My grownup son is gaming all day and lives on takeaways

<span>Screen time: ‘It won’t be helping him if he knows you see him as a problem.’</span><span>Photograph: Shutterstock</span>
Screen time: ‘It won’t be helping him if he knows you see him as a problem.’Photograph: Shutterstock

The question My son is 26 and intelligent and lives on his own. But he can’t hold down a job and spends his time playing video games and living on takeaways. He has inherited some money, which is about to run out.

The problems began when he started smoking cannabis at 16. It quickly became a serious addiction. He has struggled with depression since his teens and has seen several counsellors, but doesn’t appear to have made much progress. He takes antidepressants, which help a bit. He stopped smoking quite abruptly about a year ago, but not much changed. He is doing an access to higher education course and has a university place in September, but he rarely goes to college. He never cleans up, doesn’t do laundry and his personal hygiene is poor. I’ve been doing his housework, but he’s asked me to stop. I want to, but I also know how disgusting it will get.

He had me all to himself until he was six, when I met my husband. We had three more children. My son found this difficult, but now he has good relationships with each of his siblings. The relationship between my husband and my son has never been easy, but it isn’t terrible. His biological father cut off all ties early on. How do I get him to change?

Philippa’s answer It’s possible he may be getting too many of his connection and contact needs via the internet and thus manages to avoid the more satisfying connections that are possible in real life. Reading The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt may help you understand this more, or Google the phenomenon that the Japanese call hikikomori.

Another thing that may be happening, apart from his depression, is that he could be crippled by a fear of failure. We can all fall into the trap of believing we are defined by our failures, but if we do, we need to tweak that and instead define ourselves by our courage to try. Without having the courage to fail, we won’t have the courage to succeed. To help him with this, switch your focus from what you don’t see happening with him to what you do.

When a person suffers from depression, even getting up and getting dressed is a huge achievement and your son has done more than that. He stopped smoking weed, he’s seen counsellors and has got himself to the doctor to get antidepressants. He’s enrolled on a course and has a place at university. From where I’m sitting, he needs congratulating – it won’t be helping him if he knows you see him as a problem. Many people, especially if they haven’t suffered from it themselves, see depression as “just being a bit down” and think people need to “snap out of it” or perhaps they think of the sufferer as being “just bone idle”.

I’m wondering – just guessing – whether your husband views your son’s depression like this. Could this be part of why their relationship isn’t that great? If it is the case and if you could re-educate your husband about the true nature of depression, it might help their relationship. I’m also guessing your husband doesn’t like to see you feeling worried and blames your son for this, which might also be giving your son the impression that “everyone would be better off without me”, which I’m sure is the last thing you want him to believe. I’m so glad he has good relationships with his siblings.

Your son has asked you to stop tidying his flat. Respect his boundary, but don’t stop seeing him

Your son has asked you to stop tidying his flat. Respect his boundary, but don’t stop seeing him. Meet him for a walk, or at a café, or maybe invite him round every couple of weeks for a meal. I believe you may be too much in the parent role and are speaking to him from that position, which forces him into the child role. This is probably what he wants to stop. You are both adults, so I think if you met on neutral ground, you would find it easier to relate like two equals, adult to adult, which would do him a power of good. A dynamic of doer and done-to is not healthy or conducive to respectful dialogue. It won’t be easy, you’ll still be dying to tell him what to do, but sit on that urge and see your son as a person, not as a problem for you to fix. For further help on how to do this, read my book, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read.

It is not your fault that he was abandoned by his father and you have every right to find your own happiness and get married and have more children. Even so, you might, on an unconscious level, feel guilty that he didn’t continue to have all your love to himself – and because of your guilt you may be feeling obliged to keep mothering him when it is time to let go. Also, on an unconscious level, by showing you he needs you on a practical level, he could be making sure you don’t desert him. Sometimes the adult children of estranged parents get stuck when it comes to becoming independent and it is often guilt that stops the parent fully letting go. We can’t change another person, we can only change our own behaviour, and they may or may not change in relation to us when we do.

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions