My son is about to graduate and has shown little interest in searching for his first job. He has been and is being treated for depression, anxiety and OCD and usually feels overwhelmed by school/life (even though he has only ever taken 15 credits a semester and not worked during the academic year). He is a sociology major and his dream job would be to work with a think tank or non-profit doing research and writing.
In light of his mental health issues, for which he is being treated, I do not believe he is lazy and I've learned to not push him about the future (tough being in higher ed myself and Type A). But I am worried that he is going to graduate in May and just fall back into the rut of coming home, laying around and working at Subway. He is academically brilliant but has no self-confidence. How do I get him to shoot for the stars and use the contacts/opportunities that would present themselves if only he used them? Help!
It is always hard for us ambitious parents to witness our offspring floundering or drifting during that ridiculously ambiguous process of transitioning from studenting to adulting.
Rest assured, though, that what looks like drifting from out here is likely a tumultuous, confusing, exhausting and terrifying endless series of problem-solving efforts he is struggling with inside. That it results in inertia is surely as frustrating to him as it is to you.
To his credit, he has many internal resources that he may not be fully aware of. He has stuck with and is completing college — that’s huge. He has been wise enough to take light enough loads to not unhinge himself — brilliant. That he has been fortunate enough to not have to work while in school, and that he has a parent who believes in him and wants him to shoot for the stars — these are tremendous resources that are part of who he is. His internal resources are like apps running in the background, waiting for him to open up a window and make use of them.
His confidence will come in part from being able to recognize the terrific things he has done, so I encourage you to focus on them instead of what your fears and worries would have you see. Your task is to be gentle with your reminders of how wonderful he is. Too much gung-ho can spook a young man who is depressed and anxious.
I have some experience with that. Depression and anxiety escorted me from my teens well into my twenties. With enough therapy, I was able to find a way to describe what it felt like when people tried to motivate me, mobilize me or do anything that had any inkling of encouragement:
“You tone deaf &#@%!” I would respond. (I was very irritable when depressed, and having grown up in a highly combative family, was adept at chewing people up with my words.) “Don’t you see that I am in a dark hole and even though it’s miserable and lonely in here, it’s kinda comforting and safe. You want to be helpful? Don’t keep trying to pull me up out of the darkness. Sit with me in it for a while (aka empathize). Eventually, when I trust that you get me, when I feel you aren’t pushing me, when I feel equally comforted by you as I do the darkness, then I’ll start working on climbing out of the hole. But until then, BACK OFF!”
In other words, had someone suggested to me that I shoot for the stars, I would have either snarled something unprintable or just stopped speaking to them. (I was quite dramatic along with being irritable.)
You see, there’s a difference between getting your son to shoot for the stars and being with and loving him while he doesn’t. Your empathy can communicate volumes but you, too, are like an app running in the background, cultivating and sustaining the belief that he can, and will, someday grow into a wonderful, creative, wise and productive man.
When your kids are little, you’re expected to hold all sorts of their stuff: sweatshirts, candy wrappers. When they’re older, you hold onto things like belief and hope. That is your task now: To be the vessel of belief and confidence that your son cannot hold in his own heart.
In the meantime, start talking together about expectations. Since his full-time job of being a student is done, he needs to have a full-time job doing something else. If he’s living in your home, he should make some sort of contribution to the household, whether that’s in having a job or taking over additional chores.
You have a responsibility to yourself and to him to have expectations and communicate them. Telling him you have expectations also conveys your confidence that he can meet those expectations. Parents (myself included) sometimes think we’re doing our kids a favor when we ease their burdens, which in this case might consist of accepting a zero-contribution paradigm. But the underlying message they hear is that we don’t think they can handle the burdens.
In the best of times, the transition from college graduate to working person can be a painful one. With COVID and the profound uncertainty of what the future holds, what will be possible for newly launched young adults is even more mysterious and amorphous. It’s hard for me to picture how to get through the next 6–12 months, and I have a thriving business, some experience with uncertainty, and enough patience to outlast the weirdness that is life during this pandemic.
COVID has untethered even the most grounded and ambitious students. The mixture of a student who is still at the earliest stages of becoming independent, when faced with what the pandemic is presenting, looks a lot like what you’ve described.
There is one assumption you have that I’d like to gently challenge. Although I am not the biggest fan of Subway (why must you skimp on the tomatoes in my BLT???) it’s not a terrible thing to graduate college, get a job, earn some money, and discover the tremendously awesome feeling of paying your own way.
Especially for someone who, in dealing with depression and anxiety may not be easily mobilized and can get overwhelmed, I think it’s actually a fantastic idea to start with a modest ambition like Getting A Job and then, having succeeded at that, Go To Work, Show Up On Time, Be Appreciated By Colleagues and Customers, Get Paid and Feel Really Good About Earning Money.
String a few of those together and you have a young adult life, just as it should be.
Because where is it written that graduating from college means you’re all set and are mature enough to take on career development? Where is it written that working at Subway isn’t a fine first job where you can learn how to be an employee? When the desire to be working at a job that’s more interesting/earns more money/holds more status or potential for growth starts to percolate in him, your son will begin to see that there are stars out there — and that he can shoot for them.