Well, you LET him get away with it . ..
December 28, 2007 5:50 PM   Subscribe

How to help parents and sibling out of what seems to be dependency cycle?

My younger brother moved back in with my parents (he is only 19) around one month ago after dropping out of school and quitting his job, and there has been a lot of stress on my parents side about his lack of responsibility and his general behavior.

When I visited for the holidays the stress and 'negative vibes' were obvious, my parents asked me for my opinion I told them they seem to be coddling him with overly generous financial support and not enforcing rules or consequences and that he is disobedient, disrespectful, and not taking any steps to get back into school or work as a result.
My parents agreed with my opinion but are conflicted, they can't just throw him out and they seem to be incapable of being firm about rules, shouting at each other is more stressful on them then him so he seems to get his way again and again.

I feel like they never would have put up with this behavior from me and am somewhat jealous; like the older sibling in "the prodigal son." When I drove back to my home I was thinking that I will not visit again for as long as possible, also I found myself quite upset about him receiving a nice expensive Christmas gift while I got a much smaller one. I don't want to abandon my family and I don't want to feel that way about material things (I intellectually consider those feelings stupid and petty, but they were there.) What can I do to help the situation and also protect myself from it emotionally?

When I talk to my brother about life and responsibility, he has intelligent things to say and it seems he understands he can't live with mom and dad forever, that needs to get back into school or some sort of work, etc. We often have that conversation, afterwards I feel like he'll be ok and 'gets it' but then his behavior doesn't change.

When I talk to my parents they tell me how proud they are of me for not being like him (which I find disturbing and unhelpful) and listen to my suggestions about 'tough love' but again their behavior doesn't change.

I love my brother and parents and I don't want to feel like I did driving home, angry and resentful. I want to help change the situation but what can I do when they both don't seem to actually follow my advice (even when it's asked for)?

By the way, I know therapy is often suggested here, I highly doubt anyone in my family would consent though. Ideas for changing that are helpful but mostly I want suggestions that I can do without professional help.
posted by oblio_one to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can't change their behaviors. You can't make them stop coddling him. To not feel angry anymore you have to follow the AA motto - figure out what you can't change, figure out what needs to be changed - and find the serenity to know the difference. What needs to be changed for you it seems is that you start seeing your family on your terms instead of their's. Go out to dinner with your parents and make it clear you aren't really interested in hanging out with your brother as the three of them together makes you just feel pity for them. Hang out with your brother, but only to help him move forward - help him write a resume, take him to job fairs, things like that. If you don't want to take such a hard line, figure out where your boundaries are and stick to them.
posted by nadawi at 5:59 PM on December 28, 2007

Response by poster: By the way I searched first, and there's a similar posting, but a key difference is that there are no mental problems here and the situation is not as severe as the other posting.

My sibling is actually very bright and capable.
posted by oblio_one at 6:00 PM on December 28, 2007

Best answer: It's only been one month, and it's December no less- a month filled with holiday distractions. No one is hiring in December, and it's not exactly a big time for pursuing school options, either. You need to give your family a break. One month is not "forever". If you continue to be there for them, the situation could very well work itself out. Or not, but there's not much you can do about it. What you need to do is think about you, and how to deal with your feelings on the issue. The jealousy and anger will eat you alive, and for no good purpose. When I deal with sibling envy (I'm an oldest, too, so I feel your pain- the younger ones have it so easy!), I just remind myself, hey, my life is not bad, and if I had the chance to be my sibling, I wouldn't want to- I'm happy being me.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:20 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

It sounds like he's being a normal 19 year old. Hardly a "grown up". Annoying to you, naturally, being the older sibling who was apparently lucky/practical enough to have a steadier start to life.

I agree with nadawi on influencing him positively with career/school issues. Instead of stewing and feeding your own aggravation, try to find ways you can channel your concern into being a positive influence and role model for your brother. Lots of teens have these crises...some patience and (emphasis on) positive support are your best bet, if you must be involved, and if he welcomes your assistance. If it becomes that big of a thorn in your side, you may need to step back from the family for a while, think about what's really bothering you, and let things play out.
posted by sarelicar at 6:30 PM on December 28, 2007

Best answer: I was your brother at nineteen, except that I'm an only child. I did in fact get kicked out of the house, and that forced me to get my act together, but what I really needed was some emotional support for transitioning into adulthood. An older sibling would have been excellent to have, especially one who was willing to listen and not impose his/her ideas about "what I need to do next." Maybe he's just lazy, or maybe he's depressed.

Point two: it's your parents' house, and they set/enforce the rules (or not). Don't add to your stress level by trying to control other people's stress levels.

Also, I think you owe it to yourself to be honest that you're upset about the disparity in gifts. "Mom, Dad, I was hurt by the fact that Joey got a more expensive gift. It's not about the gift per se - I'm happy with what you got me. I just feel like there's something I don't understand about the situation. Do you think we could talk about it?"
posted by desjardins at 6:55 PM on December 28, 2007

Best answer: I was in the exact same position with my mother and younger sister. I saw my sister consistently breaking rules and spiraling out of control as she tried to find her limits, while my mother "grounded" her but then let her go to a friends party "because it's her birthday." It was especially frustrating because my mother would constantly ask me for advice (I was the "good" one and I was studying psychology in college so I must know all the answers). I would do the whole "rules, love, consistency" routine, the whole "if you made a rule and she broke it, you HAVE to reprimand her in SOME way." My mother would sit there and agree with me and brainstorm new rules and consequences, and I would leave thinking the problem was on its way to being solved... but two days later my sister would do something and my mother would make excuses for her again!! It was beyond frustrating. I tried out right telling my mother what I would do in her shoes, I tried asking her what she wanted my sister to learn in life and how my mother could teach/show my sister these things through her parenting, I tried giving her resources like books and websites... nothing worked. She would agree in theory, but then say that it was too hard to punish my sister, that she didn't want to push my sister away by being TOO strict (which is outrageous because she had only a few rules and NO CONSEQUENCES for breaking them! She wasn't strict at all!)

Thinking back on it now is getting me all worked up again. I think that you eventually need to realize that there's nothing you can do. You can give your parents advice and tell them what to do until you're blue in the face, but they will keep doing what they're used to doing and what they're comfortable doing. Tell your parents one last time what you think they should do and then stop talking about it. If they come to you for advice, refuse to talk about it and remind them of how your previous conversations went. It will be really hard, but there is nothing else you can do and getting yourself worked up and frustrated won't help anyone, least of all yourself. Take a step back and let them learn the hard way. This is what I wish I had been able to do. If you can't be at home without commenting, maybe you should stop going home for a while. It will preserve your sanity and that's really the only thing you can do right now.

Sorry for the tl;dr. This question just really struck a chord with me. This was me, two years ago.
posted by Nickel at 7:05 PM on December 28, 2007

2nd desjardins
posted by rhizome at 7:48 PM on December 28, 2007

Nthing that you can't do anything about this except distance yourself from it.

If you insist on doing something anyway, I suggest getting your parents to agree on a deadline for your brother to be back on his own feet, which they can present to him. The deadline should be non-threateningly in the distant future (eg six months away for example), and he has to be out of their house, earning his own way by then, or they will kick him out, (whereupon he can start burning through his friends by couch-surfing until they never want to see him again, or buckle down. Friends, unlike parents, can be pushed too far). Have your brother agree that the time-frame and deadline is fair.

Now, something that is also happening is that your parents are coddling him because they no-longer feel able to stand up to him. They won't put their foot down because they can't, they don't know how, and if they tried without backing down, and failed, it would cement their position as his bitch. So they prefer to think they are his bitch by choice, and thus still have some say in the matter, an illusion maintained by not exercising that say.

The usefulness of the deadline here is that it is a simple eviction, and so they don't need to do the dirty work - if the deadline arrives and he isn't out and won't take his stuff and go, they can have the police remove him from their property - they have a way to not back down, and NOT fail while not backing down. A way to no-longer be his bitch. The important thing is to get the parents to promise you and each other (while it's still safely six months before the deadline and they're still assuming it won't really come to that) that they will use the police assistance to evict on the deadline if necessary.

Now, they're somewhat spineless in this matter, and left to their own devices will not have the eviction enforced, and let the deadline pass. And perhaps even schedule another one. And another. So you have to make it clear to them that you are going inflict consequences on them if they break their agreement with you (their agreement with you is that they will stop ruining your brother, the deadline is their means, and you will enforce their agreement with you). Those consequences are up to you, but they will probably be something like you cutting them out of your life - unless they follow through and fix what they're doing to your brother, they will lose you. Because you can't (and shouldn't have to) deal with the stress that their inaction is causing you, nor watching your brother flush his future down the drain.
Maybe it's a bet - you bet your dad $500 he doesn't have the spine to call the cops on the eviction, if it comes to that.

If you can't enforce their agreement with you, they almost certainly won't enforce the agreement with your brother, and they are his bitch.

In all this, I'm giving the parents are getting the flack, instead of the brother who is causing the prolem. But unless you have real leverage over your brother, you've got nothing there - your talks might help, they might not. It's up to him, not you. Giving him a few months to get his ass into gear before kicking him to the curb, by contrast, is something that is not up to him and is quite doable. You might want to check tenant law, as your parents might have to give him written notice of the deadline if the police are to be involved. (You can probably cover this without alarming them by discussing it in email, cc'ed to him and them, and then printing out your copy of one of the parties agreement in reply :)

Once you have the deadline set up, and you are able to enforce it's commitment, then let it all go until then. If your brother does nothing, that's ok - he might decide he needs a few months break before getting serious. Don't be pissed off at him for it. Don't be expecting him to stop being lazy immediately, mentally check out of the problem until the deadline. Then it's guns blazing.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:04 PM on December 28, 2007

I am in a very similar situation with my parents and younger brother right now, and I have to tell you honestly, giving my parents my (also solicited) opinion about what they should do with him has ended up ruining my own relationship with them. the fact of the matter is that even if they ask, they just don't want to hear that the way they raised their son is quite likely the reason he's acting the way he is. In situations like this, emotions run high. it's hard to change typical patterns of behavior in times of calm, but when people get stressed they retreat to familiar strategies. you're probably right that the fact that your parents have never set boundaries for your brother has a lot to do with his repeated failures and his lack of responsibility. and while it sucks that there's a double standard in the way they treat him and you (and I really empathize with you there, because it's exactly the same in my family), in the end the only one who is losing out is your brother, because it's his own life he's wasting.

In the end, he's your brother, but he's not your kid. it's up to your parents to decide what they will and will not stand from your brother. at some point, trust me, they will draw the line (in my parents' case, they eventually told my brother to go back to school, which they paid for, or risk being disinherited). Your desire to help change things could be a manifestation of your desire to take control of the situation, which you perceive as spiraling out of control, but in reality you are the person with the least amount of influence here. Real change has to come from either your brother or your parents, and even if you find it incredibly frustrating that they don't seem to be doing a damn thing, creating friction over it won't help anything and might just create resentment. The advice that other people have given to just detach and let it go is probably your best course of action here. I know that it feels so unfair that the prodigal younger brother continues to be indulged even while you make good on your life - trust me, I am feeling the exact same thing right now. but your desire to change the situation is ultimately about wanting your parents and brother to do what you think is right, and they will only ever do what they want to do.

As for your brother, it does suck to sit by and watch him throw his life away but again, your options for controlling his behavior are limited. he has to want to change for himself and I hope that "setting a positive example", as other posters have suggested, will help. at least he seems to understand that his current situation isn't a tenable one, and I'm sure at some point living with your parents is going to get really old for him and he'll figure out what he wants to do on his own, whether it's go back to school or get a job.

good luck in your situation. I know I haven't offered very much helpful advice that hasn't already been posted by other people, especially because my own situation hasn't yet been resolved. but I know how it feels to be put in your position, and I really sympathize. it's hard to want to be there for your family and realize that your efforts are completely unappreciated and resented. I hardly speak to my parents anymore because I really feel like they've chosen to support my brother over me, and while I know he needs it from them more than I do, it just really, really, really stinks and reinforces a lot of inequalities and insecurities from my childhood. so I really feel for you.
posted by dropkick queen at 8:32 PM on December 28, 2007

It also sounds like on a certain level, the relationship between your parents and your brother is working for them, in that they are more comfortable talking about being tough-lovey than actually following through. Yelling at each other rather than discussing better options for work and home life with your brother. Looking for external movers and hoping that they won't have to do much to make the situation change. You are their default conscience but they don't have to really internalize anything you say, because you're outside the problem just by virtue of having a life that is moving forward.

If this is driving you nuts (and it drives me nuts with my own family and sister now), you may want to try therapy yourself to keep the bitterness from coloring all your family interactions. Because you cannot change other people, and at a certain point you just need to move ahead with your life. I could cry every day at how pathetic my sister's life is and how my parents continually enable it, but I have my own family now, who need me to focus on them. It's awful, and you may feel like you're abandoning the situation, but there's only so much help you can offer to resistant people before you need to walk along and re-focus on your own life.

Maybe there's a family friend who can give your little bro some perspective and a boost? My sis won't listen to anything from family but she is attending to someone outside.
posted by mdiskin at 3:57 AM on December 29, 2007

I think TPS nailed it. Give it time. We all have traumas and it can take some time to get over them. If he is the same way come summer then you can get concerned. (By the way, why do you even care? This is between him and them; your comments seem to me more about you resenting the extra tlc he is getting than about a real concern for his well being, although I could be totally and absolutely off base on this.)
posted by caddis at 6:43 PM on December 29, 2007

Your brother isn't "throwing his life away", at least not yet--spending a month being a bum at the age of 19 is not even a blip on the radar. With that in mind, it sounds like you may be refusing to admit to yourself exactly how much of your reaction is from jealousy. We've all had moments where we have to be the bigger person even when we don't actually want to be the bigger person (and would actually like to have that last slice of cake without sharing, thanks) but it sounds like you're going way overboard with it, if it's upsetting you this much, so you need to focus on changing your reaction to the situation, rather than the situation. (The situation will probably resolve its self without your help, although it may hurt you to hear that.)

The first thing you need to do is to detach a little (lot). You've got a long (19 year) history with your brother, which I'm guessing mostly involves him elbowing his way into your life uninvited. Sucks, yeah? So try and think of him as a neighbor down the road... So his parents got him a bigger present than your parents got you? Annoying, but I'm sure your parents were trying to do the best they could, some people are just damn hard to shop for. So his parents coddle him more than your parents coddle you? Sucks, but you don't do the things you do just because your parents wouldn't let you do anything else (I hope).

Don't do the right thing just because it's right, take a few seconds to appreciate WHY it's the right thing for you so that you can feel less trapped into being the responsible one, and more of an individual who chooses a certain path. (I share the last slice of cake not because mother said I had to, but because it gives me joy to see the person I'm sharing with enjoying the cake. I wouldn't really want to eat it all even if the choice was given to me, because I don't enjoy making others unhappy.)

And after you've made peace with that, accept that your brother needs to go through his own process of deciding what the right thing for him is. You may or may not be able to help this along (after you've stepped back a bit), but really, really, change only comes from within, especially when it's something as non-tangible as "you know you won't be able to live with mom and dad forever". (Well, yeah, sure, but what does that have to do with today?)
posted by anaelith at 6:59 PM on December 29, 2007

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