How can I help my brother and mother deal with each other?
November 14, 2019 4:15 PM   Subscribe

They live together at home and I no longer live there, but I visit often. He's in his early 20s and I'm about 4 years older. He's been going through a rough time after graduating from college but taking a lot of his anger and frustrations out on my mom. It's tearing our small family apart.

My younger brother is being a jerk to my mom on a daily basis and she is unable to cope or set boundaries. She does everything for him because she wants to see him get better but he's constantly angry, frustrated and unmotivated. He graduated from college last spring and has gotten fired from the retail job he had after two weeks in. He refuses to look for any other jobs yet wants to be able to be independent, have his own place and drive. He knows he needs to get better but won't make the effort. He's even admitted that it's too much work. My mom found a psychiatrist for him that is covered by his insurance and he's been seeing her, and she prescribed him Wellbutrin and Seroquel. He takes both and it seems like she always ups his doses when he sees her. She told him she can't work with him if he doesn't do the work. He just seems stuck and it's all my mom and I ever talk about when we get together or when she calls. It makes me really sad and anxious and angry at the same time because there's nothing I can do about it, but our family is literally just the 3 of us. It always has been. My mom was abused by her parents and then by my dad and later on cheated on by a boyfriend. Before my brother moved back in, she was finally doing really well. She was happier, had gotten off her anti depressants and was becoming more social, doing more art. Ever since he moved in, she's become a shell of herself. My brother speaks down to her, tells her it's all her fault that he's depressed and blames everything he does wrong on her and my dad ("having parents like you is why I'm like this!"). He constantly tells her he wishes he didn't live with her but enjoys all the perks that come with living at home - no rent to pay, free food, laundry and cleaning on demand by mom.

The worst part is that she knows she's not helping by allowing him to do all these things but she's essentially been conditioned to let him walk all over her. She's used to being this way because of my dad and her own parents and despite how much I tell her she needs to set boundaries or consequences for his actions, she ends up giving in and doing whatever he wants, whether it's cooking him an alternate meal if he doesn't like what's for dinner or driving him to the variety store to pick up some smokes at midnight because he ran out and can't cope. He also has a somewhat troubling addiction to weed and cigarettes as he mixes both together and smokes them out of a bong which has been causing various health issues, which my mom hears about constantly. She drives him to the doctor, takes him to do tests etc. Nothing changes.

The worst part about most of this is that I understand the depression and the anxiety and the trauma because I've been through alot myself when I was his age but I can't condone the way he's treating my mom. It makes me angry. Not to mention most of his anger stems from a rejection he faced from a girl he liked in university. It's all he thinks about and it's the reason why he's so depressed and unmotivated. My mom can't afford to help him move out or pay his rent and he's not getting a job, but she won't kick him out (which I understand). We both feel hopeless and stuck in this situation. Does anyone have any advice? I suggested she and him go see a therapist together but I don't know.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I suggest she see a therapist on her own, and see if NAMI has a parents' meeting near her. Or AlAnon.
posted by lazuli at 4:20 PM on November 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Protect your mom, if it comes to a choice.
posted by tmdonahue at 4:27 PM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Not to mention most of his anger stems from a rejection he faced from a girl he liked in university. It's all he thinks about and it's the reason why he's so depressed and unmotivated.

This is a giant red flag to me that makes me worried for your mom to keep living with him. Obsession with female rejection, combined with the abusive way he already treats her... if this were my mom I’d be doing whatever I could to help her get him out of the house.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:43 PM on November 14, 2019 [24 favorites]

Even if that means losing any relationship with your brother.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:43 PM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Your mom needs support outside of just you. Can you accompany her to some things to help her meet other people? Maybe the two of you could volunteer for a cause together, or you could go with her to some AlAnon meetings or whatever kind of support group near you that might fit. It's a good idea that she sees a therapist, too, and you could help her navigate that process. If you have any very extended family or old friends who you think might want to get back in touch with your mom, you could do a little gentle reaching out - a lot of times when folks feel trapped by circumstance they cut off others, and it could be that your mom has friends who would like to hear from her again.

It sounds like your brother is just not ready to make changes, and if there's one thing I know about the awful trio of depression anxiety and anger it's that you have to be willing to put in the work for things to change. Try your best to stay open and willing to listen to your brother so that when he is ready to change he can see you as a source of love. But right now your mom seems to be the person who could start making changes, if she had some support outside of just you.
posted by Mizu at 4:44 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

If your mother is unwilling to change and your brother is unwilling to change there is not a lot you can do.

This is a terrible thing to think of, but I’m afraid the problem may be resolved when your brother escalates from mental abuse to physical abuse. At that point (and definitely keep an eye out for it) you’ll have legal options.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:06 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I noticed that in a previous question, you framed your mother as an abuser to you and your brother; you also said you were worried about 'becoming your mother'. What I'm hearing is a cycle of depression and co-dependence, and abuse created between your brother and mother.

I'm guessing that your brother is also responding to very valid issues and dynamics that he is experiencing.

-- For your mother:

Is she going to therapy? It sounds like "fixing" your brother is a major issue for her, which raises flags for me - It sounds like she's not in a place where she can work through her own issues or anxiety, and this manifests by unwilling to confront your brother by setting caring boundaries, and using 'care' or 'love' as a method to create an unhealthy dynamic.

-- For your brother:

Honestly, it sounds like he's lacking activities and contexts where he can feel proud of himself. With a mother who is always taking care and trying to fix him, a living situation that he feels ashamed about, romantic rejection, financial rejection -- this is not a good recipe for feeling good about one's self.

Is he going to therapy? Does he have constructive in-person outlets for community or creativity? Such as: a hobbyist club, a mixed-gender board game group, an outdoor rocketry club, a knitting group?

I would focus on short-term initial steps. Things that aren't about "fixing him" or about judgment, but about support and care. Can you plan once-a-week sessions where you play non-competitive games together (e.g. Minecraft, Children of the Sky), or board games, or cook together?

-- For yourself:

Are you going to therapy? I think you'll be more equipped to help your brother and mother if you're doing the emotional work to unpack and unravel how your family of origin dynamics worked, and how you were shaped by them.

In addition, consider you might also be internalizing a desire to "fix" or "shape" your brother through a sense of care; being able to catch yourself and understand how you're reiterating patterns that you've internalized will be important.

As a family member, you can be incredibly supportive to both of your family members. This is a little tricky, because "being supportive" is exactly what your mother is trying to do, and I think the specific way in which you've described the dynamic seems like it actually is part of a vicious cycle. By understanding your own dynamics, you can find a way to be supportive in a new kind of way -- open, non-judgmental, setting clear boundaries.
posted by suedehead at 6:07 PM on November 14, 2019 [9 favorites]

How does he afford cigarettes? Does she provide him cable TV and internet? She might cancel these and read books until he gets his act together.

How far away do you live? Could your mom stay with you for a few weeks? (Of course, you might get other problems with him there by himself).

I've got a ton of suggestions that only apply if you mom can stick with them, like he only gets meals provided if he applies to a job each day, and if he's out of the house from 10am to 2pm, or something like that. But if your mom can't enforce those kinds of boundaries....

Can you front him some money to start a business? Front him $200 and he can maybe make $1000? If that seems like a possibility, memail me? Stuff like buying cheap chinese goods, assembling them, and selling them on Craigslist. Maybe not a career, but might get a young person thinking about possibilities.
posted by at at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2019

Your brother might do well with a life coach. It sounds like he's prepared to earn a living and live on his own, he just has let some things hold him back. A life coach in addition to his counselor might work.

Your mom, on the other hand, needs to get into counseling ASAP. She needs to find her inner strength and to get support to learn how to set boundaries with others. If you've learned to set boundaries with others, you can model healthy relationships with your mom and brother, but don't get so deep in or be there so often that you lose your healthy perspective. Having friends who practice good boundaries and will support you to do the same will be important. Blessings on you for caring enough to do something.
posted by summerstorm at 6:35 PM on November 14, 2019

I see! Sounds like you're all definitely working on things.

("you guys are so annoying, stop being so concerned about me")

To me, this confirms that he's trying to be more independent and rejecting help as a method of trying to feel independence and agency.

There is a legitimate dynamic where, when a group of people start trying to "fix" someone, the person in question also starts believing that they are "someone who needs help", because that's what everyone is telling them -- and this in of itself can be harmful. So I really want to reiterate that the desire to "fix" doesn't seem like it's going to be helpful in this context.

Or consider this -- y'all have been trying to "fix" already; maybe it's time for a different strategy that's not about putting pressure on each other to 'not be bad', but about giving each other space and celebrating each other in what you're already doing.

I keep trying to tell her to do things like take away his internet access or laptop/phone (she paid for both)

Personally I think this is a very very bad idea. This is a punitive measure, and I've never seen a punishment ever work as a motivational factor. This also sends the message that because he's not competent, he deserves to be treated/punished like a child. Or in other words, his autonomy and independence is something to be "earned" from others if he does well. but he can't do well, because his family members see him like a child, so he then thinks of himself as a child... This isn't good.

He says he wants to work out at the gym, start driving lessons but when we offer ways of doing these things he just comes up with excuses "oh I need a routine at the gym I can't just do there without knowing what to do" or "no I can't just go to driving school if I'm always stoned". It's like it doesn't occur to him that those are all things in his hands

These are nice, but they are both "self-improvement" tasks that are about achievement and self-betterment, and inherently might have anxieties around 'doing well' or 'performance' entangled in it. In some ways it's understandable that, when you try to offer ways, he doesn't want to do it.

I would specifically find activities that aren't around "self-improvement" or "betterment" but around creating or exploring something together -- such as baking cookies, making an aquarium, woodworking, building Ikea furniture, Minecraft, a road trip, going to an show together. What about setting aside two hours to watch an interesting movie together and talk about it? NOT as a sneaky way to slide in "well.. so what about those driving lessons", but just to share time together. At least you can become a source of trust where he can be his whole self, not trying to constantly prove himself to you.


I don't mean to 'take his side', but to offer my take of the situation y'all are in -- it's like a knot, and if you pull on certain threads, the knot just gets cinched tighter.

In some ways, I feel like these are problems that won't be solved by y'all trying to 'help' -- because maybe your ways of helping are currently about tugging on the strings of the knot. That's why I encourage you to do non-helping things, at the very least, and become a trusting sibling rather than an authoritative presence that is "fixing" him and pushing him into being a 'problem'.
posted by suedehead at 9:30 PM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

I had a friend a long time ago who was letting someone take him for granted and use him. The one thing that made sense to him is that every time he let himself be treated badly, he was letting that person think it was okay to act like that. He was helping turn that person into a bad person or at least a worse one.

I feel like this won't be a popular opinion but it did help my friend change the way he thought. He realized he wasn't being nice by doing things. It was bad for both him and the person he cared about.

This seems like the situation your mom is in. She wants your brother to do well but doesn't want any conflict. If she wants him to be able to move out some day and be functioning adult, he needs to be able to cook and do his own laundry. He needs to figure out how to get around on his own, whether it's by bus or learning to drive. It's alright to help when someone is having a hard day but always doing everything for him is making him act like an angry teen, instead of an adult who's graduated from college.

Your brother sounds really unhappy and he's taking it out on your mom. People listen more to what you say when they feel you care about them. They get defensive if you focus on what they're doing wrong. Maybe talking about him seeming really unhappy living at home and brainstorming ideas of what he could do to make his life better would help him. It's a hard situation and I wish you all the best.
posted by stray thoughts at 9:56 PM on November 14, 2019

The thing about abuse is that it gets into your head and tells you constantly that you're making wrong choices. So having other people tell you you're making wrong choices, even when those people are loving and have the best of intentions, ends up reinforcing the abusive voices inside your head. What's often helpful for abuse survivors is people validating them and their choices, even if those choices seem objectively wrong. Not that you have to agree with bad choices, just that it may be more helpful to validate her intentions (e.g., "I think it's great that you want to help him so much"), sympathize with her problems (e.g., "I can see how that's totally frustrating"), and remind her of her strengths ("I know you can get through this, even though it's really hard").

This is not actually your problem to solve, and trying to solve it for her may just be reinforcing everyone's helplessness. Be validating, be sympathetic, be her cheerleader; don't take away her autonomy to make decisions about her own life. (Which doesn't mean you shouldn't set your own boundaries about anything that affects your life, though.)
posted by lazuli at 11:48 PM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

My brother and father got into this kind of dynamic and were stuck in it for years. Only improved when my brother moved out. It was absolutely horrendous to spend time with them. Fortunately I was living abroad and my father doesn’t talk on the phone for more than three minutes at a time so I only had to witness limited doses of this.

This is the kind of toxic dynamic that you can’t fix for them. Most of that time I refused to engage. They are both adults and they need to change the dynamic themselves. Unless your brother is a threat to your mother’s safety I’d try to spend time with them separately so your relationships with each of them can stand on their own.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:53 AM on November 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

it's all my mom and I ever talk about when we get together or when she call

That sounds exhausting for both of you. Would you be willing to try going a week NOT talking about it at all? Magnify the ways in which both your lives are going well and get excited about non-brother things and emotions. Venting about the situation gives the illusion you “doing something”, relieving the pressure a bit while making both of you feel weak and defeated. Remind your mother of her strength and the life she has beyond your brother.
posted by saucysault at 5:23 AM on November 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Smoking pot every day, no employment, and sitting around --who wouldn't be depressed?

It's up to them to change the dynamic. You cannot do much apart from being a good example.

It's up to your mom to change her living situation if she doesn't like it.

Your mom is "codependent" and can't bear to see her son "suffering", because it makes her feel uncomfortable. She probably unnecessarily blames herself for your brother's "problems", so she feels pity and does things for him in an effort to make him feel better. In turn, he doesn't feel better and instead feels more ineffectual and lashes out, and the cycle continues. In an effort to "fix" him she brings him to a psychiatrist who puts him on increasing dosages of pills and does everything for him as if he's a child. Now he has a depression story on top of his other stories (mom fucked me up, girl rejected me).

because she's only focusing on him and how she's both scared of him and scared for him. On one hand she genuinely wants to help and on the other hand she says she feels like she has to do things for him because she's scared of him (she calls it survival mechanisms and says she used to do the same for my dad)

There is a lot of victimhood mentality going on with your mom and brother. They don't seem aware that they both have power and choice. Your mom seems somewhat aware, however she blames her behavior on her past as if that's the way it always will be. In effect she saying: Since I was abused in the past I can't say or do anything because I'm afraid, because that's how it was when I was young. That's faulty thinking.

Your mother chose to let your brother live at home. Instead of carrying on with her activities and her life she chose to drop her life and focus all of her attentions on your brother as if it's her job. This is codependency. It's not your mom's fault that your brother is unemployed or depressed. It's also not your brother's fault that your mom feels powerless and stuck and doesn't do her art or get out of the house. Your mother is using your brother as a scapegoat.

Your mom blames your brother, her parents and your dad, for making her the way she is. Your brother is stuck in his head and defaults to blame instead of taking responsibility for his life. That's a though one and something for them to realize. Your mom has choice not to do everything for your brother. Your brother has agency to look for employment. Accept or change but don't complain.

How do you know your brother is a jerk every day? Because your mom tells you every time she talks to you. It's not healthy or fair for your mom to complain about another family member --your brother --every time she talks to you. Does your mom feel she has no control over the outcomes in her life? Does she feel now that your brother is there, she's doomed and can't have a life? She can do something about it but chooses not to and instead complains. It's madness. Change the subject when your mom complains about your brother. You may be enabling her to go down the victim road. Oh poor mom, look what she has to put up with? She scared. She can't cope! Poor dear. Let's blame brother.

Since they are stuck in patterns of blaming and complaining, you can't do anything about it, except to separate yourself. If you get enmeshed in their problems it tends to makes things worse. Don't be in a triangle where you're tying to fix your brother or give him life advice so mom will feel better about her life.

The best advice I can give is to call your brother (and mother) out on their bullshit (my sister and I do this for one another when we're being idiots), change the subject, and mind your own business for the majority. Refuse to play in their blame games.
posted by loveandhappiness at 7:51 AM on November 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

There is no simple solution. In addition to her own therapy, your mom might really benefit from the family support groups offered by NAMI - a chance to get support from other parents struggling with similar issues. If any part of her story, especially her childhood family, involved drugs or alcohol, I would also suggest Ala-non. Ala-non is really good at helping people see what is in their control and what is not, build awareness of their choices and support healthier boundaries - all things that would help her deal better with your sibling. Both NAMI and Ala-non are free and offer both on-line as well as local support groups.
posted by metahawk at 7:07 PM on November 15, 2019

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