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Background

One of my children is in her early 20's and deeply stuck. She has finished high school during the first COVID-19 lockdown, has then had a short stint at living alone and studying (aborted after 1.5 semesters because it "was not for her"). She tried to become an apprentice in a trade which she thought she may like, sent a single application, was interviewed, denied, and has since given up on doing anything at all.

Since then, she spends her time watching dramas and reading. Any attempts to talk with her about anything related to life plans, work, the future, etc. are met with swift and utter denial.

Family life is not completely trivial - she has a hard time with my wife/her mother, but nothing we haven't been able to survive since her puberty. She has all opportunities one could hope for; we live near one of the nicest university- and high-value commercial/industrial cities in my country, there would be plenty of opportunities for her.

But my main issue is that time is rearing its ugly head: she's slowly getting into an age where contemporaries are into the latter stages of their studies or have long finished trade apprenticeships and are living their own lives, while she has zero life experience. She does not leave the house at all. She has a few friends from school, and as far as I know they occasionally chat and very seldomly meet in person (like 1-2 times per year), but that's it for social contacts (this has been similar before COVID-19, so may be aggravated by that, but it's certainly not the primary cause).

Outside the house, she has always been of low self-esteem, extremely introvert, quiet and anxious; in the family she is brittle-aggressive, and depressive for large spans of time. Conflict resolution mostly consists of her storming out, banging doors, and shutting herself off completely.

We tried getting her into therapy (for her depression and anxiety) and she had a few sessions, but she's rejected everything and anything. When talking with outsiders, she's radically different, very quiet and a victim of circumstances in everything. She is clearly intelligent, has great rhetoric skills, and is very good at blame shifting (which, I am very sure, she really believes in). My wife and myself have had family counselling (specifically on whether there's anything we can improve in our behaviour towards her - the two of us are fine otherwise), but nothing much came from that aside from them giving us mental tools to "survive".

Question

I believe I have exhausted all "nice" possibilities. I could just keep doing nothing and hope for the best while being supportive, but slowly but surely this strikes me as not being in either her or my best interests (coming from a place of love).

In the past, trying to pressure her to anything was a) really not that necessary - she managed her school education more or less on her own and b) in the very few cases where it was necessary, it turned out to be extremely taxing on the family (my wife especially, which is usually the target of her sometimes near limitless aggression) and also ultimately futile - no matter how well-meaning our goals were, she always viewed it as targetted against her as person, no matter how factual and non-emotional/non-personal we tried to do it.

Is there a good strategy for changing this kind of situation, with the goals of

  • ...her doing something, anything with her life; a trade, studies, working in a low-entry job, or just some hobby,
  • ...and not turning the home into a nuclear zone?

with the side constraint that she so far denies any and all open discussion of any "earnest" topics at all?

This is in Germany.

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    One area of concern here. You mention aggression towards your wife. Is this physical aggression? This would need a different response, because you and your wife's physical safety should be non-negotiable.
    – Graham
    Feb 22 at 0:41
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    Just an annotation/small advice: she's slowly getting into an age where contemporaries are into the latter stages of their studies or have long finished trade apprenticeships this line of thought doesn't help and it can become dangerous. Yes, she has to "do something" with her life, but everyone has a pace and a moment, and it seems for me that your daughter has MUCH MORE important issues that need to be treated BEFORE all of you can start thinking about her career, a job, or her studies. Forget about her range of age and what other do ATM, focus on her and her only.
    – Josh Part
    Feb 22 at 21:28
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    re the second paragraph: How is she supporting herself? I.e. paying rent, food, insurance, etc?
    – user42518
    Feb 23 at 4:57
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    @user42518, she isn't - she's living with us (no rent), eating whatever my wife and me buy, and is still covered for two more years in our family health insurance, after which point it will become quite "interesting" for her to find her own solution (unless she starts some kind of education, which would give her a few more years of coverage still).
    – AnoE
    Feb 23 at 9:28

8 Answers 8

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Joe's excellent answer is sufficient in itself. I just wanted to add my experience as a parent (and maybe my experience with troubled kids.)

This is one of the hardest phases of parenting: the (nearly) adult child. You love them and want to love them unconditionally, but can't quite draw the line between what's loving and what's best for her. The following is about a sub-group of highly intelligent kids, not all, and I don't know where your daughter falls.

It is much more common for a highly intelligent child to fail than most people realize. The highly intelligent can "coast" really well - up to a point. With some in this group, they don't have to work at obtaining knowledge like the rest of us (i.e. get good grades, the "work" of childhood); they miss out learning about self-discipline, the value of working hard, persistence, etc. For a lot of them, their self-esteem is fragile because it's not based on their accomplishments or their life skills. And they lack resilience, which is a critical life skill, because they have insufficient experience with difficulties/failure. So when they reach higher grades and can't rely in just intellect to get by, they flounder, a new-ish, very disturbing experience for them. They react to it in different ways. Some accept that they need to learn, belatedly, the importance of work and persistence. Some get depressed and give up. Some blame "the system" and do not want to participate in it anymore. Some also turn to self-medicating with alcohol/drugs. Their already shallow self-image/self esteem suffers even more (this relates to victimhood and blame shifting.)

All this to say: I've been where you are now, having had a gifted child. The child went from being best at everything to failing "everything" in a few short years, while their siblings thrived. I've also interacted with many similar children. Most of those I knew/interacted with were resistant to therapy, but they needed it. However, as Joe said, there isn't much you can do about it, as she is an adult. In the end, we only have control over ourselves.

If you haven't worked on a plan with your family therapist beyond survival skills, find a better therapist, because you need one. You need to make a plan that's best for all of you. This will likely involve sitting down with the adult child and having some difficult conversations. It involves boundary setting and compromise, which only works when someone can sit there and tolerate conversations about what is not going well/"working" in the family, including them and yourselves. You need to let her air all of her grievances and just sit there, no interruptions, and listen, and then she must allow the same. It may take several times to get a pattern of speaking/listening to get it down. It causes a lot of feelings of guilt in the parents dealing with it, and resentment on the child's part. So you need a better strategy and maybe a support system (be it the therapist or therapy + support group).

It's possible that I'm only talking about myself here, because this is what I experienced, but if it sounds about right, go for it. Find a good therapist that you feel comfortable with (it might take time.) Then ask them for the name of a good therapist for your child. In my country, therapists can't prescribe drugs if they are indicated, so you might need the help of a psychiatrist or a cooperative family physician.

Your gut is telling you she needs a push, and she does. It involves difficult boundaries, e.g. "You can live here rent free if and only if (you work x hours a week/you are enrolled in x number of for credit classes and maintain passing grades/you are participating in therapy/whatever)." You know your child, we don't, so this is best worked out with the help of someone who knows about troubled "youths", family dynamics, and therapeutic interventions, etc.

I can tell you what worked for me and my troubled child, but it wouldn't help, because we are not all the same people. But hang in there. It will get better. There's a high likelihood that it will get worse before it gets better, so, again, hang in there. You're far from alone.

Edited to add: Here is a link provided by commenter @Ian. In it, a Harvard trained Psychiatrist explains why gifted kids are actually special needs kids. If you have a gifted child, it's worth a watch.

What I can say that might be helpful is that I was a one of these gifted children myself, who floundered badly when I reached the end of my coasting abilities. However, I was in an abusive home - your daughter is not - and staying at home was untenable. I went from failing most of my courses (I failed basic Chemistry and Algebra II twice!) to getting straight A's/graduate school/becoming a Molecular Biologist/Physician (work!!!) because I stumbled on something I loved in a community-college course (the only college I could get into), transferred (on scholastic probation) into a university, and everything changed. I was lucky. My siblings were not. But your daughter has an advantage: parents with education, love and concern. Have courage; this, too, shall pass.

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    Your characterization hits the mark very closely. I would say she's quite intelligent, but weighed down by some very unfortunate other character attributes. When she has a "good day" she's awesome as a human being, but those days I can count on two hands over the span of a year. Thanks for the very concrete advice, that definitely sounds like the beginning of a workable plan.
    – AnoE
    Feb 22 at 9:00
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    A discussion of the concept from the third paragraph: youtube.com/watch?v=QUjYy4Ksy1E
    – Ian
    Feb 22 at 17:22
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    @Ian - I didn't expect, on a gaming channel (?), to find a Harvard Psychiatrist explaining the problems of gifted kids, but wow, that was a good explanation! Luckily, I didn't know I was gifted, so there wasn't that kind of pressure on me.
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 22 at 19:59
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    @anongoodnurse Healthy Gamer's target audience is gamers but the subject matter is usually not directly related to gaming.
    – Ian
    Feb 22 at 20:04
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    @Ian - Thanks for explaining, and thanks for the link.
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 22 at 20:06
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What worked for a family member of one of my relatives was fairly straightforward: set rules or limits based on what works for the parents, and largely otherwise letting go. The parents spent years trying to "fix" the (adult) child, and trying to force the child to conform to their idea of what was their idea of correct - go to school, get a job, learn a trade, etc. - but for the most part those efforts were counterproductive.

Instead, they set limits that worked for them. For you, it sounds like you're in a similar place. Decide what is okay for you. Are you okay with her living with you indefinitely? Can she live there if she has a job and contributes financially? Are you well off to the point that you could rent her an apartment (and willing to do so)? If she doesn't have a job, are there a set of other things she can do that will make it easier for her to be living with you (cleaning, improving the house, that sort of thing)?

It's very likely that she's struggling with depression or some other issue, and it may be difficult to truly handle until she's willing to treat it. Unfortunately, it can be hard for people to come to terms with this, and hard for them to agree to treatment; and as she's an adult, there's not much you can do to force things (nor should you). But that said, it's not unreasonable to make this a condition of her staying with you. Either way, setting limits and then letting her ask for what help she needs is an ideal solution at this age - just like it was at 10. They will also ensure that the rest of the family is not adversely affected.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion, discussion of medical diagnosis and treatments is not a good fit for the main site; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Stephie
    Feb 25 at 9:03
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I'm not a parent, but once upon a time I was a somewhat similarly troubled young adult -- you mentioned she spends a significant amount of time reading, so maybe suggest she try her hand at writing? It may turn into a serious hobby or even a profession, but regardless it will likely be therapeutic for her and (if she shares any of the writing) may provide valuable insight for you. As an introvert, I know well how easy it can be to get mildly addicted to falling into other worlds through reading and lean on that escapism like a crutch to get through each day. With a constant feed of prefabricated data your imagination can use to entertain you, it's easy to forget yourself and that in turn makes it easy to ignore personal problems.

I'm not suggesting limiting her reading, but if she's also writing she will likely find it's a lot harder to forget herself and the world she lives in as she tries to draw inspiration from what she knows for crafting worlds and characters. For me, writing requires holding up a mental-mirror; every story is partly self-portrait. She may even be driven to venture out into the world searching for inspiration, and that could lead anywhere!

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This is based on my experience as a young adult whose life ground to a halt for a long, long time.

First of all, I believe you should act, immediately. Your daughter is not a functioning adult. And the longer she stays like this the bigger her regrets will be when she comes to her senses. As for how you should act, there is no simple answer. The things you try may backfire. That's a risk you have to take. But don't keep doing the same things over and over if they are not working, try something new from time to time.

There's a great line in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: "The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases."

It is a similar relationship between the conscious and the subconscious mind. Your daughter is being manipulated by powerful subconscious forces that are able to bend her perception of reality so that she cannot turn her conscious attention to the glaring problems in her life. She knows how to think, but there are some things her subconscious will not let her think about.

This is why a rational argument is not working. This is probably why therapy hasn't worked. (In my experience, most therapists use rational arguments and teach "strategies" which require the person to consciously engage. This is exemplified by the word cognitive in "cognitive behavioural therapy." This is not the type of therapy she needs right now.)

I believe there are two ways out of this situation:

  1. Let her life deteriorate to the point that this emotional process can no longer fool her that the direction of her life is OK. (Another name for this is "hitting rock bottom".)
  2. Engage with her subconscious; address the emotional process that is holding her hostage, on its terms.

Neither of these is easy. The subconscious mind is a fractal of emotion, intuition, symbolism, recipes and patterns that few people appreciate, let alone understand. It took me 10 years to find a psychotherapist who does. He changed my life.

My intuition suggests to me that she could be in a state of chronic grief. I would not be surprised if she lost a pet or family member years ago and didn't seem affected by it at the time. But that's just a guess—these things can have all sorts of complex causes.

I wish I could give you something more concrete. I guess, the things I ultimately found most helpful were Jung's book Man and his Symbols and the advice someone gave me a few years ago to look into psychodynamic therapy which ultimately led to me finding my current therapist who practices something called process work. However, these may not be the right avenues for you.

Good luck!

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Not a parent but a child who had massive difficulties entering adulthood. Social anxiety, depression, OCD, terrible self-esteem... Perfect configuration for failure.

I tried university, ended up very lonely and not motivated to work on the subjects so I dropped when it became too difficult. Then I went to a school known for producing quite a lot of active professional musicians. I was good technically (already was before entering) and praised by the people there, but after finishing the school when it came to actually making a living I failed miserably and went back to my parent's house. Eventually I picked a degree in CS, was lucky to be in a tight group of motivated students, and here I am at last: financially independent, still struggling with many psychological issues but at least I am not a burden for anyone. Software development is quite a comfortable job, if you have the taste for it.

I must say that my first job was a failure though, because it was too demanding and I wouldn't mix well with most of my colleagues (courtesy of my anxiety and depression as always). Luckily I found another company with much less pressure and ambition, which sounds bad at first, but the atmosphere is nicer and I have free time, flexibility and money.

Bottom line is, it was not until my very late 20s that I began to see some light, and future doesn't seem all that hopeless anymore. What did my parents do during all these years (10 basically)? Mostly, they provided financial support as long as I was trying something. They were here for helping, giving advice, moral support etc. They weren't perfect but I believe if you work towards the goal to have your kid leave home and be an adult, it will eventually pay off.

Not gonna lie, it's probably a long road ahead, but hey life's not supposed to be a piece of cake.

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your daughter sounds like me for many years. what i had was untreated major depression. my parents denied i had it for many years, and i tried to "power through" until i had a major breakdown. i was only able to really start my life when i got on the right anti-depression medication at the right dosage. please note that aggression can also be a part of depression (as it can leave you easily irritated & unable to control emotions).

you mention she's gone to therapy, but no amount of therapy ever even came close to what medication was able to do for me. i don't know whether you've talked lately about how her depression is doing and whether she'd want to try treatment (including possibly meds) again. to be honest, it sounds like maybe there's no trust between you and her though, so i don't even know if she'd open up to you if you asked something like that. i know that if my mom, after starting every phone call with a few minutes of complaints about everything i hadn't done, suddenly turned around and wanted to know how i was really feeling...i wouldn't have told her anything real. so if you ARE able to have honest conversations with her (where she opens up about herself), i would ask whether she'd want to try treatment for depression again. if you are not at that point, i echo what others said about going to a family therapist who can help all of you hear each other.

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Also not a parent, but I've known a lot of people who have had this problem or something similar. Take heart, because neither you nor she is alone in this.

It seems to me that people who fall into this trap are lacking meaning in their life. And what is meaning exactly? I think Bishop Barron from Word on Fire put it exquisitely:

"Meaning is living in relationship to an ideal" -- Bishop Robert Barron

I grew up with people like this. I've seen how a lack of this relationship can utterly destroy people's lives. We all need something that is bigger than ourselves for which to strive. Otherwise, our world becomes small and inward facing. The ultimate expression of this lack of meaning is substance abuse, and we all know where that rabbit hole leads.

I don't know how to help someone find meaning in their lives. I only know what worked for me:

  1. Clear examples of people living meaningful lives
  2. Frequent talks where their own meaning was made explicit.
  3. Frequent talks about what happens when we fail to live a meaningful life.

This kind of thing takes years to really sink in. It often happens suddenly, in a kind of revelation, and the timing of such an arrival of understanding is also entirely unpredictable.

Good luck -- keep engaging with your daughter. Have deep conversations. Look outside yourselves. Make your ideals explicit. Find your meaning.

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  • Can you please edit your post to answer the question. As it stands it suggests a viewpoint, but gives no answer.
    – Rory Alsop
    Feb 24 at 18:29
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Let the child experience more of life. Send them for a month or two to relatives. Another way is to expand child view of world. For now it may be limited and thus leads to discomfort.

My family members love for 3 decades a small book as The Wings of Joy: Finding Your Path to Inner Peace - https://www.amazon.com/Wings-Joy-Finding-Inner-Peace/dp/0684822423

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