Is my mom's behavior towards my little brother inappropriate?
January 14, 2008 3:41 PM   Subscribe

My mom's quasi-incestuous behavior towards my younger brother seriously squicks me out. Is her behavior actually quasi-inscestuous? And what should I do?

Ever since he was about 10, my mom has behaved in pretty disturbing ways towards my little brother. It isn't the normal doting that mothers bestow on their youngest, favorite sons, I think. Examples include:

- Regularly climbing into his bed, refusing to get out because it's so "comfortable", making moaning noises, and asking to sleep with him
- Attempting to play footsie underneath the table at dinner (feet traveling up his pant legs, the whole bit). Every. Dinner.
- Trying to cuddle and touch his thighs, butt, etc.
- Pinning him down and kissing him, over and over, even when he yells in a very not-kidding way for her to let him go
- Extreme over-protectiveness
- Flirting

The touching stuff happens a lot less, now that he's older (over 18) and resists her attempts. But his independence visibly upsets her, especially with regards to dating and sex. Girls who date and are interested in my little brother are sluts and seductress whores, and girls he meets in college deserve any poor treatment he gives them because they were only interested in sex anyway. She really only displays this misogynistic double-standard towards women involved with my little brother--her views towards my other siblings and I with respect to dating and our partners are pretty normal.

Though her behavior is never overtly sexual, I don't believe any molestation actually occurred, and my little brother is by far the most psychologically healthy of any of us (and has no problem standing up to our mother), this behavior still does not sit right with me. Last time I came home I saw her trying to rub his upper thigh and it was sickening. Is her behavior normal? And is there anything I can do about it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if, not that this is any excuse for the kind of behavior you are pointing out, he is the youngest child, and so she is having problems distancing herself from him specifically because she has an empty-nest thing going on? I could see the criticism of his girlfriends looking more understandable when put in that light. As for the rest...well, honestly, it would squick me out, too.

What you can do: well, let your Mom know, when your brother isn't there, that her behavior makes you uncomfortable, and could easily be misinterpreted by others, and that she should think about being more discreet. Other than that, since he is over 18 and you don't think any actual abuse ever occurred, I don't think you have any other recourse.
posted by misha at 3:52 PM on January 14, 2008

No, this is not normal. Your brother's an adult now, and you say he has no problem standing up to her, so I'm not sure what you think you need to do. If he's still living there, and doesn't want to, help him move out. Let him know that you're there for him if he wants to talk about anything. I wouldn't bring it up unless he does, though.
posted by desjardins at 3:54 PM on January 14, 2008

No, this is not normal. I don't believe that it's your problem to deal with, though. He's an adult and appears to know that this behavior is wrong, and seems to be dealing with it as best he can (resisting, etc).
posted by chrisamiller at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2008

It sounds like your mom may be experiencing a condition known as Genetic Sexual Attraction and is keeping it barely reined in. Thing is, GSA is usually a condition of relatives who are separated when one or both are still babies and don't meet up until adulthood. There's a discussion of it in this AskMe thread, with a link to a particularly interesting Guardian article about GSA.

It appears to be quite common among relatives separated at an early age and reunited in adulthood (some estimates are 50%), but I don't know what the frequency is when that hasn't happened.

The only thing you can do to try to stop it is confront her, I suppose, but instead I'd recommend talking to your brother, feel him out on this. It's really his fight to fight, and it may encourage him to know that there are other family members who notice this behavior and are not okay with it.
posted by middleclasstool at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

No, it's not normal. I think you're pretty aware as you're describing it that it's pretty weird, but this may be one of those threads where a lot of people have to say "THIS is what's normal, what you are seeing is not normal." to make it clear that what you're seeing isn't normal. As an example:

When I was a kid my Dad would holler up to me and my sister when he woke up on weekend mornings and we'd go downstairs and crawl into bed with him (yes my parents slept separately, and I thought this was normal until I was in high school) and we'd talk about the day and play word games or whatever. It was a wake-up routine and petered out when we were in the double-digit ages which was probably appropriate. I hug and kiss my family. I do not touch them on the butt. I do not flirt with them. If someone who was in my family in a power relationship with me crawled into bed with me and would not leave, I would think that was inappropriate. If someone held me down and kissed me while I yelled I would think that would be "time for a serious talk with some other authoritative adult to figure out wtf is going on"

I think there are a few things missing from this scenario you outline that would help us understand it better.

- what does your brother think about this? Does he seem complicit? Disturbed?
- are you male or female? Does your Mom do any of this stuff with you? Is she even affectionate with you?
- What do your other siblings think about this? If Mom is playing footsie with him Every. Night. surely it's something you've mentioned to one of them?
- is your Mom married or does she have a live-in? Was she ever married or have a live-in of either gender? What did her partner think about this behavior?
- does everyone live at home or not live at home?

Basically there are a few issues

- is what your mom is doing and has done bad for your brother? Part of this depends on your brother's take on it and whether he has issues with this or seems unaffected by it.
- is what your mom is doing and has done bad for the rest of the family (see the favorite kid thread, this sort of thing impacts other people strongly) and what can you do about it? Having some discussions with your sublings is probably the first step here.
- is what your mom is doing and has done bad for your personal relationship with your mom? It seems like from what you've said that this squicks you out. That makes it hard to have a normal "you're the adult and I'm the kid" relationship with a parent, both with her being too intimate with your brother as well as just seeming to exhibit poor boundaries regarding what is sexytime behavior and what is not, basically what is a decent way for a parent to treat a child.

Really the first step is being assertive about what you consider decent behavior when YOU are around. i.e. "hey guys when you do that thigh rubbing thing around me it makes me uncomfortable, could you please stop? because you shouldn't have to just sit there and think "this is weird. Am I the only one who thinks this is weird...?" Even if you ARE the only one who thinks that, it's okay for you to basically say that other people are creeping you out and you wish they would stop. Then you have to be prepared for either having a talk about this and/or backing up your request with some action
posted by jessamyn at 3:59 PM on January 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

Normal is overrated. More importantly, your obviously biased feelings about this matter are totally irrelevant. This is a matter between your brother and your mother. If you are afraid your brother may be being abused then ask him. Most likely he'll laugh at you and you'll feel silly and that'll be the end of that.
posted by nixerman at 4:02 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

And what should I do?

Speak to your brother.
posted by fire&wings at 4:04 PM on January 14, 2008

Her behavior wouldn't be so weird if he were very young. My first thought upon reading your e-mail wasn't that this behavior was quasi-incestuous, but that she's behaving as if her son were still a baby because she doesn't want to acknowledge that he's a grown man.

Usually the kid puts the breaks on by about age 13 out of Total OMG Embarrassment that someone might see him as mommy's little boy. Your brother didn't...but what does he think of her behavior, anyway?
posted by desuetude at 4:11 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your mom may be experiencing a condition known as Genetic Sexual Attraction and is keeping it barely reined in.

Please show us the article in a peer-reviewed publication written by a legitimate scientist on this issue. Do you have one?

OP: I know AskMe is big on "Hey, who's to say what's normal"? But my family is of the co-sleeping, extended-breastfeeding, people stroll around without pants wacky hippie kind, and even I would consider it extremely odd if my mom had behaved that way with my 10-year-old brother. So I think that what your mom is exhibiting pretty much goes beyond the more loose kinds of physical affection you might find even in a more non-traditional family, and I would agree with you that on the face of it, it sounds somewhat sexually-motivated.

It may be the case, as others have noted, that your mom is just babying her youngest a little inappropriately and means nothing by it, but if you feel brave, I still think it's worth addressing with her. I don't think you need to say "J'accuse, crazy incest lady!" but even just "Um, mom, what's with the footsie? Don't you think that's sorta... creepy?" should give her a clue that maybe she crossed a line.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 4:14 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Please show us the article in a peer-reviewed publication written by a legitimate scientist on this issue. Do you have one?

There's a nicer way to make that point, but sure, here's a cite:

Post Adoption Incest and Phenotypic Matching: Experience, Personal Meanings and Biosocial Implications. Greenberg M and Littlewood R. British Journal of Medical Psychology. 1995, 68, 29-44.

And here's Greenberg's page at his practice.
posted by middleclasstool at 4:28 PM on January 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

Ever since he was about 10, my mom has behaved in pretty disturbing ways towards my little brother

This is the part that raises red flags for me. This was not how she acted when he was littler but something that happened at a specific point in his development.

And frankly the truth is that you do not KNOW FOR SURE that she never molested him.
posted by konolia at 4:28 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

women will occasionally over-attach themselves to their children for a couple of reasons: a) if she is single, it may simply be out of loneliness, or b) even if she is in a relationship, as a way of seeking out nonsexual affection.

i'm not married, but one common complaint among my married girlfriends is that the only time their husbands touch them is to initiate sex, and it drives them crazy.

whether or not molestation over occurred is a whole other subject. you may want to ask your brother about it. as for what to do with your mom, you should start calling her on her behavior.

what do your siblings think about it? has anyone else raised the subject?
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:40 PM on January 14, 2008

Your mother's behavior is way out of any frame which could define a healthy relationship between a mother and a son.

At this point in their lives, I think you should devote what energy you have for this to making sure your brother is all right-- specifically, all right in his relationship with women he has a sexual interest in.

Seductive and aggressive mothers are often blamed as one of the formative influences on rapists. Given our culture's tendency to blame everything on bad mothers, from the Fall to schizophrenia, and now even autism, I think this theory deserves to be viewed with great skepticism. However, some things in your question did alarm me:

Girls who date and are interested in my little brother are sluts and seductress whores, and girls he meets in college deserve any poor treatment he gives them because they were only interested in sex anyway.

Having your mother tell you all women you are interested in are 'sluts and whores' and be eager to dismiss anything you do to these sluts and whores as their fault because all they wanted was sex, well, that could be right out of a crime magazine.

I think you should observe your brother's behavior with girls carefully, and even go so far as to ask around among the girls in his circle, if you can get access, to find out the general tenor of his reputation among them.

If you find anything there that "seriously squicks you out" press your brother to get into counseling immediately. Press him hard.
posted by jamjam at 4:42 PM on January 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

This is truly gross and disturbing. I think you need to deal with your own issues with your mother. I'm not saying that it's in your head-- quite the opposite. But if your bro can deal with it, you have to as well. I agree with Jessamyn that you have a right to request some limits. Personally, I would ask for her not to talk about the whores and Jezabelles. Is your bro okay with women?

Sorry for your situation. I want a shower now.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:12 PM on January 14, 2008

This is a million percent completely inappropriate. While this may not be explicitly described as "sexual abuse" especially because of his current age, it's certainly incestuous behavior. I worked at an agency that worked with children who had been sexually abused (most often by close friends and family members) and I can say without a doubt that if this case came to us we would intervene, most likely with a recommendation to kid and the mom be separated (pending therapy and a change in the mom's behavior).

What I'd do is talk to a therapist about it in an effort to figure out how to approach either my brother or mom. There are therapists and agencies that deal with these subjects. Get info and advice from them. You can start by calling the department of mental health and human services where you live.
posted by sneakin at 5:13 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your Mom has some issues. I'd guess she's insecure and feeling powerless, and gets reassurance that she's cute, charming, attractive, fun, worthwhile etc. from getting a rise out of her youngest child. Fish in a barrel - they love their Moms but it's an unfair burden for her to place on your brother, and if it doesn't bother him yet, it will down the line.

My Mom does this with my younger sister and it drives me bonkers. I feel sorry that my sister has the burden of validating her and it makes me feel passed over and my Mom look like an idiot. Family patterns are hard to break but for the sanity of everyone she should stop singling out your brother and find more mature ways to make a connection with her family. You're all growing after all, and she'll lose your respect if she can't relate to you as adults.

Unfortunately, having that discussion with her is nearly impossible for you, as her child. SHe needs to hear it from a peer or professional.
posted by MiffyCLB at 5:53 PM on January 14, 2008

I find that disturbing. If a father did it to his daughter, it would definitely be disturbing. What does your dad say about how your mom acts? Do you have any other siblings that can confirm how weird it is.

I think your noticing it is weird (because you might be more forgiving since she's your mom, too) is really important to determining the inappropriateness of her behavior.

It's wrong. It sounds very wrong. Does your brother accept it sometimes or does he hate being around your mom?
posted by onepapertiger at 5:58 PM on January 14, 2008

This is wrong. Very, very wrong. My mother did similar things to me when I was young. It seriously fucked me up. As an adult, I've had a hard time with relationships and intimacy. Hell, just look at my post history. Or, if you like, you can email me.

She's what they would call a "seductive mother" and what she is doing is very very wrong. Talk to your brother and make sure he gets help.
posted by Jake Apathy at 6:01 PM on January 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

Is her behavior normal?

No, absolutely not, in not uncertain terms, this is extremely fucked up behavior. I have no advice about how or why your mother is doing this, but believe, it is not normal. She needs some serious help, but it's going to be hard to get her to see that, let seek help. Your best bet is to talk to your brother and ask him to talk to her.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:13 PM on January 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

As soon as I read this I thought of Jake Apathy's thread.
posted by nanojath at 6:34 PM on January 14, 2008

Your mother's behavior is seriously wrong. It could easily mess up your brother, especially in his relationships with women.

I was on the receiving end of similar behavior and I was messed up as a result. So I'll suggest you do what would have helped me: In a calm but serious way, make it clear to your brother that you think your mom's behavior is sick and not his fault, and offer him any support he might want.

He could easily deny there's a problem (it's loaded with shame) but on some level it will register with him that (1) yes, what she's doing is wrong and (2) someone in his family cares about him in a healthy way. If he doesn't want help, just say, "Okay, but I'm here if you ever need me."

The worst part of my situation was the silence and therefore complicity of everyone around me. So if you want to, please talk to your brother.
posted by PatoPata at 7:10 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

There is something known as "emotional incest" AKA having no boundaries. This can be overstated (ie, in the recovery movement, everyone seemed to be a victim of some kind of incest)-- but this seems like a very clearcut case. You might want to check out the research on that.

From what I've read, such lack of boundaries can be *very* harmful for kids, especially in the context of "all the women you like are sluts and whores." Even if there was never any actual sex, this type of behavior doesn't tend to allow children to know what is appropriate in relationships and can cause problems for the children not only in their romantic relationships, but in their relationships with their own children, should they have any. It can also produce feelings of being "invaded"-- with a result that the children are either way "too much information" in their relationships or too heavily guarded to generate or sustain intimacy.

But it seems to me that unless your brother wants to do something about it, there's not much you can do other than ask him and suggest that he get help. This may not be well-received because he may perceive it as an attack or as you trying to take something away from him, so I'd seek professional advice about how to approach it.

[And having just read Jake's thread-- yikes, I can't believe most people didn't say run from that therapist from the very start and I'm glad to hear you did. Recommending calm, nonsexual massage from someone who understands sexual abuse is very good advice-- but recommending illegal activity in that way and in this context is flat out unethical.]
posted by Maias at 7:12 PM on January 14, 2008

This is definitely inappropriate, and I say that as someone who is very affectionate with his parents. It's not the *volume* of your mom's attentions that is gross so much as the content.

That being said, talk to your brother about it first. Also, tell us about his relationships with girls-- good? Bad?
posted by ®@ at 10:08 PM on January 14, 2008

Upper thigh? Where? On top, on the side? Upper thigh can mean anything and might not be all that bad.

Well in truth it doesn't matter. If your brother is grown, then it's between him and her. You could ask him and even tell your mother that you don't want to see this stuff, but really it's their business.
posted by magnoliasouth at 10:31 PM on January 14, 2008

Look at it this way.

If you saw your brother hanging out with a girl he met in school, and she was playing footsie and tent-bed and putting her hands all over him, and then later on your brother asked you, "So, do you think she's interested in me? 'Cause I can't tell." -- you'd probably smack him upside the head for being dense, right?

Well, then, there you go.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:05 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not normal. Not okay. Read Jessamyn's answer. Read it again.

Good luck to you.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:00 AM on January 15, 2008

This is 100% not right. I think you need to talk to your brother (when my brother and I finally broke our silence about our mutual childhood/relationships with our parents, it was 100% constructive and mentally relieving that someone else understood), and then I think you both need to go and talk to a third party professional about the situation without talking it down as something that shouldn't be taken seriously.

If your brother does talk it down, I would make it clear to him that it's OK to change his mind at any point and come to you as a confident, and then independently visit a third party professional to help you deal with how you feel. You feel uncomfortable about it, that's perfectly valid and should be sorted out properly - and I disagree with the idea that it's not your situation to deal with - in a family, experiences are shared regardless of whether you're directly in the line of fire.
posted by saturnine at 8:14 AM on January 15, 2008

Way late to this post/thread. No idea if the original poster will read this or not but wanted to offer an opinion in case they do.

You may consider asking a professional , who is familial with this type of abuse, if what your biological mother is doing to her sons is incest.

Under the law, "child sexual abuse" is an umbrella term describing criminal and civil offenses in which an adult engages in sexual activity with a minor or exploits a minor for the purpose of sexual gratification.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is defined as sexual contact, ranging from fondling to intercourse between a child in mid-adolescence or younger and a person at least five years older (Briere I992, p. 4). By implication, sexual abuse occurs when a person is involved in sexual activity that they do not comprehend and to which they cannot give informed consent. Children should never be regarded as being capable or sufficiently comprehending of giving consent. (In NSW the age of consent is I6 for girls and boys.)

In essence, sexual abuse is 'the exploitation of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult'

Your biological mother is performing these acts for her gratification. She pins him down and refuses to stop, even when he yells at her to stop.

Imo, your biological mother is an incest perpetrator and what she is doing to your brother is committing pedophilic/ephebophilic incest.

"pedophilia...a psychological disorder in which an adult experiences a sexual preference for prepubescent children"

I use the term biological mother because I do not think she is behaving maternally, either towards your brother or you. This is not only emotional incest, putting down his girlfriends, which sounds like what a jealous lover would do. It is also *physical* incest. She is touching him in a sexual way. Footsie is a sexual game, as is pinning him down and kissing him when he yells for her not to do that, imposing her sexual power over him. Touching his thigh, his butt in the way you described is sexual. It's inappropriate. It's a violation of her role as a mother and his as a son.

It's also a betrayal of your boundaries because it is making you a witness to this abuse. Her doing this in front of you is making you complicit in her crime.

Your brother may feel paralyzed to say or do anything to stop this. It may be what he has experienced as normal. Should he come out of denial, go into therapy and realize what she did to him, own his feelings of rage at her betrayal of the role of mother, he may later blame you for not saying anything to stop this, for not speaking up. But, really, I don't think you can control either your brother or your biological mother. You can control your actions and set boundaries for your own life. If you cannot stand witnessing your brother being molested in front of you, say that. Walk out of the room.

These are links that may be helpful to you.
posted by nickyskye at 5:38 PM on August 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

*not familial, ach, familiar
posted by nickyskye at 7:28 PM on August 14, 2008

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