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

Nthing everyone's comments that you shouldn't confuse having mental health difficulties with being lazy.

The question the OP asked is how to tell the difference between the two: "When we cut him slack for his depression, it’s hard to tell if we’re being gentle with a depressed person or enabling a lazy one."
posted by Melismata at 10:13 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The diagnosis of depression more or less answers that question, actually. From other stuff anonymous said, it seems they don't like that answer.

This isn't surprising. It's much more comfortable to think someone is being lazy--they can just snap out of it or get a good kick in the ass. Coming to terms with the fact that your child is suffering from a serious illness that you can't do much about is a lot harder.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:17 AM on February 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think you and his mom need to get yourself into some form of family therapy. It will help you to talk with a trained professional who can educate you on the reality of depression and social anxiety.

Based on what you've written, you are operating from a position of ignorance. This young man is struggling; you are struggling; and what you're doing currently isn't working for the family unit as a whole, or the individuals within it. Time to bring in some professional help to figure out a better dynamic.
posted by nacho fries at 10:21 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Of the two he could pass, he likes one, and seems to be doing really well in that.

What is that? If he's found something he likes, is that something he could explore further? If there were opportunity to do more of that, even unpaid or even not really schooling (maybe it's just putzing around on an internet forum for that), perhaps do everything you can to support him doing that. Follow Your Bliss is a cliche for a reason.
posted by 0 at 10:22 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Hyperbole and a Half as a way to begin to understand what your stepson is dealing with. Please don't try to help without having some understanding. It would be like using a hammer to bake a cake.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:32 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

As someone who struggled with serious depression and anxiety around the same age, your attitude would have been actively harmful to me getting me to be productive. In fact, it very well could have shortened my rope to the point where I felt like I couldn't breathe at all. Without you doing the part where you come to some understanding, which you've said you don't want to do, it's going to be impossible for you to help him improve to where he can be productive. The answer to your question is to gain understanding. Without it, you just have the attitude of him being a loser that's just a bum and wasting his life. And that attitude I Guarantee is leaking out all over the place and making him feel even more hopeless, anxious and depressed.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:53 AM on February 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

My unmotivated lazy little brother who lived with my parents till he was 23, worked part time at Fatburger and failed out of his community college classes is now a civil engineer with a master's degree from Stanford. And he's still kind of a bum, to be honest, but he's a ridiculously good engineer.

Kid needs to do what kid is good at. Kid needs things he can succeed at. Kid needs activities that he enjoys that engage him.

And god fuck yes, kid needs to be back in therapy consistently and on meds consistently, probably different ones (nth'ing the ADD suggestion).
posted by celtalitha at 10:53 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Folks, OP says "we" throughout the question. Sound like OP and mom are engaged in the same struggle of how to do right by son.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:33 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

He's not lazy, he has a lot of mental health problems to deal with. The kind of dysmorphia you're describing is intense. Here are your priorities.

1. Accept that he is depressed. It is not a moral failing, it is a health situation, but he still has the responsibility to get out of it (with the help of people around him).

2. Read some literature on depression so you'll understand it from his POV, and learn how to better communicate with a depressed person. You can even just look around the posts here on Ask Me about depression. They are plenty! Positive reinforcement and zero shaming is the way to go.

3. Ask him to put school on hold so he + the family can focus on his health.

4. Help him get checked up physically + mentally, because undiagnosed health problems further aggravate existing ones.

5. Help him get set up with a stable mental health treatment program and make sure he sticks with it. If he has to stick with this to get his life in order.

6. Help him work on establishing more routine + a proper sleep hygiene.

7. Once the mental health program + routine + sleep hygiene is established, maybe THEN he could look into getting a part-time job.

I'm not saying that you have to do all of these, but a parent figure has to help him and act as resource. Heck, I'm a working adult and I have problems with these when I don't have my mental health under control.

Depressed youth are often lonely and demoralized. They don't know which part of themselves is the depression and which one is the real them. It's hard for them to self-regulate their mental states and so on since they don't know what's normal. They need a lift up to realize that it does get better, and there is more to life than depression. He needs a support group and ways to tackle his problems in small ways, and feel comfortable exploring solutions slowly instead of escaping into video games.

Actually, it may be awkward since you posted this anonymous ask me, but does this boy know of the Ask Metafilter community? Ask Mefi was a great resource for me figuring out my mental and physical health problems.

I was him once. I had chronic mental and physical health problems that went undiagnosed for over 10 years because my parents ignored all my symptoms, or treated it like a moral failing, or expected me to "get over it". Instead, I only got over it once I got diagnosed as an adult because my health reached a major crisis point. Then I got medical treatment! I regret all the years wasted... I could have been healthy and productive so much earlier!

After these years, I still habour resentment towards my parents because of how they neglected my health when I was a child, and subsequently, it took me a very long time to learn how to really look after my own health. Looking back, the lack of proper diagnoses also cost a lot professionally. Honestly I was way too sick to hold down full-time work and it showed. I went through years of that and beat myself up for being "weak and lazy" (hence ruling out any other reason) when in reality I needed medical treatment. I was a working adult, but I was still that neglected depressed kid when it came to my health problems. I learned from my parents and shamed myself, instead of investigating possible diagnoses. I'm still learning how to take care of my health, and I have a lot of catch up to do.

If you do want to parent, please be a supportive and helpful parent. Again, help him with small manageable goals and positive reinforcement. Don't even think about what a 20 year old is supposed to be like. For him to become a functional adult, he needs to manage his health problems, and good parenting (noticing if he's sick, needs treatment, etc. especially if he can't see it for himself) is part of the solution.
posted by Hawk V at 11:53 AM on February 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

I have been an Ask Me lurker for ages but never felt particularly compelled to post until this question. This was me until recently! And I am n'thing the others and saying to please, please, please have him evaluated for ADD.

I'm female and was correctly diagnosed last year at the age of 26. I had been treated on and off for depression and anxiety since middle school. The antidepressants worked to make me less sad, but I still continued to be "lazy" and "unmotivated." I thought it was just my personality. If I had lived with my parents, I would without question have never worked. Working to survive is the only reason I left the house, and that didn't make it easy. I use "survive" loosely as my parents still paid a large portion of my bills and covered me with their health insurance. I had my own studio apartment which I could not keep remotely clean or tidy to save my life. I'm sure people who know me would have been shocked to see the state of my private life. I somehow completed two degrees with very mediocre grades. My first job out of college was a temporary position literally screwing little caps on bottles for 8 hours a day. Since I wasn't sad anymore, I didn't see any problem with this. I certainly wasn't "living up to my potential."

I got by on my IQ for a long time, which I'm told is typical of someone who gets a diagnosis later in life. I've had a great, well-paying job for four years that I only got because someone I did a low-level job for saw that I was smart and took a chance on me to do real work. I'm very lucky. It's low pressure so I had been able to do the work before my diagnosis, though it was much more difficult than it should have been. Now I find my job easy. I started and quit graduate school twice and started over this spring with much better results.

I also had the anxiety and self-esteem problems you mentioned. My fixation was a nose job, which thankfully I never got. I pretty much only watched Netflix during the time I wasn't at work. I had very few friends, didn't date, didn't leave the house - I had an empty mind, few thoughts, and fixating on something in the mirror happened as a result.

ADD never even crossed my mind as a possibility because I didn't know anything about it and thought it was a problem for hyper little boys. None of my previous doctors had ever mentioned it. I did a battery of tests and talked to doctors and found out my "processing speed" is extremely low and certainly isn't made better by any depression and anxiety symptoms. Taking an ADD specific medication along with an antidepressant changed my life in a matter of WEEKS. Now, it doesn't take every once of energy I have to figure out how to take a shower and get ready for work and find the strength to leave my house. I can do those things without even thinking about them now, giving me the brain power to function like a normal human being and be great at my job, and life in general. My apartment is spotless and I am able to easily handle things like doing laundry, dishes, cooking, and managing my budget. I had NEVER been able to do any of those things before being treated. If it turns out his problems are like mine, he has plenty of time to have a great life! I am in therapy now trying to figure out how to have hobbies and interests and make friends at the age of 27 when everyone else is dating, or getting married and starting families. I was stuck in a nightmare and had no idea it was a nightmare until I was on the other side.

All that said, he could just be a lazy bum, but I doubt it, especially since you say he is smart. There is something more serious here that is not being addressed. Getting a correct diagnosis and help will change his life, and yours - hopefully as quickly as mine. Good luck!
posted by makeamove at 11:56 AM on February 28, 2014 [18 favorites]

Put yourself in his shoes. He's not good at school, and he knows it. He doesn't have a job and knows he's not going to find one much better than the night shift at Taco Bell. He's got depression, but nobody around him seems to think it's a real illness, so he doesn't adhere to his treatment protocol. There's some dude in his house who isn't his dad, who thinks he's lazy, doesn't care to understand his issues, and wants to kick him out of his house. The best thing he could do for his mental health is to get out of this environment, but it's logistically impossible, so he retreats into video games.

There's a time honored tradition for young men in this situation, and it's to join the military. I personally don't recommend it, but it is an option.

As to what you should do, can you hook him up with a job? Can one of your friends hook him up with a job? Do you have any skills you could teach him that would help him get a job? If the answer is "no" to all of these, you should just leave him alone, and at least try to be nice to the guy. There is nothing more worthless than someone constantly badgering someone else about getting a job in this economy. Let his mom and dad try to help him. He is not going to listen to you, anyway.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:58 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I personally don't recommend it, but it is an option.

No, it's not. The very, very last thing any depressed person needs is an environment where they must do things right all the time or have consequences for failure.

A structured environment, sure, that's a good thing. But the military? Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope. The last thing he needs is some sergeant barking at him because his uniform is slightly askew. Talk about starting a vicious spiral.

BabeTheBlueOX, trust me when I say that a job is also really damn low on the list of things a significantly depressed youth needs. He needs to start with ordinary day-to-day stuff, and build towards the goal of having a job. Baby steps.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:13 PM on February 28, 2014 [12 favorites]

I want to throw in a bit of a different perspective than most people in here.

I think MeFi is full of lovely, compassionate people who are often too quick to jump to conclusions in threads like this (I'm guilty of it too sometimes). You are getting a lot of advice that in essence is telling you that you are being too demanding, or exacerbating your stepson's conditions, or that you are unaware that your stepson might have X or Y mental condition.

Maybe your stepson really does suffer from a more challenging mental illness. Maybe not- maybe he's just a moody young person with general anxiety issues that he needs to make more of an effort to confront and handle.

Maybe he isn't lazy, and he is going through these difficult challenges and just needs compassion and support. Maybe he is lazy, and he needs more in the way of structure and a kick in the ass.

You haven't given us enough information either way.

Personally, from what few details you offer us, unlike most people in here I'm inclined to think it's the latter rather than the former.

But instead of listening to (compassionate) strangers who are eager to tell you that your son has X, Y, Z disorders and you are not being an understanding step-parent, I would encourage you to do three things.
First, work with your wife to set up some structure for your stepson. Structure is good for any young person. Structure is great for someone who is depressed or who is dealing with mental health issues. What that structure looks like is up to his mother to make a final call on, but maybe it's having some structure about his day, or about the basic tasks he needs to complete if he is going to live in your home as an adult.

Second, find out more about the extent of his conditions so you can offer better support. See if your stepson will permit you to come along to a therapy appointment or a doctor appointment so you can find out more information about how his conditions are affecting him, and what you can do to help. Please don't go off of advice that strangers on the internet are giving you. We can't diagnose your stepson and you really should not listen to any of the well-meaning armchair psychiatrist diagnoses in here. There is no way you have given us enough information for us to tell you anything like that, anyway. Instead, speak to one of your son's actual doctors or therapists and set up a group appointment where you can attend and find out straight from the horse's mouth what you can do.

Finally, as others have posted, decide what you want out of this situation, and communicate that to your wife in the most caring way possible. If I were you, I would want my stepson to simply be A.) actively taking steps to get a job or get an education, and B.) actively taking steps to work with his condition. It sounds like you are frustrated that your stepson seems to be doing neither, so you can communicate that to your wife and figure out some positive strategies to use moving forward.
posted by Old Man McKay at 12:29 PM on February 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

[Folks, I know this is a complicated thing in a number of ways but please focus on constructively answering the question and avoid arguing with each other.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:47 PM on February 28, 2014

Kid has started therapy any number of times but always drops it after a few sessions.

Why? Are you, or his parents doing anything to ensure that he actually gets the treatment he needs?

He would go live with his father. His father will yell at him. Kid will go off his meds; he has every time he has gone to stay with his dad for more than five days. He will call us in desperation. I don't think we're ready to say, "tough luck, kiddo" when that happens, and it takes months for him to recover some equilibrium after a short visit to his dad.

I don't know if it has been addressed yet, but going off anti-depressants suddenly can be absolutely disastrous, stopping many medications like that can have serious mental and physical side effects. I don't know if he's taking something that is safe to stop cold turkey or not, but this is something that should be discussed with his doctor immediately. Stopping and starting medication like that could be dangerous, and making him worse.
posted by inertia at 1:24 PM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I just want to throw out there thath the right job can kill a few birds at once: make him more self reliant, have him be responsible, and get him some light social interaction. I'm talking about a job at a chill place thath serves something he likes. For me this would be something like a local record store or an ice cream parlor. MAybe assist him in finding somethign liek that and accept thath it may take a while as teh job market still sucks and you can just walk in to mickey Ds and get a job anymore.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:33 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sorry, forgot to add: you don't mention anything about what HE wants to do with his life. Does he want to continue with college, learn a trade, get a job? What does he want to be when he grows up?

I know you want him to be easier to live with, but I think approaching it from the perspective of helping him get treatment so he can be happier and do the things he wants to do with his life (or even just be able to figure those out!) is a lot kinder than approaching this from the perspective of making him easier to live with for you.
posted by inertia at 1:38 PM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Surviving as the parent of a kid struggling with serious issues is no picnic. People are way more sympathetic about parents of difficult toddlers than difficult teenagers because I think they remember being teenagers, not toddlers, and they also assume immediately that you must have created the problems the teenager is now grappling with, a double-whammy for parents. It can be really isolating.

Reach out to other parents of teenagers, not necessarily your friends but people who you think are solid parents. It might be easier for your wife to do this, but support or just understanding from other parents who have kids struggling helps a lot. Ask them for a coffee and to vent. You want someone who will open up about their struggles as a parent and share strategies, not judge.

We go with our similar-aged kid to their therapy appointments. It's pretty much the last thing I want to do when the kid has been really difficult, but it matters. We don't go in (unless requested, which happens once in a while), but we show up, accompany them to the door, read magazines in the waiting room, handle the billing and appointment stuff if the kid is having a bad day and can't do it, and then take them out for a nice meal or buy ice cream and bring them home. It is emotionally draining for both of us to be the calm supportive parent encouraging them when they are non-communicative or angry and it feels like dragging a horse to water, but it makes a huge difference. We have the therapists on board with this, btw, because the kid needs the structure and support to get to therapy, but I can easily imagine situations where a parent accompanying would be more harm than help. We swap it off regularly so it's not locked into Nice parent/Mean parent, and we get time to recharge.

I have a kid with social anxiety, much younger, and it's hard to communicate through 20 questions with a brick wall. I found text messaging worked well during rough times, and one-sided conversations that were only positive on my side, helped. When I wanted things done, stating the task, a rationale and giving a broad time ("Please walk the dog before dinner as I'm busy cooking. You have twenty minutes to leave the house.") and then a reminder ("You have 5 minutes to go. Please walk the dog. This helps me a lot, thanks.") and if it wasn't done, not yelling but being quietly disappointed ("I'm really annoyed. The dog has to wait for her walk until after dinner, and I'm tired. I wish you had helped me.") was much more effective. Social anxiety amplifies criticism, so quiet disappointment feels in effect like a huge telling off. Losing your temper just becomes a tsunami of shame and leaves them paralysed and feeling like the one tiny thing they did wrong was unfairly swamped with blame. You have to be way way more positive with them, because I promise you, they can barely hear the good things and anything negative gets obsessed over and amplified.

You need to treat this as a skill to learn, parenting a kid with more than regular struggles. Ask friends and therapists for book recommendations, search Amazon and metafilter. Set yourself and your wife a stack of books or audiobooks or podcasts to read. Tell your kid that you guys want to be better parents and you are going to put in the time to learn and understand more about what he's struggling with. And DO IT. I'm the reader/researcher in my family, so I give the condensed summary to my husband, while he handles the admin and scheduling for medical and therapy stuff. Figure out what works for you and your wife. Think about how many hours of distress this is taking in your lives, and then the time to read and understand more about depression, social anxiety, millenials and job hunting, whatever is relevant, will be way way less.

And make a list somewhere, on paper if possible, of the good qualities of your kid. Put it in your wallet. (1. He made my birthday cake last year from scratch. 2. He's always kind to little children, knows how to get down and play with them, etc.) Put up photographs of them and you that make you smile on your fridge, your car dashboard, bathroom door, wherever. Train yourself with patience and repetition to ignore today's behaviour and look for longer term improvements. Have a deal with your wife that you can take turns to vent in private about today's idiocy, and then to remind each other of the good stuff they did and the great person the kid is, deep down.

Consider going for therapy as a family or a couple, just to get an external look at your parenting styles and some new ideas or just a safe space to talk about hard feelings.

I think it's easy to blame parents for not being enough, but you can't fix him. His therapist can't, no-one really can. You can help him, and you can love him, but you can't fix him. He decides what to fix, and part of parenting is accepting that who he will be fixed into (a video-game playing guy who drifts through life in a gentle haze? an ambitious go-getter with managed depression?) is up to him. Your job as the parent of a young adult is to have a good relationship with him, one of support and love, not to fix him. And not to feel guilty for failing him if you've done your best. That's the hardest, especially when they're struggling.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:19 PM on February 28, 2014 [17 favorites]

Both you (for perspective) and your son (for advice) might find the book Get It Done When You're Depressed helpful.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:40 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it is time someone mentioned the end game for severe depression and mental illness. Suicide. I don't mean to alarm you unnecessarily, but perhaps you should be alarmed, especially if you consider the statistics.


I know you want the best for your son. But I'm worried you dont recognize the seriousness of major mental illness, which looks apparent here based on what you've written. It is a tortured, painful existence, and when the pressure gets too strong, people start looking for a way out. You admit you have no understanding of what it's like inside your sons head -- none of us do -- but it is your responsibility as a parent to educate yourself and learn how to provide appropriate support which will not compound the struggles he faces.

I have no reason to believe your son is at immediate risk, but if things start to build in a bad way and he lacks appropriate support I could easily see it heading that way. He is in a high risk demographic, for sure. You want to be off the hook -- careful what you wish for.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:07 PM on February 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

It sounds like a lot of the above well-meaning suggestions might be beyond your abilities. I do thnk you can tell him to drop all school except the one class he enjoys and you find him a job that speaks to his strength. So, not a joe job with a micro-managing/condescending boss with mindless and repetitive tasks but not something with overwhelming tasks either. He probably can't handle full-time but a job that is Monday to Friday, the same hours each day and allows him to have structure in his life and practise good sleep hygiene (no early morning/late night shifts). This is something that is in your ability to provide as a driven, successful person and will help him find some equalibrium. Lots of young people struggle with mental illness but the ones that overcome it are the ones who have family resources to lean on, like creating an employment situation that will give your son something to build on in future. If this sounds challenging for you to do, the is exactly the same expectation you have of your stepson.
posted by saucysault at 4:38 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hm, sounds like me when I was younger.

Your son is dealing with debilitating mental illness, and frankly until that is addressed, everything else would be near-impossible. Depression and severe anxiety can be confusing for the unafflicted, but it's akin to asking a guy with atrophied legs to run a mile — incredibly difficult, if not impossible. In short, your son is SICK, and until he heals himself, being a responsible adult is a tall order.

Unfortunately, school might be not viable right now. However, good news is that he's still quite young, so there's plenty of time for him to get back on track and lead a fulfilling life.

My suggestions, specifically for your son:

1) Focus on treatment, and keep trying until he finds a solution. Take a multipronged approach: diet, exercise, therapy, and medication. (on side note, this is one of my frustrations with mental health treatment in America, doctors usually just focus on medication and/or talk therapy).

2) Structure. He needs a low-stress routine everyday. Give him a chore that he has to do daily, like walking the dogs, watering the lawn, whatever. Also if possible, get him a low-stress part-time job (i.e. working in stock room at a retail store). And praise his effort.

3) Diet & Sleep: Plenty of sleep, surround him with healthy food. Encourage him to start his day off with protein, there's a link between depression and low-protein high carb diet. My mood started to improve drastically when I started eating better.

4) Socialization. Try to encourage him to socialize, even a little bit. Our brains need socialization to function.

5) Ground rules. Your support should be contingent on him receiving treatment and having a daily routine (but don't kick him out when he relapses). Give him the bare essentials (roof, medical treatment, food), but if he wants more, he has to earn it.

6) Make it clear to him that you guys are here to help, but it's ultimately up to him choose to get better. Also that it might will take time to heal, if he falls on his ass, he has to get up and try again, and again. Focus on moving forward, not past failures. Tell him to keep on truckin.

One step at a time. Also if you wish to understand depression better, I highly recommend Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon. For a shorter read, a vivid description of depression by David Foster Wallace: The Depressed Person (PDF).

Good luck. I know how incredibly tough this can be, but there's hope.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 5:36 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wanted to clarify people like your son are not lazy or unmotivated, he's simply incapable right now. Also, don't enable his negative thinking, listen and steer conversations towards what he can do to get better.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 5:54 PM on February 28, 2014

I recently read Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal, which REALLY explains the "loser who plays computer games all day" thing. I had an ex who was kinda like this and it bugged me and now I understand why: in games, your stepson is the hero. In games, your stepson is capable and a winner and up to handling fictional life. In games, your stepson--

"I’ve always been a driven person and a self-motivator. I don’t understand someone who just lies around. But I’m not really looking for understanding. I want him to do something productive. "

--IS a driven person and a self-motivator and not lying around and being productive...in the game. Because games, unlike real life, are actually scientifically and emotionally rewarding. Real life, as McGonigal points out, doesn't make you feel good and like you've achieved much. (Hence the title of "reality is broken.")

Now, I have to concur with everyone else that he's probably too depressed/filled with mental issues enough to be able to get his shit together in the way that you'd like, and it's wasting your time and money for him to be in school now, and he's probably not up to holding down a job either. But.... I don't think it's all a loss. He's getting a boost from the games that real life isn't giving him. And the book suggests that if you can find ways to gamify life (which she talks about), maybe that might help?

*shrug* It's a crazy idea, but what the heck, I'll mention it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:58 PM on February 28, 2014 [18 favorites]

He’s never held a job in his life; his father has always given him money for free.

You sound forceful and driven; it's possible his father is as well, if the money came from work (or if his mom's attracted to strong personalities). I am not saying this has necessarily happened here, but it's not uncommon for children of highly driven or forceful people to get into enduring patterns of withdrawal, especially if there isn't someone or thing else around to constructively support the kid's active engagement in life from an early age, for lack of time, or whatever.

Especially if the kid has a sensitive temperament. Some people are born scrappers and don't need that kind of help, others are almost made to respond to things (like music, art, books, games) and need to be taught how to do things.

But even people made to respond to things feel good about themselves when they can master a skill, or exert some control over their environment, which supports a sense of accomplishment and a belief in oneself as a person who is capable. The ideal situation is when there's been someone from early life to gently nudge him towards opportunities to develop skills, help him develop regular habits, and the rest.

If he hasn't learned these things, he will have to try to figure it out. But you don't know what you don't know, right? So he needs help with that. Or, you could throw him out into the world, and he might get lucky and fall into a situation that teaches him things, or, he might get ground down and crushed, and you find yourself living with him again in ten years.

I agree with saucysault and others saying he should stay in that one class, so he can feel excited about something, and be guided to shape that excitement into an outcome so he can learn to do that with other things. And, to keep him hooked into an age-appropriate environment, where other opportunities might present themselves.

Am sure someone's mentioned it above but just in case, antidepressants don't necessarily always help with drive. Also, therapy is important but it doesn't always work for a bunch of reasons (bad fit, unrealistic appointment scheduling -- evenings are probably better; maybe the therapist just isn't that great). Lots of people have to try a number of therapists out before meeting one who can help them.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:55 PM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Do you guys have enough money to send him to something different? I remember feeling like all my options sucked when I was 20 and that my narrow little world of school and work felt pretty meaningless. And I felt really unloved and worthless. 30 days in something different, like an outdoor survival course or volunteer work helping kids or animal rescue might broaden his view of what his options are and give him some self esteem. I took an environmental studies class taught by an environmental crusader and it really broadened my worldview. He needs something to get him out of his head.
posted by gt2 at 7:09 AM on March 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I saw this same thing on Dr. Phil recently. You might check that out. I would kindly tell him it was time to figure this one out but you will not be able to do that for him. He sounds like someone just waiting for answers and solutions to someone else. It also sounds like deadline settings are a really hard thing to do for all of you. Good luck
posted by OhSusannah at 9:47 PM on March 2, 2014

I’ve always been a driven person and a self-motivator. I don’t understand someone who just lies around. But I’m not really looking for understanding. I want him to do something productive.

I know this has been addressed above, but I just wanted to share some insight from my own experience of living with someone who has struggled his whole life with severe depression. I too would describe myself as driven and motivated and found it very hard to understand why there were things my husband could do that would help his depression - but he would not do them. It was completely insane making. He would not get help. He would not go for a walk. He would not contact his psychiatrist for an urgent appointment. He would not let me do it. He just... stopped. This drove ME crazy. And I would be all "Sweetheart, I know you're depressed, but if you don't do anything it will get so much worse, please try, please." And he wouldn't do anything.

Eventually, my husband became very very ill and was hospitalised.

In the aftermath of that hospitalisation came much improved understanding for both of us of WHY he wouldn't do things. I never thought my husband was a bum, fwiw, but the way your describe your step son behaving is very similar to the way my husband behaved.

It wasn't that he wouldn't. He COULDN'T. Like, literally, physically couldn't pick up and go for a walk, or meditate or any of the other things that are useful to alleviate depression. A clinical psychologist that I saw for support explained to me that when someone is severely depressed their brain function is physically disrupted to the point where they are actually unable to act, to take that walk, to make the call, to sign up for a program or whatever. This broke my heart into a thousand pieces thinking of all the times I'd been frustrated and exasperated with him - and convinced that if he just had a bit more drive, if he'd just try a bit more, he would be able to get well. How awful to be imprisoned by your own mind only to have the person you depend on most in the world not understand, and keep telling you that you just have to try harder.

I could go back in time, I would see my husband's apparent resistance to doing anything to help himself for what it was - deeply uncharacteristic, and indicative of a complete breakdown of his ability to plan and act as a direct result of a major major depression.

As others have said so eloquently above, your step son is not a bum, he is very unwell indeed. If you want him to ‘do something’, you'll need to invest in his mental health. And I don't mean a few months or a few visits to a counsellor. I'm talking psychiatrist, medication, clinical psychologist, possible outpatient program, group therapies. Someone whose thoughts are distorted to the point of delusion (leg lengthening surgery and deformed jaw?) is terribly unwell and in an awful place.

It can change and he can get well, but calling him a bum is just going to reinforce his sense of hopelessness and lack of action, not snap him out of it. I learned this the very, very hard way. I promise, I understand your frustration. It is absolutely rage-inducing to be confronted with someone who, it seems, acts against not only their own best interests, but those of you and your family. But... you have to discard that perspective see the inertia and ‘laziness’ for what it is, an unpleasant and frustrating symptom of a serious illness. Lucky for everyone, help is out there. Not always easy to access, definitely not always cheap, but available. Please do try and get that help for your step son.
posted by t0astie at 7:15 PM on March 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

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