Parenting at-risk teens and young adults

A number of parents have written Lovefraud recently asking for advice regarding helping 16-24 year old sons and daughters whose other parent is a sociopath. These sons and daughters may be showing some signs of the disorder and the parents are at a loss about what to do.

The stage of life between 16 and 24, is called emergent adulthood, and I have come to believe this stage is critical in the development of healthy and unhealthy personality patterns. With respect to antisocial personality (sociopathy/psychopathy), although symptoms of the disorder may be present during childhood and early adolescence, recent studies show this is not always the case. The disorder can develop during emergent adulthood.

Parenting at-risk emergent adults is extremely challenging because a parent has so little control over the factors that would help or harm development. Young people at this age make their own choices about friends and life habits (including drug and alcohol use). Also, there is a natural tendency for young people at this age to disengage from parents emotionally, so even under the best of circumstances sons and daughters may not care much about the thoughts and feelings of their parents.

Given this harsh reality the first point of parenting at-risk emergent adults is acceptance and the serenity prayer. You did the best you could raising your child and now your son or daughter is making choices that will change them for the better or worse. You are not responsible for these choices, your son or daughter is.

There is another aspect to acceptance and disengagement from a sense of responsibility that is perhaps more important than accepting your offspring’s choices. That is, to the extent you are invested in receiving positive feedback from your son or daughter or depend on enjoying his/her companionship, you are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The more your son or daughter abuses and exploits you, the worse his or her disorder will become. I encourage you to seek therapy and support to help you disengage emotionally so you can help rather than worsen the situation.

In addition to disengagement, I recommend you “resist the righting reflex” to borrow a phrase from motivational enhancement therapy. The righting reflex means the impulse to give advice and try to force your view on your son or daughter. Most of the time, if you tell your son or daughter to behave a certain way; he or she will talk about all the reasons you are wrong. The more he or she talks about not changing the less likely change becomes. Instead you want your son or daughter to talk about the benefits of changing and to be self-motivated. For example, a first year student was in my office this week and admitted she was staying up until 1 AM and was having trouble staying awake during class. In response to her bringing this up I asked her, “How much sleep do you think you need?” She then said she believes she needs to go to sleep by 10:30. The likelihood she will actually start going to sleep earlier now is much greater since she talked about doing it. Notice the difference between that and my saying, “Well, if you want to do well at the University you will have to go to bed at 10:30.”

Motivational enhancement therapists call a person’s talking about making better choices “change talk.” As a parent you want to do everything you can to encourage your son or daughter to engage in this change talk. Notice you can only do this from a place of respect and acceptance for the emergent adult’s capacity for choice. If you feel the need to force your views (the righting reflex), you will not be able to increase change talk.

In some cases respect for choices may lead you to withdraw support of various kinds and does not mean that you do not place boundaries or that you allow yourself to be exploited or abused. If you are being exploited or abused, professional help (for yourself) may be your best option.

Aside from professional help you can facilitate a place of respect and acceptance by firmly resolving to go on and create a meaningful life for yourself. You had a job, to raise a child and now your role is changing. You may need to find other jobs and roles to fill the void left by your child growing up.

Feel free to post comments and questions regarding your specific relationship with an emergent adult and I will respond as best I can.

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11 Comments on "Parenting at-risk teens and young adults"

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Liane, thank you SO much for this very, very timely article.

At the moment, my youngest son is living with me. Without going into a long, drawn-out description of his issues, I’m appreciative of all suggestions and techniques that will safely (and, kindly) remove me from his dependencey (and, his from mine) so that he can feel comfortable and confident about becoming an adult.

He’s 22, and has a very, very strong trauma-bond with his abusive older brother. He is intelligent, but he also is a-motivational and is driven by fear and failure.

I’m not good at this, and I have to work very hard to avoid giving him “advice,” even if it’s based on fact. He’s going to have to learn some hard truths, on his own, and even for a parent who accepts that one of her children is a spath, it’s a strong temptation to “protect” the one that is clearly a groomed victim.

THANK YOU so much for this very, very timely article.

Brightest blessings!!

Dr. Leedom,

I have received many letters from parents who realize that their young adult children are showing signs of sociopathy. I really didn’t know what suggestions to make. Thank you so much for this insightful article – I’m sure it will help many people.

Dr. Leedom,

It is soooo difficult to co-parent with a sociopath with all the lies and manipulations. I really appreciate any and all advice that you give on the subject. I’m going to try and use the kind of language you suggested in order for my teen to feel that he is in control of his choices.

So glad your son is back with you. At least he doesn’t have the close influence of his older, disordered brother. I’m sure this situation is really challenging and I wish for the best for you. Take good care of yourself!

Great article and suggestions on how to deal with emerging adult children….good advice for ANY parent.

Having been the kind of parent who did my best to “save” my psychopathic teenager/young adult from himself….I can testify that trying to “save them” from themselves and the results of their choices and decisions is an IMPOSSIBLE TASK. Let me serve, if nothing else, as an example of what NOT TO DO.

I see other parents in my community today trying to save their psychopathic/criminal children and being emotionally devastated that they are unable to do so. The parents allow it to ruin their lives because they feel that they have totally “failed” in life because of the psychopathy and criminal behavior of their children.

Because we (parents) love our children and do the best we can to raise them, I think it is easy for us (caring parents, but especially, mothers) to base our feelings of success in life on how our kids turn out. I know I have been guilty of that very thing myself.

I think it is important for us to base our feelings of peace and satisfaction on something else than JUST how our kids turn out.

As I pointed out in my article yesterday about finding meaning in life after tragedy, as I enter the final stage of my own life, I am finally learning to find dignity and meaning in life from other things than just how my kids turned out.

Nothing has “changed” EXCEPT my own emotional take on what my life means. How I look at what has happened in my life has changed. That has made a big difference in my own satisfaction with my life, past, present and future.

To those people here who are parenting young adults (or any age really) who are at risk either from the DNA and/or association with a psychopathic other parent, or just from the society in which we live, of making poor choices, I sincerely and STRONGLY suggest you get and read Dr. Leedom’s book (available at the LF store) and read the information on her website “parenting the at risk child”.

Dr. Leedom ~

Raising an 11 year old grandson with not one but most likely two sociopath parents, I truly appreciate all the advice I can get. I’m going to print this article for future reference.

Have to tell you though, “resist the righting reflex” is going to be a tough one. I think I better start working on that right now. My three grown sons tell me I still have a problem resisting the impulse to give them advice. I’m working on it.

Thank you, I have had a copy of your book for sometime now and the pages are “dog eared”. I so appreciate the help.

MiLo, bless your heart – you’ve been through the proverbial mill in your situation. I’d like to read some of your experiences in the form of articles – what worked, what didn’t, what sort of expectations you had, motivations, etc….all of it. And, I say this because so many, many people are involved in similar situation to yours and they honestly believe that their good intentions are going to save their grandchildren or nieces/nephews.

Brightest blessings to you

HEar Hear!!!! Milo, I too would like to see some articles on raising grandkids—this is the “new normal” family now in much of the US.

Hi I have a 16 yr old who seems to be exhibiting the signs in varios waus. I have 4 daughters altogether from the x spath. My sister is also a spath & she has caused me a lot of grief over the yrs including trying to get me arrested on false charges. the cops could see through her lies, but my whole family have cut me & my girls off.
she has troed to weasle her way back into my daughters life in the past, but hasn’t worked. so now she has sent her children to try to suck her in, & its nearly worked. she can’t see why she can’t keep in touch with her cousins. She can’t see that my sister is just using her to hurt is all again.what do I do? do I allow her the contact & let her learn the hard way? Pls help!!!

Dear missy,

I wish I could answer your question a yes or a no…all I can say is “it depends”

Depends on how much “control” you have over your daughter’s ability to see these people

depends on how much control you have over how and when they contact her.

Depends on a lot of things. Kids at that age don’t want to believe what the elders tell them about dangers, danger of drugs, danger of alcohol, danger of sex, etc. danger of cousins and danger of aunt.

You also don’t want to get into a “pithing contest” with your daughter and her alienate her from you, so this is a difficult high wire for you to walk on.

I wish I had an answer for you. I tried to keep my son away from lots of things at that age and he just defied me, but he was one that ended up being a full blown psychopath. The other one also defied me, just didn’t turn out to be a psychopath like his brother, but I don’t have an answer fo ryou, maybe dr. leedom can answer your question. E mail her and ask her. her e mail is on her blog link, or on the Love Fraud authors link.

Good luck and God bless.

I recently read that wilson’s disease can cause psychopathy! So sometimes, it’s a physical genetic thing that is beyond your control.

As far as providing a good environment for her, you can do that by being the best role model you can be. You can get her books, like “why is it always about you?” about narcissism. I think that in some cases, introducing the subject of narcissism BEFORE talking about psychopaths, is helpful. The word psychopath is too scary at first glance. Using the word narcissist, introduces the symptoms and makes it easier to see. Then, when that information sinks in, you can get her books about psychopathy.

I don’t know if any of these ideas are helpful. I just know that trying to control a teenager, usually backfires. It just makes them more rebellious. That’s the age when they are testing their power. That’s natural.

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