Friday 18 January 2019

Dear David Coleman: I'm going through a tricky time with my son. He is struggling to find direction in life

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Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I'm going through a tricky time with my 17-year-old son. Until he was 15, he wanted to join a football academy, which he achieved. I had spent ages getting him trials and so on. He then told me he wanted to do plumbing and get an apprenticeship, all swayed by his friends. I tried to get him to stick with his dream, but he dropped football. Since then he has struggled with the plumbing, barely scraping through level one and mostly failing at level two. Now he wants to quit plumbing too, but he has no back-up plan! What can I do?

David replies: The struggles that youngsters have in making the transition into adulthood are many and varied. I had a query recently about a slightly older lad who similarly seemed a bit lost and directionless since leaving school and trying to decide on a college course.

While your son is younger, he too seems at a loss to know what he really wants. In many ways it is to be expected at his age. The brains of lads, and girls, his age have still not fully developed and matured. The last part of their brain to fully mature is the frontal lobes, the part of the brain most involved in our decision-making. That bit may not be fully developed until he is in his twenties.

As a consequence, many decisions that 17-year-olds will make may be poorly thought through, with little heed taken of potential outcomes and may seem rash and ill-judged. In order to learn how to make better decisions, though, they must experience the consequences of the decisions they have made, and they must have a chance to reflect on those outcomes to be able to review and determine what they might have done differently.

That hindsight is, of course, what shows those decisions to be good or bad. So, part of the development of our frontal lobes does require that we both make mistakes, suffering the consequences, and have the crucial opportunity to review and learn from them.

Sometimes parents are very good at the latter part (of reviewing the outcomes), but will have, mistakenly, helped their child to avoid the consequences and allowed them to evade the responsibility for whatever happened. We do this because we don't like to see our children suffer. But sometimes we all have to suffer a bit to be able to really learn.

I think that your son may now need to experience the harsh reality of the choices that he has made, and give himself the chance to reflect on the direction he would like to take. There is a danger, for example, that if you provide him with a comfortable safety net (should he quit the plumbing), he may never take flight and become independent of you, which is an important part of his development.

When he had his dream of playing football, and wanted to get into footballing academies, you supported him all the way. Indeed it sounds like you put huge effort into helping him to get into the career that he thought he wanted.

I wonder if he ever felt that he put enough effort into it? Despite this being an ambition up to the age of 15, he seems to have let it go very easily. It is as if there was no cost to him for quitting the football.

Perhaps he didn't feel he had invested enough in it to make it worthwhile sticking with football when the pressure (of succeeding at the academy level) was about to come on.

Again, with his plumbing, he seems to lack any sense of personal investment in it and no clear sense of any cost, for him, associated with quitting it.

While you may not be able to influence his internal motivation to invest the time and energy in succeeding at the plumbing, you can create the conditions where there will be a cost to quitting.

I am not suggesting that you abandon him and leave him to sink or swim entirely unaided, but I am suggesting that you let him experience any suffering (with no income or nothing to fill his time) that may come if he does, in fact, quit the plumbing.

That might involve warning him that any current privileges (like use of the house Wi-Fi, or phone credit, or having his laundry done) will not be available unless he has a plan for how to pay for them. That might give him the impetus to create that back-up plan.

Our teenage daughter has ADD but was nearly expelled because of her behaviour. Please help

My daughter is in Transition Year at a boarding school. She has ADD and can be hard to manage. She finds it very difficult to be obedient and rarely tells the truth. We've been aware that she has been stealing in school and has stolen money from us too. Her school called us in before Easter and said they didn't want her back after the holidays. We managed to persuade them to keep her as we had no alternatives this close to the end of the school year. She says she wants to stay in the school but her behaviour is going to get her kicked out.

David replies: One of the defining features of attention deficit disorder (ADD) is that the signs and symptoms of it will have been there from before a child is aged seven years. That means that you have probably been challenged by her behaviour since she was quite young.

You, no doubt, will be very familiar with the symptoms of ADD, but for other readers, less familiar, ADD typically appears as short attention span. A child with ADD may have trouble staying focused, or may get bored or distracted from a task easily. You daughter might seem not to listen when spoken to, or seems not to pay attention to details, often making seemingly careless mistakes. She might have trouble staying organised, losing books, homework and such like. Or she may find it hard to plan ahead.

She may also be impulsive, saying or doing things without thinking or intruding on other people's conversations or butting in to whatever they are doing. If that impulsivity stretches to her emotions, then she may struggle to keep her powerful emotions in check, for example, resulting in angry or aggressive outbursts.

While you don't describe her younger years, while she was at home during term times, I could imagine that a series of behaviours like these would have been very trying for you. I'd say these kinds of symptoms are what make her "hard to manage". One of the very frustrating things for most parents of children with ADD is that they don't seem to learn from their mistakes.

Even when we adopt the most successful strategies of behaviour management, a child with ADD will often repeat their mistakes and misbehaviours, since, at their core, they struggle so much to think before they act. That typically means that we have to repeat our interventions time and again, and this is wearing for the adults involved.

It sounds like her current school have reached similar levels of frustration with her repeated misbehaviour and have reached a point where they don't feel able to meet her needs. They also probably feel a degree of responsibility to other students who may be seriously put out if your daughter has been stealing their possessions.

You may have chosen boarding school for her in the hope that the structure, routine and discipline that we often associate with such schools may have helped her to learn to curb her impulsivity and her distractibility or inattention.

At this stage, however, you may want to consider if keeping her in boarding school remains the best option.

Perhaps you need to be thinking about moving her to a school closer to home, even if she is not asked to leave again.

For a start, she needs to realise that there are real and serious consequences for her, for stealing and having to leave the school may be one such serious consequence. But, more than that, perhaps she needs more active involvement from you at this key stage in her development.

While she lives away from you, your ability to influence her and her behaviour, as well as your ability to help her learn from her mistakes, is very limited. She sounds like she needs lots of support to stay on the right track.

That is properly your job, rather than hoping that a big system, like a school, might be able to achieve it on your behalf.

David replies: It sounds like there is a lot going on for your daughter, and this may be exacerbated by her being at such a remove from you in boarding school. That said, it also sounds like the difficulties that your daughter presents with, regarding her behaviour, have been present for a long time.

If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence

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