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Ask Dave

Mom Needs Boundaries

John says his mom is enabling John's brother and his brother's children. His brother is 58 years old. Dave tells John how to talk to his mom about this ongoing family situation.

QUESTION: John in Charleston says his mom is enabling John’s brother and his brother’s children. His brother is 58 years old. Dave tells John how to talk to his mom about this ongoing family situation.

ANSWER: It’s tough to get somebody to stop being an enabler because enablers are generally very nice, sweet people. Your mom’s probably just the nicest lady on the planet, and the problem is that she doesn’t realize she’s done great harm to her family. If she did, she’d be very ashamed of the way she’s acted. Then she figures out a way to justify it and says, “Well, the kids have to eat.” And I think we could figure out a way to get the kids some food without having to enable a 58-year-old parasite. I mean, really.

Fifty-eight years old. That just boggles the mind. I mean, it boggles the mind when they’re 28 or 38 and they still haven’t left Mommy’s basement, but at 58? This guy’s going to die a boy. He’s still not reached manhood. It’s unbelievable.

I don’t know. I think this is so insidious . . . what you’ve described has gone on for so long. It’s not like it was a one event. This is a deep-rooted pattern, and 100% of the problem is your mother. It’s not your brother. Parasites are parasites. They will suck the blood out of you if you leave them on there. It’s that simple. That’s what a tick does. So you’ve got to plug it off. She is 100% in control over this disaster and the cause of it, really. It’d be easy to blame him because he’s such an unlikable character, but—sorry, I know he’s your brother, but oh, my gosh. It’s just kind of sad and sickening, but . . .

So I think that the question is, “Mom, do you realize how much harm you’ve done to your son, to your grandkids, and now are insisting on doing to your great-grandkids? You have defined help wrong. You’re not helping. You’re bringing great harm to these eagles because they never learned to fly, so now they’re turkeys.”

If you can get her to discuss it, there’s a great book on boundaries. It’s the famous book on boundaries—Dr. Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries, one of my favorite people on the planet and one of my favorite books on the planet. Just a really, really good book. But somebody’s got to care, and that’s your mom.

She’s going to have to define help differently. She thinks she’s helping. She needs to learn that every time she does this, she’s harming. She needs to really grasp that she’s hurting her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. She’s hurting them. No money. Maybe food. And if the parents want to live somewhere else, I’ll take care of the little kids so the little kids aren’t on the street, but the grownups—they’ve got to figure it out. And you know what the weirdest thing is? They will. They’ll figure it out. They’ll make it. They’ll figure out something to do.

I would get her a copy of that book and get her pastor who’s helping her a copy of it too. Maybe that’ll help. Maybe she is turning. That’s great, but I’ve got to tell you, man, after 30 years, that’s very unusual. Most of these deals—they just pattern this thing all the way into the grave. If she’s at least understanding—grasping—what a mess this is, then maybe she can turn it around. But she can have you to support her because what you need is when you first start setting boundaries, the people who you’re setting boundaries with think you’re crazy, and they try to make you think you’re crazy, and you need people in your life who remind you you’re not crazy. So you can be standing behind Mom going, “Mom, you’re not crazy. As a matter of fact, to continue this is crazy because you’re harming, you’re harming, you’re harming, so we’re going to start helping, and helping is learning to say no lovingly and kindly—even firmly.” No. No.

And you stand behind her and remind her all the time that she’s not crazy. You can be her non-crazy cheerleader. That’s what you’ve got to have because when you set boundaries for these people, they’re going to go into orbit, and they’re going to act like somehow that what the things they thought they were entitled to—the behaviors they thought they were allowed to do—are no longer okay. Once you lay that out, then you’re going to get a negative reaction, usually anger. Once you tell someone you can’t do what you’ve been doing, we’re not going to allow it anymore . . . man, they go into orbit. You usually get this tremendous anger from people in those situations.

I’m glad she’s seeing a pastor, and the book I would recommend is Dr. Henry Cloud’s Boundaries.