Someone I know has an adult son (20 years old) with almost no motivation. Earlier this year he dropped out of his university far from home and moved back home into his parents house and enrolled at our local university due to some mental health concerns. He is almost certainly depressed and shows some symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, although he is still quite young for a diagnosis. Everyone else in the family attended this local university recently, and are very familiar with the professors and the curriculum.

His first semester at this new university has just ended, and it has not gone well. During the course of the semester he has done less and less work as far as they can tell. As I mentioned, he is taking courses they are familiar with, so they know the level of rigor involved. They have had conversations with him over the course of the semester about their concern about his performance and offered to help with anything he found difficult, but he often escalates these conversations, insinuating that the parents do not know what they are talking about and have no idea how much work he is doing or that they are overestimating how much work is required. Beyond the academic, his health is an issue as well, as he eats very unhealthily and smokes a lot of marijuana.

Finally, the semester has ended and his grades have been posted. The son had his username and password saved in the family computer and the parents have been able to log in to his account to see the results of the semester online. A long story short, he is doing extremely poorly, failing one required class and receiving a D in another required class that requires a C or better.

The parents want to confront him about his lack of effort. He is living rent-free with them at the moment and works part time, so almost all of his money must be going to marijuana. How should they go about confronting him to stop enabling his current behavior but still give him the opportunity to succeed?

  • Who is paying for the university -- the son, the parents, scholarships, or some combination?
    – Acire
    Dec 26, 2017 at 2:20
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    The son through loans, but the parents have made it clear (hopefully) that staying with them cost-free is dependent on academic performance
    – bendl
    Dec 26, 2017 at 2:22
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    On the bye, the term rock bottom exists for a reason. A broken life style artificially protected from natural consequences tends to just continue on.
    – Adam Heeg
    Dec 26, 2017 at 17:15
  • I would guess that the son will pretty quickly divert the discussion into an argument about their use of his user name and password to access his personal account. Probably a good idea to ask for the grades, since it is part of the requirements of his current living situation, vs going straight to "we know your grades are bad." Dec 27, 2017 at 22:15
  • I'm both curious and uneasy that OP doesn't declare their relationship to the person and events they are describing. This could be a story they heard from a neighbor, friend, etc., etc. that is both skewed and inaccurate. Or it could be firsthand, (ex: one of the parents). Without knowledge of who they are and how they've come by this information, there is no sense of validity.
    – elbrant
    Jan 10, 2019 at 0:59

2 Answers 2


Someone I know

If a family acquaintance won't even disclose their relationship to this person while posting anonymously, imagine what the parents themselves haven't disclosed to you. If you are one of the parents it's understandable that you might post in the third person, but if you're speaking on behalf of someone else, perhaps you should just... not.

smokes a lot of marijuana

As a former pot smoker I can tell you that's most likely causing many of his symptoms - lack of motivation, depression. Pot makes you happy in the short term but (speaking from experience) extended use can have the opposite effect and actually produce symptoms of depression, lack of motivation.

That said, you simply cannot accurately diagnose someone with depression or mood issues when they are under the influence of drugs - the diagnosis wouldn't be accurate as long as a substance is masking his real personality.

works part time, so almost all of his money must be going to marijuana

No. Just, no. Pot is cheap, that's why so many people use it. The heaviest smokers rarely spend more than $100/wk on pot for personal use. If he's spending all of his income on drugs then he's doing something other than reefer.


  • Whether you're a parent or not - especially if you're not - there's probably a lot you don't know.
  • You cannot diagnose a mood disorder while he's consuming a mood altering substance.
  • If you are one of his parents, the only thing you can do is lay out a condition that he improve his grades or move out - which you said in the comments has been done already. Give him a chance and cut him loose if he doesn't improve. Or, keep making empty threats and he'll learn that he can get away with doing whatever he wants. It's a hard thing to do but you're the only one that can do it.
  • If you're not one of his parents there is literally nothing you can do about it, and frankly, if I were the boys parents and I found out an unidentified family acquaintance was posting my problems on the internet I would be pretty angry. If this is the case, allow me to say on their behalf: mind your own business.
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    For the record, i think it is okay to at the minimum grow and learn how to handle the situation even if you are not involved directly. Also, the poster could be in any number of roles which do allow for personal involvement. Parents don't have to go it alone, and kids get other adults who become mentors and parental figures,. Also, the parents themselves many times have mentors they turn to in trials like these. I think your speculation about a nosy family member is out of place here. I am upvoting your answer though as it is very solid.
    – Adam Heeg
    Dec 26, 2017 at 17:11
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    I have a problem with you posting your own impressions of your own marijuana use as if it were universal and factually-based. Long-term use leads to depression? Or do depressed people seek to self-medicate through long-term use? There's an entire world of successful, motivated and brilliant long-term, regular marijuana users out there. There's also a world of unmotivated, unsuccessful long-term users.... and people in both categories who don't use it at all. I don't think you can generalize like that about its use. Dec 27, 2017 at 20:34
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    I tried to move it to chat, but you're banned from chat. Sorry. "I didn't attack you personally" - "your own drug use," "Addiction is sad," "you shouldn't let a plant control your emotions so much," "you should quit smoking weed. If you're in denial this bad it's clear you're letting it control your life and your emotions," " you trying to justify your own bad habits" - you're right. No personal attacks there in place of factual arguments, at all. Dec 27, 2017 at 21:59
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    It's a very weird perspective that (A) makes you think that one can only "defend" something if it personally applies to them, and (B) takes a statement that merely says "there is a huge range of experiences out there, perhaps you should not generalize yours" to even be "defending." I can objectively look at a behavior and not be personally invested in it, one way or the other. You should try it. I can also make an assessment about claims made or presented about behaviors and critique the assessment without having to make any judgement about the behaviors in question, at all. Dec 27, 2017 at 22:08
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    I haven't defended anything. I've merely pointed out that your claims of established scientific foundation are not what you claim. It's your own baggage that leads you to conclude, without fact, that anyone who doesn't bow down to your claimed expertise must be brain-addled because of their own drug issues. Nowhere do I claim it's okay or benign, just as I don't claim anywhere that it's bad. I'm not the one making any broader claims here. Please feel free to point out where I "defended" the use of pot. And, no, pointing out that a study does not say what you say it does is not defending use. Dec 27, 2017 at 22:38

Unfortunately, you're dealing with an "adult"; my guess is that this behavior is not suddenly onset. "Notice the early indicators and stop the behavior before it starts," is not helpful at this point, though it would be the most effective.

Keep in mind that, if he's as argumentative and defensive as he seems, that if this conversation were to happen in person, it may devolve into arguing and become fruitless; if things seem to be going that way, perhaps it would be best to cover the important matters in smaller chunks or, if things truly hit a roadblock, communicate in writing, either in email or through a letter, which will hopefully allow him to read the entire document to get the full understanding of what is trying to be conveyed before having an emotional reaction.

Understand that there is a reason he doesn't want to try. That reason might be a disorder, or it might not be. Either way, it's probably not something that can be solved in one "intervention".

Begin from a place of love, without seeming condescending or holier-than-thou. Express concern for his future, without sounding clichéd. He needs to understand that his parents are concerned for his well-being AND that they might not know everything about his situation, but are willing to listen and/or get him the help he needs, if he wants it (some people don't want help, and trying to help will only make the situation worse; I have no idea if he's one of these people).

Your profile puts you in the United States; I can only assume that the family involved is from the US as well. In my experience, US society has been sold on the fact that going to college is the only way to be successful and happy; this is just not true. While I have a college degree and a job in a field that requires it, my brother graduated high school early, has no college degree, and has a job that makes him financially better off than I am. Purely anecdotal, but my point is clear. Perhaps he'd be better suited for a trade, like welding or plumbing. Perhaps he'd be successful in a branch of the military. Attempt to have a discussion about what he would like to do. If the answer is "nothing" and/or "smoke pot", there may not be much you can do. If he wants to become a musician or an actor or some similar profession, attempt to convey the difficulty of the fields while trying not to tell him no; if it's not meant to happen, something/someone else will tell him no. If he gives any other answer that has at least some merit, discuss it. See if he has any particular plans, ideas, or dreams. Tread lightly in the realm of telling him how he should go about accomplishing his goal. Perhaps do some research, and in future discussions discuss results of possibilities.

If the parents want to switch from the carrot to the stick approach, then setting a timeline with a series of expectations may be in order. That timeline could even be on the long side; just something that is set in "stone" that carries with it consequences.

Or, keep making empty threats and he'll learn that he can get away with doing whatever he wants.

This puts is a little stronger than I would, but it's true. Let's say that Person A tells Person B that if X happens, then Y will be the result. If X happens, and Y does not follow as was explained to Person B, then Person B has no reason to believe anything that Person A says, and regaining credibility is a LOT more difficult than retaining it.

Finally, if the lack of motivation does not stem from some sort of disorder: people may have different motivations for wanting to succeed (succeed being defined VERY broadly here), but a lot of it comes down to fear. I fear that I won't be able to provide for my family, so I want to get a good job. I fear that I might screw up my kids, so I try to become a better father. For someone with no fear, it is likely that they have no drive. That fear needs to be internal (I want to be better person) or external (I want to eat). The unfortunate truth is that he may need to experience some pain in his life to help motivate him to rise to the occasion, the occasion being his life.

  • Know someone who was a high-achiever in academia his whole life, and research funding was cut and his entire facility was shut down. Probably could have landed a high-paying job right away, but was comfortable (never spent money over the years), so lacked urgency, and had never had to go through the uncomfortable process of job-hunting, ever, so he just avoided doing it. So it has become this massive, multi-year procrastination to the point where the task is much more difficult, after this much time off of steady work. So even "successful" people can have that de-motivating fear. Anyway, +1. Dec 27, 2017 at 23:29

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