Posted by fxckfeelings on July 16, 2009Share This Post
After our last post’s fun foray into terlet humor, we return to the more somber world of family dynamics. In this cases, two people learn that, while it’s always hard for parents to set limits for their kids, it’s even harder for kids to set limits for their parents.
I didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so I got a job at the local coffee chain when I was in high school so I didn’t have to rely on them. But I needed their help to go to college, so my dad sold some property to pay my tuition, and told me he was sure I’d succeed and he would expect me to help him out someday. After college, I went back to the coffee shop and became manager, and since then, I’ve actually moved up to a fairly high position in our regional office. I used to make lattes, and now I have a corner office and a car I paid for outright. At the same time, I became aware of how poorly my parents manage their money. They buy things they can’t afford and never say “no” to the other kids, no matter how stupid their requests. Then my father comes to me for money, always for specific bills he can’t pay, like the mortgage, or car insurance. But at the same time, he’s spending money he can’t afford, so I feel like I’m bailing out a sinking ship and my efforts are a total waste. My goal is to get my dad to understand that he has to budget his money and learn to say “no” and that I can’t continue to support him like this without going broke myself. But I can’t stop feeling responsible for saving my family from the mess they’re in.
If your dad could understand and accept the need for budgetary controls, it would have happened three major impulse buys/maxed out credit cards ago, so your goal as it stands now is useless.
Worse than that, even suggesting a budget to him will bite you in the ass, because he probably blames his problems on bad luck, not getting enough help, being too nice a guy, etc. So when you suggest, in the kindest way possible, that he’s a financial fuck-up, you’ll become the scapegoat. You’ll go from being the solution to being the problem so quickly, you’ll get whiplash.
He’ll see you as the ungrateful son who benefited most from his generosity, and now is too selfish to give back. You’ll get angry and pull away, which will unite the rest of family behind him, and leave you shunned, alone, and unable to give them help when they really need it. Your goal isn’t just useless, it’s the perfect shit-storm.
All this bad news, however, has a good side. It’s frustrating and horrifying that he’s misusing your gifts and making them useless, and there’s nothing you can do. But, if giving is useless, and there’s nothing you can do, then you don’t need to give him money in the first place. And you certainly don’t have to feel guilty about it.
In the short run, you will feel less guilty if you stay on as his little ATM that could. But then, when draining you dry doesn’t bail him out, he’ll probably blame you for having nothing left to give him, and your good deeds will be truly punished.
Instead, put the money he wants aside and wait until a real opportunity comes along, which is more likely to happen when he’s desperate and realizes he can’t rely on you for unconditional giving.
So your goal isn’t to appease your guilt or make him happy (while the money continues to disappear). It’s to do what’s right by not wasting your money until you can really do some good for him, while minimizing conflict, encouraging rational budgeting, and being a good son instead of a loan officer.
Prepare a statement that protects you from irrational guilt, whether from your father’s reproachful glances or your own internal voices. “I am always prepared to help my family achieve realistic goals, and am glad to have the resources to help them as they have helped me, but I must decide for myself whether what my father asks for is likely to help in the long run. If I bow to emotional pressure and give money that is misused, I will deplete my own finances and ultimately destroy his safety net, as well as mine. I should not feel obliged to explain myself if, by doing so, I open myself to additional pressure, argument, or blame. I am entitled to say, ‘no, as much as I wish I could give you that money, I can’t right now. But if you can put together a long term plan that includes your expected income and major expenses, I’ll try to work with you and your financial advisor to make sure all essentials get covered in the long run.’”
Ever since my dad died, my mom’s alone most of the time, and her drinking habits have gotten worse and worse, and I’m not sure what I can say that will help. I don’t know if she’ll believe anyone who tells her she has a problem, but I realize I’m the person she’s least likely to take seriously since I’m her youngest son (my older siblings are on the fence about her drinking—they tell me I’m probably right, but they all live far away and haven’t seen it for themselves, so they don’t think they can say anything). She’s a tough woman—I’m the youngest of seven—which makes helping her with anything just about impossible. My goal is to get to her before her drinking becomes really really bad, so please tell me what I can and can’t do to help.
If, by confronting your mother, you’re thinking about staging your own real-life episode “Intervention” (minus the gruff bald guy and the offer of free rehab in Florida), where you and everyone she has ever known tell her tearfully how much they love her and can’t stand seeing her do herself in, then you’re right, it often doesn’t work.
You’ve tried to assemble the troops, and alas, they’re deployed elsewhere. Even if you could, she might bow temporarily to the intensity of emotion, but then forget about it after everyone goes home. This is especially likely if she’s lonely and was willing to do it for them, but now they’ve gone home she feels abandoned again, so fuck ‘em, it’s time for happy hour.
Intervention can also backfire when, upon your insistence, she gets help but doesn’t like it. Then when she’s off the wagon again, she can tell you she did what you wanted, it didn’t work, you’re wrong, she still feels lousy, leave her alone, and freshen up this drink before you go.
Believe it or not, by giving up the goal of saving her, there’s much more you can do. Instead of pushing her to accept your belief, relieve the intense worries of loved ones, and drag her down to the path to sobriety as set out by A&E, draw on your knowledge of her values and thinking style to encourage her to start thinking rationally about herself.
Acting not as her son but as a friend and teacher, ask her to consider her own criteria for defining drinking as dangerous, unhealthy, or harmful to a person’s goals and priorities. Contribute your own thoughts about what such criteria might be, but make it clear that you’ll accept and respect whatever she thinks, whether or not you disagree. Provide your own take on substance abuse therapy while remaining calm, friendly, and accepting.
Your feelings tell you to save her, but you can’t; any parent will tell you that eventually, you have to let children make decisions for themselves, and sadly, you’re in the parent position right now.
So instead of aiming to save her, your goal is to provide her with tools for saving herself while conveying affection, acceptance, and respect, and never giving up, even without the cameras on.
Compose a statement that will protect you from your helpless need to heap on the emotional pressure and instead draw her into a dialogue about her drinking. “I want to share a concern I have about your drinking and get your opinion about whether you think that concern is justified. I’d like to know what would make you concerned about another person’s drinking. Do you get concerned if they stop socializing? If they lose weight or stop taking good care of themselves? If they can’t be trusted to take care of their grandchildren? If they get bruised from falls or stop doing the things that used to matter? I’d like to know how you would define excessive drinking and whether you see any reasons for concern in your own life. I have my own opinion, but I’m more interested in yours, and there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. I want to be wrong. But if you think there is reason for concern, I’d like you to define the safe limit for yourself and how you can monitor your ability to stay within that limit.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname