Updated: Feb 22, 2022
If your son or daughter is paralyzed by a sense of purposelessness that seems to be making them afraid to develop and just, well, stuck, they are not alone. In my work over the last year, I have seen many families struggle to help their emerging adult son or daughter come out of their room, put the video games down, limit screen time, eat family dinners, and in general live a healthy productive life. In my 10+ years as a therapist and coach I’ve seen these kinds of presenting concerns before, but with the disruption that the pandemic has caused, there has been a resurgence of adolescents and emerging adults struggling in these kinds of ways.
There are some basic tenants that I’d propose parents begin to think about when trying to revitalize their son or daughter into thriving again in their lives, rather than just living it. Here's how to begin getting unstuck:
1) Environment Matters, Fixing Sleep
Most drug treatment centers already know this. If we modify the environment so that there’s no access to drugs or alcohol, cook meals that are nutrient rich and well balanced, encourage and schedule in exercise, social connection, and create a sleep regimen that is consistent and predictable, human beings start becoming more healthy. We all know that your home is not a treatment center, nor should it be.
However, I’d challenge the notion that the home environment cannot be changed. For starters, let's start with improving sleep by keeping cellphones out of the bedroom. For the more strongly willed, simply having a charger that’s outside of the bedroom will do. For those who struggle, you can put cellphones in a Ksafe where they cannot be accessed until morning. Either way sleep will more than likely improve as a result. “Bedrooms are for sleeping and sex”. That’s what Eric Zhou, faculty in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School said in a lecture I attended in 2019. Let’s aim to keep it that way. While not all homes are conducive to creating studying environments that are outside of the bedroom, efforts could also be made to take TV’s, monitors, and electronics out of the bedroom and into a shared area or separate space. Like with drug treatment centers, as soon as you invite a trigger into a space, you’re inviting the consequences that could come along with it. If you’re the kind of parent that feels their child needs their own space in their room to do their work, then there's any opportunity cost that comes when you invite video games, monitors, and cellphones into that space as well. While your son or daughter may argue that they feel more connected, and while they certainty deserve their own privacy, the cost to their sleep and overall functioning is inevitable.
2) Do Hard Things; Stop Protecting, Start Preparing
I recently watched 14 Peaks featuring Nepalese mountaineer, Nimural “Nims” Purja. The Netflix documentary profiles Nim’s world record conquest of the fourteen tallest mountain peaks, demolishing the previous world record of 7 years and 310 days in an astonishing 7 months. I was captivated by the documentary’s ability to highlight human potential through purpose driven action. I was hooked, and as a result, listened to Nim’s interview with Chris Williamson to learn more about Nim’s insatiable desire to live his life to the fullest.
Nim’s talks about his purpose like it’s second nature to him, but what’s quite clear is he is motivated by his purpose having cultivated it and shaped it for his whole life. Purpose for your emerging adult isn’t just coming. It’s not a treasure that he or she must find and it's certainly not going to be an epiphany one day. Think of your own lives. Was there any indication at 18, 19 or 20 that you’d be doing what you’re doing today? I’d venture to guess no, which means their process is more than likely going to need to be similar. Emerging adults must build a sense of purpose, and that build takes effort.
If you identify with the notion that at least a part of your job as a parent is to create an environment where your son or daughter can grow into their sense of self and make meaning in their life, then preparing them to do that means having tough, loving, conversations that put the responsibility back onto your son or daughter, not you, to cultivate their own purpose (here's an excellent example of that kind of messaging). Purpose takes time and effort, and it starts as soon as that effort becomes a requirement, not a negotiation.
3) Where You Set the Bar Matters; They’re Not an Egg
The paralyzed inaction you're seeing is synonymous with avoidance. Clinically, we know that humans avoid when they perceive a threat, are under stress, or are experiencing anxiety. Our brains are hardwired to perceive threats and preserve our wellbeing. Why does a twig snapping in the woods at night illicit fear? Why do we get startled when a teacher calls on us to answer a question or when we’re asked to present in front of a group? Why do most people choose to not voluntarily sky dive even though logically they know they’re more than likely to be safe? Our body’s run an innate calculation as to what is, or could be, a threat and we respond by shutting down (freeze), running away (flight), or fighting (fight). That’s an anxious response, and it seems like now, more than ever, emerging adults are freezing.
If your son or daughter is petrified to make a mistake, and can’t seem to move forward in their life unless they have an optimized path forward, then the goal should not be to continue to treat them as though the environment is unsafe and unpredictable. If you see them as being too fragile to embark on their journey towards independence, they will likely embody that fragility. Whilst of course many of my clients have suffered moments or events of great pain that are deserving of a more empathetic and sensitive approach, I would argue that even in these instances there is a benefit to seeing them as resilient, not broken, as capable of healing, not as irrevocably wounded.
It is therefore vital to create an environment and an approach that challenges their perceived notion of distress. While it may feel very real, their fear response sets have been hijacked and are in need of recalibrating. Fundamentally, this means gradually, but consistently, exposing and re-exposing your son or daughter to challenges just outside their comfort zone. Critically, if you reason that this is your son or daughter's responsibility to take on independently, you'll be waiting for a long time. Being mindful that your son or daughter has agency in determining their own life (see #2 above) is different then allowing them to suffer, unexposed to challenges or venues that would enable growth. If they are avoiding, they are more than likely misperceiving the threat that is in front of them, responding anxiously and reactively. Applying gentle and consistent pressure sets the standard higher, not lower, allowing them to grow into their ability to gain agency over their anxiety and develop through it. They won’t break if you challenge them to think and act differently. In fact, they might thrive.
Onwards and upwards!