Q: I am writing with a question/concern about my 23-year-old son that might be of interest for your column. He spent last summer (2017) on a long, long, self-directed backpacking trip, finishing in late September. Since then, though, he has been pretty much on the computer, not actively looking for work, or engaging in the world much at all. He lives with his dad. We have been divorced for 10 years, and his father and I have a good relationship. My ex and I have talked about the need to charge rent, etc., but that has not happened. I stopped paying for my son’s car insurance and he has not renewed it. Concerned about his mental health, I invited him on a trip with me to backpack, which we both enjoyed a few weeks ago. I have tried to let him know that I want to understand how he sees this part of his life, and what might be holding him back from getting out and moving on with things. His whole body language becomes a bit defensive and he wants to change the conversation, or leave the room. He knows I love him and want to help, but I seem unable to engage him in any conversation about what he is thinking, feeling, or planning. His body language tells me he is feeling some shame and helplessness. He has a highly sought after degree and graduated with honors from college nearly two years ago. Is there anything I can do to help him? Thanks for any insights.

A: This certainly is a tough time, both for you as a mother and for your 23-year-old son. I completely empathize with how painful it is to see your child, at any age, suffering, withdrawing, unable or unwilling to share his struggles. Your observation of what seems to be “shame and helplessness” may speak to what he believes are his family’s expectations of him, that he’s disappointing his parents. Although he may have attained a “highly sought after degree, graduating with honors,” that could be one of the reasons he may be feeling ashamed when he’s not producing, or making responsible life choices. His withdrawing behavior indicates he’s likely suffering with depression, which underscores his need to be reclusive while he finds his way. Shame is very powerful, and can be immobilizing for some. Given your account of his trajectory of the past seven or so years, it’s not surprising the current transition period may be quite a letdown for him.

I hope by providing some general information about this developmental stage, it might help. We need to be reminded that young adults of this age are still in the later stage of adolescence. They are not only trying to write their next chapter, their adolescent brain is not yet fully developed. Contrary to what we used to think, with unrealistic expectations of very early teen years, we now understand that the brain continues to develop at least until the mid-twenties, and possibly into the early thirties. Thus, during the adolescent years, information is processed in dramatically different ways, with neurological changes.

It’s particularly helpful to understand this in terms of their social reasoning, problem solving, planning, and comprehension. The brain is actually “reorganizing itself,” creating different thinking strategies, as it transforms into an adult brain. The prefrontal cortex is the center of remarkable changes in adolescence, the key area of seeing differences in the manner information is processed. The expectation that suddenly, at the age of 18, one is now an adult, simply doesn’t make sense. This often means that the pressure to achieve key milestones very quickly isn’t realistic, or fair. Young people still need a considerable amount of support and help well beyond that age. In fact, child psychologists/therapists have been given a new directive that the age range with which they work is no longer 0 to 18, rather it’s 0 to 25. It’s a very good step that we are much more aware and appreciating development beyond the age of 18. As one neuropsychologist pointed out: “Neuroscience has shown that a young person’s cognitive development continues into this later stage and that their emotional maturity, self-image and judgment will be affected until the prefrontal cortex of the brain has fully developed.”

With this in mind, here are a few examples of what you might say to connect to the root of what he’s really feeling:

“I get that you want to be left alone, that it doesn’t feel good to deal with our concerns or questions. I understand you’re trying to figure things out, what your next steps will be, and that takes time and a lot of reflection. I bet you think we have expectations of what you should be doing. This is such a challenging time for all young twenties.”

OR: “I’m feeling really disconnected from you. We had such a great time together on our recent hiking trip. It’s uplifting and fun for me when we do these things together, yet I also am worrying that you’re struggling. I feel pretty helpless that I don’t know how to best support you. I don’t want to pry or in any way cause you to feel that I have high expectations of where you should be. Maybe you’d consider talking with someone outside the family to gain some perspective.”

OR: “Please help me understand how I can support you during this time. I can appreciate things aren’t easy and you might be feeling unsettled, low, after so much stimulation, new adventures, etc.”

It’s never too late to be a more emotionally connective parent, even starting with adult children. Most important is for your son to know that he is unconditionally loved without anyone expecting him to be perfect. If you can share your feelings, including your fears, your mistakes, your vulnerability, with him, it’s a way to let him know you’re not projecting that onto him. Then, just let him know you’re there to listen whenever he feels ready.

We tend to re-create what we know, what we’ve learned. Whatever the drama or problem of today is, it doesn’t mean it’s a re-enactment of yesterday’s, as roles change and there are variations. However, the dynamics of our relationships, the interpersonal themes with which we grapple, most often have been brought with us into our adult lives from our respective pasts. People almost always repeat the relational teachings they first “learned” growing up. In trying to reach or understand your son, ask yourself: “Who did your son see behave like this? Or, who did it to him? Or, who let him do it to them?” Whatever drama from which he may be seeking refuge, he may actually (and unintentionally) be replicating during this time of struggle.