Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My lovely son has become phobic about things


Dear Virginia,



My bright and lovely son went to university on a scholarship at 18 – but left abruptly after only a month. He became phobic about things, and felt he looked ugly even though he is actually a very good-looking boy. Now he barely stirs from his room and spends all day online. I have insisted he eat with us, but that's the only time he appears. He refuses to see the doctor, and I'm at a loss as to what to do. I thought he'd grow out of it. He can't go on like this for ever, surely?



Yours sincerely, Penny

Isn't being a parent a nightmare? It's often so difficult to judge, particularly when children are in their late teens, when is the time to back off (nearly all the time) or interfere (rarely, but, in this case I feel, crucially). There they are, these great lumbering hunks with their strength, deep voices and razors in the bathroom, to all intents and purposes grown men, and yet, sometimes, inside they not only need guidance but pretty firm steering.

This is the case with your son. He's ill. In fact, at the risk of being a DIY doctor, I'd say he's got "body dysmorphic disorder". Look it up on Google and see if it fits. He has become phobic about his own appearance. To everyone else he looks perfectly normal, but when he sees himself in the mirror he sees someone with a huge forehead, bulging eyes of different sizes, squat neck – all kind of ugly quirks. No wonder he can't face going out.

As he is now 18 you can't force him to do anything, but you've managed, somehow, to "insist" he eat with you, so can't you "insist" he see the doctor? (Visit your doctor first to tell him or her of the situation and check out that they'll be sympathetic and have a plan – probably a mixture of therapy and drugs).

If your son refuses, simply tell him, decisively: "I'm your mother, and I can see you're ill. While you're in my house all I ask is that you visit the doctor. I don't ask that you follow their advice. I just ask that you visit. It would take an hour of your life. I cannot stand by and see you wrecking your life like this when you're suffering from a disorder that is not uncommon and can, in many cases, be almost completely relieved."

If he refuses, then consider threatening him with having to leave the house. It may not be possible for you to carry out this threat but it doesn't stop you making it. And, to be honest, unless you take a stand on this, you are really failing him as a parent.

I'm sure you're thinking that, given a bit of space and time, he'll get over this, but he won't. The longer he stays comfortably isolated in his room, the more difficult it will be for him to come out of this personal hell he finds himself in. And the older he gets, the less inclined he will be to listen to anything that you say.

He's a clever boy. Up to now you've obviously done everything brilliantly in bringing him up. Don't give up on parenting now, just because he seems old enough to know his own mind. He doesn't. Now's the time to go the extra mile and, by coercing him to seek help, ensure that his future is as wonderful as it looked set to be before this crisis struck.

Readers say...

Depression has a cure

These are big, flashing-red-light alarm signals you describe. Something happened during that short period at university to make him terribly depressed. He has had, however, almost a year to get over it. The fact that he hasn't suggests it was a serious blow to his equilibrium. If he won't see a doctor, you should.

Depression is a terrible thing but it can be cured with a variety of drugs that are available now. Show him this letter if all else fails.

Helen Braithwaite

London NW3

***

Send him out to work

Boys mature at a slower rate than girls and consequently they are unsure of themselves; the confidence of an 18-year-old boy is easily shattered. Something must have happened at university to cause your son to hate himself. The only solution is to restore his confidence. Tell him that most girls prefer intelligent (your son must be, having gained a scholarship), ugly boys to thick, good-looking ones.

Make him go out and get a job and, failing that, tell him he must do some charity work. Once he has witnessed the real world he will realise the mistake he made in leaving university. In any event, a year on and with the experience gained, you won't recognise your son as he is now, so don't despair.

Malcolm Howard

Banstead, Surrey

***

He is a typical teenager

I really don't think that there is anything sinister going on here. He is just taking his "Kevinness" to its full extent. How I wish I had won a scholarship to university at 18. However, this route is not right for everyone and it's never too late to reconsider at a later date.

It seems to me that he is a typical teenager who has been mollycoddled for too long. He was a big fish in a small pond and didn't like being a small fish in a big pond. Every mother thinks her offspring is good-looking, but 99 per cent of teenagers, and adults for that matter, are not happy with what they see in the mirror. We have the media to blame for this.

The internet has changed the way we live; young people have been brought up with it and often know no other means of communication. He is obviously a very intelligent boy, so hopefully his surfing passion is sometimes being used to a useful purpose.

You must make him realise that the gravy train has come into the station. If he continues behaving in this manner then he must start to contribute. Internet access, mobile phones, food, heat and clothing – all have to be paid for. Work out what he costs you and think of ways he can help ease your finances whilst he decides what course is right for him.

Get him doing the shopping, washing the car, walking the dog, washing up, changing his sheets or anything else which you think is reasonable. I think you will find that he will soon start to grow up realising the sacrifices you have been willing to make for him, and hopefully consider that university isn't such a bad idea after all.

Anita Ashford

Norwich

***

Get him to see a doctor

I don't want to sound alarmist, but it is crucial your son see his doctor, even under duress. I am by no means saying that he is developing a serious mental illness but it's incredibly important to rule it out, particularly if you feel his behaviour has become suddenly and markedly different. Most mental illness occurs in late adolescence and is triggered by an emotional upheaval, such as leaving for university.

The odds are that his confidence has been knocked by not flourishing at university as he'd hoped he might, but it really is so very important to rule out the early stages of more serious mental illness. If this should prove to be the case, the earlier the diagnosis the better the prognosis.

Sam Whyte, by email

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Day In a Page

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride