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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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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