Straight Talk Advice

May 20, 2014

Dad wants to motivate college-dropout son

Dear Straight Talk: My son dropped out of college last year, his sophomore year. He partied hearty and flunked out. After six challenging months at home, he has a restaurant job and lives with roommates where mostly just drinking, video gaming, and other un-cool stuff goes on. He's not under 18 anymore, he's 20. Do I have a right to tell him to get his act together? And will it help? —Frustrated Dad in Sonoma County, Calif.

Moriah 17, Rutland, Vt. Ask me a question

Think tough love. Since he's drinking illegally, tell him you love him and will help him turn a corner, otherwise you're reporting his household to the police. My brother had a similar issue. He dropped out of college and expected the world to care for him. He thought he was invincible and that my parents wouldn't get him in trouble. He needed to be set straight. Sometimes parents have to play the bad guy.

Taylor 17, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

My parents are going through this with my stepbrother. It's important for young adults to have freedom, but watching him drop out of college and play video games all day was unacceptable. They told him to get his act together. We have a rule that if you live at home after high school, you must be full time in college, or working and paying rent.

Collin 16, San Diego, Calif. Ask me a question

This is probably the first real freedom your son has ever had. He sounds self-sufficient and not unhappy. I say let him live his life a while. Maybe he is thinking about his future. Unless he's in trouble, give him some time.

Gregg 23, Los Angeles Ask me a question

Ha! My dad just confronted me. I'm working two jobs while taking a year off college for financial reasons. With $100-300 a night in tips from my restaurant job, it's easy to blow the money thinking, “I'll just make more tomorrow.” I spend ridiculous amounts each month on partying. So my dad basically told me to get my act together. He said, “If you think money is like an open faucet, it's not true.” He didn't shame me, though (very important), and offered to help with a budget. I'd actually been worrying about my partying and finances, too, so it really helped. Fathers are like coaches. Don't worry that your son is over 18, you're not an adult till you act like one. Also, if your son's got a drug or alcohol problem, you need to totally use your parental spine, incentives, sanctions, whatever-it-takes, to make him see a rehab counselor, which will include some family counseling.

Ashley 26, Auburn, Calif. Ask me a question

You absolutely have the right to tell him to get his act together. He might blow up, but so what? It shows you care. You can't force him to change, but it will make him think. The party phase may end naturally when he gets sick of restaurant work or sees his friends graduating and making real money, but your consistent involvement and care makes him care more, too.

Dear Frustrated Dad: I hope the panel convinced you that young adults want accountability. Age18-25 is still adolescence. It's also society's most ignored demographic with many parents averting their eyes. Parents who keep tuned in to who their young person is, and, if needed, set limits and expectations, make a huge difference. College dropouts are the most at-risk demographic for drug or alcohol dependency — many are in trouble. When approaching him, be “fact of life” that his addiction-centered lifestyle is unacceptable. Do not use shame. And don't worry about “ticking him off.” Anger gets energy moving. Help him set goals (including rehab possibly), repeat this process as necessary, and stay connected no matter what.

Editor's Note: I learned that the 18-25 year-old demographic is the most ignored by society and parents from Jon Daily's book, "Adolescent and Young Adult Addiction." It was also in this book that I learned college dropouts are the top demographic at-risk for developing drug and/or alcohol dependence — more so than those who go straight into minimum wage jobs without going to college first. The "normalization" of alcohol, marijuana, and pharmaceutical use in this demographic has gotten ridiculous. Other drugs abound as well and many use multiple substances. Young men and women alike are partying way too much. It's time for parents to say, "You're still my kid, I don't care how old you are. This is not cool."

Parental guidance makes all the difference. But to guide, you need to first be "attuned." Thus, the most protective thing a parent can do for a child (of any age) is to "tune in" and "get" who they are, really see them. I'm not talking about being their BFF, I talking about taking the time to find out who they are beneath the surface. Parents who are both attuned AND speak up/guide in a non-shaming way, make all the difference in the world in upping the chances of their child becoming a successful, non-addicted, happy adult.

Boys versus Girls: We talked about this a few columns back and it's worth a recap. Boys — well, 90 percent of boys (not counting the 10 percent who are very sensitive), are much more thrill- and sensation-seeking than girls. The part of the male brain that enjoys risk stays active till about 25, and the prefrontal cortex, which normally would throw some logic on the situation and put on the brakes, isn't fully developed also till about 25. So trying to reason with 14-25 year-old males about the danger of drugs or sex doesn't really help much. The risk-taking part of their brain actually lights up over the discussion! Fortunately, boys this age DO respond to something, and that's to clear-cut punitive measures, such as taking away of privileges like cars, gaming, allowance, going places, certain activities, etc. Clear-cut authority with little chitchat about feelings actually lights up another part of their brain and they LIKE it a LOT! Boys are similar to dogs that way, they really respond (with a lot of tail-wagging) to an alpha master who holds clear expectations, is fair, and not afraid to drop the hammer. It's why the military does wonders for many boys. And why many boys join gangs.

Girls are more like cats in the type of authority they respond to. The main reason girls get into addictive patterns with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, abusive partners, etc., isn't the thrill of risk, it's low self-esteem, trauma, stress, and depression. Girls actually DO respond to reason and safety — much more than boys. And a girl's brain lights up from a warmer, fuzzier, let's-talk-about-feelings kind of authority followed by softer punishment along the lines of being forced to stay home a few nights doing her favorite (non-screen) activity with you, calling you from the home phone of wherever she is when she's out, seeing a counselor, or taking a certain class. If today's column was about a young woman, the approach might involve regular long walks and chats, making dinner together where the mom (or dad) gently learns about her feelings and the stresses underlying her bad decisions — along with the requirement to see a rehab counselor, get back in school, move back home, etc. Like cats, girls respond to softer punitive measures that are combined with curling up on the couch with a trusted parental figure and having a long, kind, wise talk. Purr...

For more on the different approaches to take with boys versus girls, including the "sensitive boys" mentioned above, Dr. Leonard Sax has written the best resource I know of on the subject in "Why Gender Matters." It's another book I can't recommend enough. —Lauren

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  1. By Lennon, age 27, from Los Angeles on 05/20/2014

    Dear Frustrated Dad: Either you’re in college or you’re working. And if you’re working and living at home, I’m charging you rent and putting it in an education account for you. If you’re working and not living at home, hey, it’s your life, however, deep down, most boys want their fathers to be proud of them. Disappointing you matters a lot. Perhaps start by communicating your disappointment with a look, sigh, or half-uttered remark, something subtle that lets him save face and change “on his own.”

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  2. By Cindy, age 17, from Seaside, CA on 05/20/2014

    I can understand your frustration, but since he’s legally an adult and working to support himself, I don’t think you have the right to tell him what to do.  It sounds like he’s happy doing his own thing right now and wouldn’t listen to you anyway.  It might be counter-productive and he might resist getting his act together just to defy you and show you that you can’t tell him what to do anymore.

    However, it will be a different story if he asks you for financial support or decides he wants to move back home.  Then you can and should place restrictions on him.  I wish my mom and stepdad would do this with my stepsister.  She dropped out of college after a year as she decided it was “a waste.”  Her mom was furious and wouldn’t let her move back home.  However, she was always “Daddy’s Girl” and my stepdad insisted that we let her move in with us.  Because of this, my sister and I had to “double up” and share a room after always having our own rooms.  He thought it should be no problem since we’re sisters, but that his daughter needed her privacy and should have her own room.  My sister and I get along reasonably well and as sisters have no problem with things like undressing in front of each other and don’t need that kind of privacy from each other, and can handle sharing a room.  However, we still resent having to share a room for this reason when we work hard in school to get good grades and go to college and also work part-time jobs.  But our stepsister just sits around playing on the computer all day.  She’s supposedly looking for a job, but her job search consists of filling out a few on-line applications each day with no follow-up.  That’s no way to get a job, which appears to be fine with her, but our stepfather says that she’s “trying” to get a job and that it’s not that easy these days.

    I think if someone wants to drop out of college and support themself, that’s their business.  However, they should not be allowed to sit around and expect others to support them and make others (like my sister and I) suffer for their laziness!

    Cindy

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  3. By F.L., age 16, from Sacramento, CA on 05/20/2014

    I say leave him alone and let him learn life’s lessons the hard way.  My older sister left home to live with her boyfriend right out of high school and took a minimum wage job rather than go to college.  Our parents tried to warn her that she’d be sorry, but that just made her more determined to prove them wrong.  She also couldn’t wait to get away from having to share a room with me, and I was glad to see her leave and finally get my own room.  She thought living with her boyfriend was going to be “heaven” after living in the same room with me.  It only lasted about six months, and her boyfriend became abusive.  She had to swallow her pride and come back home.  She is enrolling in college for this fall.  We have to share a room again, but she’s now being much nicer to me and now doesn’t think I’m such a bad roommate after living with her abusive boyfriend.

    Difficult as it may be, you sometimes have to let kids learn life’s lessons on their own the hard way.

    F.L.

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  4. By M., age 19, from Oxnard, CA on 05/20/2014

    I didn’t get around to writing last week, but my comment applies to both last week’s and this week’s column.  When I turned 18, I decided to move out and become a stripper.  I got the idea from my best friend’s older sister who was doing it and making big money and made it sound glamorous.  I’d seen her nude many times during sleepovers in the room she shared with my friend and felt that my body was at least as attractive if not more, so I was sure that I could also make big money.  I wasn’t shy about nudity in front of my sister or female friends, but no guy had ever seen me nude, including my boyfriends.  Unlike some girls I’ve read about in Straight Talk, there’s no way I would have let my brother see me nude.  However,  I convinced my self that somebody seeing you nude was somebody seeing you nude regardless of whether they were male or female.  I spent most of my savings on an expensive wax job.  I didn’t tell my parents, but I knew that they would be totally mortified and do all they could to talk me out of it.

    I was a total failure and didn’t make close to the money I was expecting.  I also found it totally demeaning to expose myself this way and lost all of my self respect.  I had to go into therapy to forgive myself and get my self respect back.  I moved back home and into the room I had always shared with my sister and now appreciate her and we have now become closer than we ever were before.  I am also now enrolled in Community College.  However, I feel that I needed to learn these lessons on my own in the “school of hard knocks,” and nothing my parents could have said would have made any difference and probably would have had the opposite effect.

    M.

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    1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 05/20/2014

      Dear M.—Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m so glad you got therapy and are working on self-healing.  Don’t hesitate to get more as time goes on, sometimes these things loop back and another round of healing is needed. I’m really rooting for you! Just know, I don’t judge you, and many people wouldn’t if they knew. (Not that I would necessarily tell people, because some people are just looking to cast stones.) These stripper jobs can be so hard on a woman and that’s why I totally steer girls away from them. It takes a toll to be objectified like that.

      Regarding the school of hard knocks and letting young adults learn there, everyone who wrote in so far has a good point about this. I’m not so sure I agree though, that parents shouldn’t intervene. I think some young adults fall in deeper than they think and it’s hard to get out. That’s where discernment comes in. The parent has to discern how bad things are. And how strong their kid’s sense of self is to climb out of things instead of sinking deeper. So glad you wrote!—Love, Lauren

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    2. By R.D., age 18, from Santa Ana, CA on 05/22/2014

      I’m very glad I read your comment, M., as well as the comments to last week’s column.  I was seriously considering becomming a stripper, but I now am having second thoughts.  It may sound like I’m bragging, but I have a very attractive body, including very big boobs, and think I could be a success as a stripper.  Like most girls I know, I shave and wax to keep myself lookin good there.  I was thinking of doing it for a few years to make lots of money and then go to college.  I’ve always been totally comfortable with nudity in front of my sisters and other females, and I told myself that the human body is something natural, so there shouldn’t be anything wrong with men seeing me either.  However, no guy has ever actually seen me nude, not even my brother, so I don’t know how I would actually feel in that situation.

      I haven’t said anything to my parents, but I don’t have to as I know what they would say, and I would not let that stop me.  However, after reading the comments and giving it more thought, I’m not so sure that I want to have men staring at my boobs and pudenda for sexual gratification.  It would be totally degrading and demeaning as you say, and you should know since you have gone through it.  As I write this, I am realizing that I do not want to lower myself to doing something like this for money, and that there are other ways to finance going to college as the vast majority of college students do not find it necessary to strip for money.  I’m glad that I did not have to learn through the school of hard knocks.

      R.D.

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  5. By Nancy, age 19, from Lodi, CA on 05/21/2014

    I told my parents that I wanted to leave home and not go to college because I was tired of their rules and tired of having to share a room with my little sister.  However, what I really wanted was for them to beg me to stay and give me what I wanted.  They were too smart to fall for it and told me that since I was now an adult, if I wanted to leave and support myself, to go ahead and do it.  Then I was stuck and felt I had to leave.  After a few months of trying to live on my own and support myself on a low paying job, I had to beg them to let me come back and was glad to share a room with my sister again, since I was on the verge of becomming homeless.  I also no longer complain about having to follow their rules as long as I want to live in their home and have them support me.  It taught me a good lesson, but if my parents had let me get away with giving me what I wanted, I would have continued to try to play that game. 

    Nancy

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