Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: University drop-out

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Dear Virginia, Our 20-year-old daughter has dropped out of university and is living at home. She has always been a problem child and is not nearly as talented as her younger brother. She seems to be very angry and confused and refuses to talk to us about anything. My husband's getting fed up and wants to kick her out to earn her own living, but I feel reluctant. What do you think? Yours sincerely, Valerie

In rural India, 20 may well be considered to be the age of an adult. In the 15th century, it might well have been the same. But here, now, in 2008, in our current culture, like it or not, most people regard anyone of 20 as half a child and half an adult. Certainly it seems incredibly young to me. So how on earth could you even consider "kicking her out" and expect her to earn her own living?

Of course she could earn her own living. She could go out on the streets, become a heroin addict. But is that what you really want for your daughter? Or, to be less dramatic, she could apply for social housing and work on the till at Tesco. But again – is this what you really want for her?

Have you always considered your daughter to be a lesser person than her younger brother? How long have you made it clear that you favour him over her, and that you value his "talent", whatever it is, more than her ability to be herself? Not all of us have a talent that you can classify, like "artist" "musician" or "writer". Some of us have the potential to be good people, without anything that distinguishes us in particular.

It seems to me that your daughter has been made, for years perhaps, to be the family scapegoat. Isn't it time to try to turn her into the family heroine instead? Your son doesn't need your support. He's been blessed with some kind of talent. But your daughter is desperately in need of support and love and encouragement. How many times have you taken her out, on her own, to the theatre or to the park or for a special weekend in the country, away from other family pressures? How many times have you told her that you have faith in her, that you actually admire her for leaving university – it does take courage, you know – and that you'll support her in whatever she wants to do? And that you'll still support her even if she can't think of anything to do?

I think that this is your instinct, Valerie, but you're finding it difficult to get support from your husband. Why not tell him that if he doesn't invest, to use a frightful word, in your daughter now, you'll both be in for terrible trouble later on. She might get pregnant, or have a breakdown. She might take drugs, or get involved with a down and out criminal. She might join a cult...

Wouldn't it be more sensible to try to undo what harm has already been done, by just loving her for the next six months or so and making her the centre of your attention? Don't concentrate on what a failure she's been, but, rather, in her successes. I know that you may not actually love her very much. But couldn't you pretend to love her? And see whether this pretence actually changes her into someone you can love?

Kicking her out will just confirm what she's thought all along – that she's the family scapegoat and that she can never do anything right. Surprise her. Reveal that actually you believe in her. It may not be too late to turn her life around.

Readers say

Help her find her passion

Everybody is talented in their own way. Maybe your daughter feels angry and confused because she does not know what that talent is yet, but at 20 she still has plenty of time to find out. She probably wants to make you feel proud of her as you obviously do of your son, but has not yet found her passion in life. I think that "kicking her out" would be a very bad idea. However, if she does not already have one, a job would make her feel independent and evening classes or voluntary work would help her to find out what she wants to do in the future and possibly provide her with prospective flatmates. I am sure that as her motivation increases, you will find you have an incredibly talented daughter.

Rachel Simpson, Edinburgh

Allow her to take a gap year

I feel great sympathy for your daughter. It can be difficult to find direction when you are young, lacking self-confidence and feel that you are being judged for your failures.

I would agree with your husband that she should try to earn her own living, but as for kicking her out to fend for herself, that seems to me entirely counter-productive. You say that she is "angry and confused" and to fail to show support at such a low point in her life would completely undermine your relationship, and her self esteem. That said, it is important that she take some responsibility for herself.

One idea would be to give her time to sort her life out. You might encourage her to work, save up money, then travel or explore her interests for a year to gain some direction. It might benefit your daughter to see a bit more of the real world, to meet new and different people. People who value her for her own (not necessarily academic) merits. By living life that is entirely based on her own choices doing something that interests her, somewhere removed from her normal environment, she might get a better idea of her own personality, and gain a lot more self esteem. You need to take responsibility for the effect your attitude has on your daughter.

Felicity Mills by email

You don't have to have a degree

I was in a similar situation. Aged 21, I enrolled at university because I felt it was expected of me. A few months into the course I realised I wasn't suited to the subject, and deferred for three years. In that time I tried a college course, discovered I had many talents in that area, and am now following it with a degree in that subject.

Many people try university and discover it isn't right for them, and go on later to find something they are really good at. Not every success story starts with a degree.

Your daughter needs support, look into the reasons why she left university and then address each issue separately. If you are having problems communicating with her, ask a mutual friend or family member to help.

Shoe Star, Newbury, Berkshire

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