“Normality is a paved road: It’s a comfortable walk, but no flowers grow on it.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Does This Sound Familiar?
Concerned Mom: I’m concerned about my 19 year-old son. He is really struggling right now. He just has no motivation whatsoever. He dropped out of college three weeks before the end of the first semester because he was failing every class. Then tried to go back for the second semester and came home in less than a month. And again for a third semester. He hasn’t gotten a job and just sits around the house. We’re really at a loss because he wasn’t like this in high school.
Leslie Frey: What was he like?
CM: Oh, he was a great kid. Great student, practically all A’s. He had friends and was involved in things. He really had it together. But over the last year, he has just fallen apart.
LF: Have you talked him about all of this?
CM: Oh, yeah. That’s all we talk about it seems.
LF: Have you asked him what he thinks might be going on?
CM: All he says is, “I don’t know.”
Step 1: See The Problem For What It Is
LF: You know, my guess is that’s the absolute truth. I bet he really is at a loss. I have a metaphor for what I think might be going on. Do you have the time for me to share it with you?
LF: It comes from the world of hiking. For the last 8 years, I’ve taken groups on extended backpacking trips designed to foster personal growth. Most of the time, we stay on the trail. But sometimes, we go off-trail. We do it because it helps put people outside of their comfort zones very quickly.
Not only are they still carrying a 40-pound backpack, which is cumbersome and uncomfortable, and dealing with the elements and the elevation changes, but now things really get hard. They have to push their way through heavy vegetation, their footing is uncertain, and they don’t always know if they are going the right way. It’s easy to get lost or step in a beehive.
In general, people don’t like it, to say the least. Some people get very quiet and go inside themselves while others will sing loud songs and make it a game. Some get really angry, and others panic and shut down.
My hunch is that your son is very good at being on-trail. That’s why he did so well in high school.
CM: Yes, I agree. He was an Eagle Scout. Give that kid a checklist, and he’ll knock it right out.
LF: And my guess is that going to college for him is an off-trail experience. Perhaps he just has no idea how to go off-trail without panicking.
CM: That strikes me as the perfect metaphor. So what do we do?
LF: Ah, I see Mom likes checklists, too. Well, what if your son were to learn how to go off-trail and still feel safe? Again, my guess is that right now he feels alone and lost.
CM: You know, he actually said that.
Step 2: See Why The Old Paradigm Creates the Problem
LF: Now, when I take people off-trail, we go as a group. I don’t just say, “Ok, people. I have taught you all about hiking for the last few days on these trails. Now you all have to get off the trail and make your way through these woods on your own. Good luck. I’ll see some of you back at camp.” I might get sued if I did that you your son, right?
CM: I would not be ok with that.
LF: But we do that to kids all the time.
CM: Yes, but most kids do just fine.
LF: Do they? I don’t think so. I have conversations like this with parents almost every day.
LF: Yes. The circumstances are different, but the underlying story is the same. These kids are in pain, but as a society we give them the message that something is wrong with them – that they can’t make it.
We expect them to have the Off-Trail Skills they need in an Off-Trail Experience like college, but we only prepare them in an On-Trail Environment like high school.
Plus, we act like college is an On-Trail Experience – it’s not. There’s very little supervision, more drug and alcohol abuse than most adults even realize, high pressure, major ambiguity. For kids that value certainty, significance, and love & connection, this can feel like a chaotic caldron. Thinking they were ready to be “all grown up,” they are shocked to realize they want out.
What many parents like you are seeing clearly is that their kids truly aren’t prepared for college. But what they don’t see is what preparation the kids are missing.
CM: Well, what is it?
LF: I don’t believe its an issue of academics or maturity, though that may be going on for some. Do you think that’s what’s missing for your son?
CM: No, I really don’t. And he doesn’t either. That’s what I think has him stumped.
Step 3: See How A New Paradigm Creates New Solutions
LF: Yep. What I believe is missing is that he has no idea how to go Off-Trail. He needs to have these experiences and gain these skills with a capable guide who knows what she’s doing. Like I said before, I don’t just send people off into the woods on their own. I go with them.
CM: Well, can I go with him?
LF: You can begin in small ways. For example, I recently had a car accident and had to buy a new car. Now, I am a competent adult, but I still asked my dad to go with me and fully expected him to agree. Instead he said, “No, Leslie. You can do this yourself.” I was shocked. He had always jumped on opportunities to help me in the past.
“But I need your help. You’re so much better at stuff like this than I am,” I cooed.
“No, I’m not. I’m usually just making it up as I go along. There are three main things that I look for, and I can tell you what they are. Plus, you can do some research, and I’ll look over it before you go if you want me to. And if you have any problems, you can have your phone with you, and you can call me. But I don’t think you’ll need to. I feel very sure that you can do this and probably get a better deal than I could.”
CM: But you said I could go Off-Trail with him? That’s not a story of your dad going Off-Trail with you. He refused to go with you.
LF: Yes, it is. When I take people off-trail hiking, they don’t follow right behind me. I’m pushing my way through the bushes beside them. Sometimes they find an easier way than I do! I don’t carry their backpack for them, either. They do all the work. And I do my work. I’m willing to take the time and go through the journey with them, not for them. That way, when we are done, they feel truly accomplished because they truly did it.
My dad knew that I wanted him to be there to rescue me when I got overwhelmed. But he wanted me to know I could rescue myself.
CM: Yes! That’s what I want for him! Hmmm… so did you buy a car by yourself?
LF: Yes! And I called my dad afterward and he celebrated with me. I did not feel lost and alone. I felt brave and directed. That’s the difference.
Step 4: See The World Through The Kid’s Eyes
CM: Ok, well, what can I do for my son now?
LF: Well, you said that he won’t get a job, right?
CM: Oh, man. And it is causing fights every day.
LF: Does he want to get a job?
CM: It doesn’t matter at this point. If he’s not going to go to school, he has to get a job.
LF: Does he want a job, though? Does he want to go to school? The reason I ask is this: I believe human behavior has a logical order to it. The reason he isn’t getting a job or going to school is that he is gaining something out of it.
CM: Yeah, he gets to sit around the house all day, eat our food, and play video games.
LF: And what does he lose from that?
CM: He’s losing my respect by the minute!
LF: Right. So what is he really gaining?
CM: What do you mean?
LF: You already told me that this is a kid that did very well in high school, yes? And you were proud of him then, yes? Did he seem to do things to garner your pride in him?
CM: Yes, he was a great kid.
LF: So let’s assume that he is a great kid. And great kids want to be great. They want to be seen as great. It hurts them deeply to be seen as anything but great.
CM: Ok? So, when he sits around the house, fails out of school and refuses to get a job, how’s that great?
LF: That’s the logic that we need to untangle. I guarantee you there’s a logic there.
Imagine that you are suddenly in college. Everyone told you that since you did great in high school you’d do great in college. But what you find is not what you expected. Everyone tells you that you should know what to study and what you want to be, but you just aren’t sure. You know that your parents are spending tons of money on this, and you feel bad for spending it on something you don’t really know or care about. You try to talk to professors, but they don’t seem to get it. You go to class, and it just doesn’t feel right, so you half-ass the assignments and stop going to class. All the other kids seem to know what they’re doing, or they’re so self-centered and focused on partying that they don’t care. Making friends that you actually connect with seems so hard.
It just feels like a waste of time and money. And you actually care about your parents and feel super guilty for wasting their money. You just can’t deal with it anymore. So you go home, thinking things will be better.
But everyone looks at you like a disappointment. You were this great high school god. People said you would go far. How can you sell them cell phones at the mall now? Everyone will think you’re such a loser. And the only people who are still in town are actual losers, so you don’t want to hang out with them. And all your old friends are off at college with their new friends, so you can’t hang out with them.
The only people you even feel slightly comfortable around are your parents. You know your parents are disappointed, but you hope that you’ll make it up to them someday when you get it together. Sure, you’re freeloading off them now, but it’s saving them tens of thousands of dollars, right?
For now, you just want to crawl into a cave and hope that with enough time, you’ll get over this – whatever this is. Eventually you’ll figure out what the hell you want from you’re life, and it won’t be too late. People will forget all about this. If only your parents would just get off your back and leave you alone for a little while. You just need a little more sleep, and it’ll get better.
CM: So, you’re saying we should just leave him alone?
LF: Hell, no! That’s the last thing he needs. Are you saying you think this make sense? That there is a logic in what I just asked you to imagine?
CM: Yes, there is a logic, and I think that could be pretty close to how he feels. What are we supposed to do for him?
Step 5: See Yourself With A New, Empowering Plan
LF: Number one: ask him if this is how he feels. It might not be. If it’s not, then ask him to tell you how it’s different. Keep hanging in there with him, with a genuine desire to understand, until he is able to see the logic in it for himself. Have faith that at the heart of things he still wants to achieve his goals and feel proud of himself.
CM: Yes, I know that’s true.
LF: Number two: guide him back to pride. Help him think of things that he can do to begin feeling proud of himself again. Take no option off the table. You may even have to do some research to bring some options to the table that none of you even knows about yet.
CM: Like what?
LF: Have you heard of gap year programs? Or “wwoofing?”
LF: Start there. Google that. You are about to find some amazing programs that you’ve never heard of before. High school guidance counselors are trained to prepare kids for college, so many of them are unfamiliar with programs that deviate from the norm.
I can help you find them. Then you can help him see that there are places he can go and things he can do to grow and contribute right now. That has to be your new definition of success.
CM: I like this, but I think my husband will really push back.
LF: Well, you might be right. He hasn’t been a part of this conversation. He is still thinking what you were when you started this conversation: Our son is messed up and needs help.
CM: Yes, that is where I was.
Step 6: See How Your Family Could Work With Me
LF: And that’s where I can help. I can talk with your husband and help him re-consider the situation. I’m kind of selling you a particular idea here. It’s new to you, and you may not fully understand it yet. Rather than trying to explain to him an idea that is new and still a bit fuzzy to you, invite him to talk with me. Whatever you decide on, you and your husband must be on the same page. Then we can bring your son into the conversation.
The other way I can help is by being a formal Off-Trail Coach for your son. There are specific skills and experiences he needs to gain before he will feel prepared to strike out on his own. Like I said, the last thing you need to do now is leave him alone. He doesn’t have the skills to figure this out right now or he would have done it already. He needs help, and I can coach him through these skills.
CM: Can’t I do that?
LF: You have been doing that his whole life, I’m sure. I have no doubt you have done all you can and will continue to.
I also know that he is going through a time developmental psychologists call “Differentiation.” Basically that means that he is trying to become different from you. It is a phase that any healthy adult must go through to separate from their parents.
You don’t want him to agree with everything you say just because you say it – not really. That argumentative streak in him, while infuriating at times, is a sign that he is incredibly intelligent and healthy. It also means that right now, as he is struggling to understand how he can be in the world and be separate from you, he will have a tendency to disagree with every word that comes out of your mouth simply because it’s your mouth. He needs a guide right now, but it can’t be you. Not all the time.
And it needs to be a guide that won’t rescue him. He has to learn how to rescue himself. He has to see that he is the hero of his own story, and no one else can be that for him.
That’s my gift. I am actually quite excellent at doing just that. I have helped hundreds of young people learn to trust their own internal compasses, read the maps to their goals, navigate around unexpected obstacles, and celebrate their own hard-fought victories.
And it would be my honor to serve you and your family in guiding your son or daughter through this Off-Trail adventure into adulthood.
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