My son seems to blame me for his anxiety. How can we reconnect?

You are trying so hard, but at 22 he needs you to take a step back so he can breathe

My 22-year-old son is about to start his third year of a four-year degree course, and he is living at home. He has always been quiet and introverted, but popular. Three years ago, when challenged by one of his sisters as to why he never tells us anything, he confided that he had been suffering from anxiety and feeling worthless. I felt sad for him, and powerless.

We also discovered that he was smoking cannabis. I threatened to throw him out if he didn’t stop. There have been times when he has barely come out of his room, and others when he’s been better. He has tried antidepressants, at my suggestion. I have also advised that he see a counsellor, and he has done so; he says it has been helping.

However, our relationship is not good. I feel he blames me for the anxiety that he is feeling, and he looks at me with dislike. He says it’s anxiety and frustration and he’s tired of trying to reassure me. He has a completely different relationship with our youngest child, who is 17. They find the same things funny and chat about TV shows. I sense him tensing up and being on guard whenever I’m around him. We have asked what we can do to make things better for him, and he has said to treat him “normally”. We’ve been trying but become frustrated when we get nothing back from him.

My husband can take a step back from the situation and be more relaxed around him, but I don’t know how to move forward.

You are trying so hard to make things right; I think you are projecting many of your own feelings on to your son and it’s overwhelming for him.

Ruth Glover, a psychotherapist, wondered whether your son “couldn’t, or wouldn’t, communicate with you”. Couldn’t, because he’s too depressed or having problems expressing himself, or wouldn’t, because it’s his way of trying to establish some separation from you – “which, although painful and scary for you both, is an important part of growing up”. Given that he does communicate with others, the latter seems more likely. Although hurtful for you, that is the better way round. As a quiet and introverted person, he may be finding this period of transition difficult. He’s no longer a child but he is still living at home. Glover was interested in his relationship with his teen sister and wondered if he found it easier to identify with her. “With the pressures and expectations of young adulthood, he may be worrying about his future and not feeling ready. Some young people take longer than others to navigate this stage.”

Glover said this period is often hard for parents, who can feel responsible and yet powerless to help, with the intensity of emotion making communication harder. “You think he doesn’t communicate with you, but he does listen to you: he has gone to the GP, tried antidepressants and is even going to counselling, following your suggestions. Those are big things and you helped him find them. But you need to listen to him, too. He’s told you he needs you to treat him normally.” She further remarked that he has gone back to college twice after false starts, which shows incredible resilience – you need to hold on to this.

We both felt that it must be a strain for him to try to appear “all right” when he probably doesn’t know what’s wrong. He may also be trying not to disappoint you – a heavy burden for a child. I’ve said in the past that parents need to be the backbone their children can lean on, and it seems as if the opposite is happening here. I also think your messages are confusing: do this [smoke cannabis] and I’ll reject you, but hey son, what’s wrong, tell me.

Try reconnecting with him without talking about it: “What did you enjoy doing together when he was younger?” asked Glover. But don’t use this to pry, just let him be. “And stop looking for reassurance from him.” You mention in your longer letter that you’re worried he’s turning into your brother, which is obviously a projection; he’s not. You need to see your son for who he is. You need to separate out your stuff and his. He is talking to someone to help him – is there anyone who can support you?Glover’s final words were, “Just step back, because your stepping forward is making him step back.” We suggest saying something to him like: “I’m here for you if you need me,” and then taking a back seat to let him breathe.

Some organisations that may be of help: Young Minds; Talk to Frank

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, a new podcast series, is available here.

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Annalisa Barbieri

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