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A reader asks:

How do I give my twenty-something year old son an ultimatum when I know it isn't totally his fault that he is acting the way he is?  What I want to say to him is this:

"Either participate in our family unit or don't expect anymore effort from any of us until you do show some sort of desire to be involved. You have refused to make contact with your family here and you have not acknowledged the gifts you have received and you have not made any effort at all to call anyone."

Ever since he began living with his dad when he was much younger, he completely stopped any and all effort to have a meaningful relationship with me and my family. No matter how hard we try, and we have really tried endlessly and tirelessly; we still get pushed aside. The only reason we barely have contact now, is because all of us are making the effort. Is it time for me to put my foot down once and for all?

My Answer:

Yes, at twenty-something years old, it is certainly time to hold him accountable as an adult but saying "it's not totally his fault" is not doing that. 

Unless you can tell me some legitimate reason he is being forced (not influenced, genuinely forced) to act this way, then he is choosing to act this way and you need to quit making him a "victim" which feeds his obvious selfish nature.  We seem to have a generation of MTV boys around his age that are masters at playing the victim, especially when the parents are divorced.

A 10 year old can be manipulated and has an excuse. A 20-25 year old is choosing to ALLOW himself to be manipulated because it is to his benefit (he feels there is some personal advantage in it).  Either that, or he is just spoiled and narcissistic; again we seem have a large army of young male adults who live this way now. I know it's a very difficult situation, and I don't tell you this flippantly or without realizing how hard it is. 

As you wrote it, what you want to say to him SOUNDS a more like a declaration appropriate for an adolescent (to shock him) than it does a serious, loving declaration to a young adult (what you wrote sounds like something I'd say to my 13 year old but not a 22 year old). I don't know all the details but maybe something like this:

"You're a grown man now and responsible for your own behavior and choices no matter who is trying to influence you or what difficulties you've endured. We've all had hard times in our lives and that doesn't give any of us excuse to treat others poorly.  You have chosen to ignore us and not to acknowledge or be appreciative of our efforts to have a relationship with you. Your choice. We are going to back off and give you your wish. We remain hopeful that you'll want to participate with our family and build a relationship with us. We are always here and the door is open any time you decide to be part of our family. We'll not try to force the issue any more so you'll see that we won't be trying to contact you or send you things at this point.  Relationship goes both ways. Whenever you want to begin to put some effort in from your side, we are ready. And we really hope you'll decide you want us to be your family too."

Either way, you have start thinking of him and treating him like an adult and that means DO NOT make excuses for his behavior ("it's not all his fault").   If that means the relationship will be estranged for now, then so be it, even though I know that's hard. YOUR door is open… he has to grow up and walk through. Remember, your "kids" grow up to become adults who can make their own choices just like you and me.  Sometimes they can become "jerks". Just because they are our kids doesn't make them immune from being selfish jerks (just like parents and siblings and friends can be selfish jerks).

I know it's hard… but you have to turn him loose from being "a child" (which is different from being "your child" which will never change) and pray for him. You cannot control, persuade, cajole, threaten or manipulate him into being the "good son".

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