Dear David Coleman: My son wants to drop out of college - how can I get him to stick with things when the going gets tough?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I have a son who has just turned 19. He didn't achieve his potential in the Leaving Cert, having previously been a good student. He is attending college and has a part-time job as a swim teacher. Outside this, he does not make efforts to interact with anyone. He is now thinking about leaving college in favour of an online course. I'm afraid that anytime there is a bump in the road he drops the activity and starts something new, and takes the easier route. How can I help him develop the confidence to overcome problems rather than to avoid them?
David replies: Nineteen is a difficult age. It is a time of transition and uncertainty for many youngsters, when they get hit with real doubts and confusion about where they are going in life.
Most will have picked their initial route forward in college, apprenticeship or work. However, it is only when they have begun along the road to whatever career or subject area they thought they were interested in, that the reality of it kicks in. As a consequence, many re-evaluate, or question the choices they have made.
I think this a good thing. It is really hard, aged 17 or 18, to make fully informed choices without a deep understanding of the college courses or work environments. Many youngsters fall into college without a clear plan and it is only when they are ensconced that they actually realise what they do or don't want.
Only then can they create a more functional or directed plan.
I do hear your concern that your son seems to opt out when the going gets tough and seems to choose the easier route. However, based on what you describe, he seems to be a good lad. Perhaps he didn't invest in his Leaving Cert in the way you expected or hoped, but he still got into college.
You seem worried about his thoughts of changing college course. I could imagine you worry about him becoming further isolated if he does an online course with little or no physical interaction with others at lectures and tutorials.
But perhaps this is the time for you to step back. Perhaps this is the time to let him play around with his own life. When parents jump in to solve problems for their adult children, those offspring can end up with little motivation, or experience, to be able to do things for themselves.
Even if we can anticipate that the choices they make could have bad outcomes, we have to let them go ahead and choose anyway. Having autonomy is central to becoming an independent adult. It is a core feature of our moral and psychological development.
Up to now, I could imagine you have supported him fully and enabled many opportunities for him, through education and extra-curricular activities. But now, maybe you need to consider that your work is essentially done in terms of creating those opportunities for him.
This may be the stage in his life where he has to start making full use of the opportunities and create his own way forward.
Naturally this means you must "let him go", in a very significant way. Until he is allowed to make choices, and is faced with the real responsibility for dealing with the consequences of those choices, he can't grow up, nor may he be motivated to even try to grow up.
For him to have the opportunity to learn from the problems he faces he has to be let solve those problems. Learning to solve problems is a process that hopefully started in his childhood. But, if he hasn't had much chance to solve his own problems, up to now, then he might find it hard to do so.
But he has to start somewhere. Successfully solving problems will give him the confidence and the resilience to face more difficult challenges later in life. By all means, give him feedback and help him to review the decisions he makes, but be careful not to rescue him. If he doesn't experience the real consequences of his choices, then he can't learn.
Swapping to an online course might be a disaster for him, or it might be the spark that ignites his curiosity and passion for learning again. Either way it needs to be his choice and he needs to deal with the outcomes.
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