Mom refuses to stop supporting ‘problem child’ sibling

Hi, Carolyn:

I’m wondering if it would be productive to try and resolve some decades-old issues with my mom. My sibling, a “problem child” since childhood, is still dealing with a lot of issues — drug addiction, joblessness, mooching off my parents, etc. When I visited my parents a few months ago, my mother brought up my canceling a visit last year; I refused to go because my mom had, for the umpteenth time, let my sibling move in, who then began doing drugs again. She said that I shouldn’t be “meddling in her business” and that how she handles my sibling’s issues has nothing to do with me.

It feels as though my being a part of the family is conditional on my agreeing with her, or at least just not making any difference of opinion known. Is it worth it to try and explore these issues with her? As she’s gotten older, she’s gotten more unreasonable about anyone voicing opposition to her insistence on continuing to support my sibling, despite the fact that her efforts have done no good. I’ve worked on resolving my own feelings with therapy, and know that I can’t change her, and can only change how I react to her. What would you advise for talking this out?

— Revisiting Old Wound With Mom

I would advise not talking this out.

The talking is (potentially) just fine; it’s the “out” that concerns me, the idea that you’d go into a conversation with Mom with a goal to “resolve” anything.

Make peace with it, sure. Set a boundary. Develop a strategy for not reacting. Find a way to understand your mom better so you can respond to her better.

Those are all goals for you. To resolve this or talk this “out,” though, your mom would have to at least see your point of view, yes?

Going into any situation with a goal for someone else is a tough sell under the best of conditions, and by your description, the conditions here are an intractable, “umpteenth time”-kind of dynamic that your mom digs into only more deeply with time.

Especially given your family’s history of dysfunction dating roughly to its origin, you don’t want this to become your area of “insistence on continuing” where your “efforts have done no good.”

So I suggest you limit your goal to having an honest, productive response to your mom’s accusations — one that accurately represents your views. That’s your minimum, though done right it can have the bonus consequence of erasing the (need for the) battle.

To start: Agree with your mother in a limited and highly specific way. “You’re right, Mom. I shouldn’t be meddling in your business, and how you handle Sib’s issues has nothing to do with me.” Because she’s right. You shouldn’t and it doesn’t.

And then: “Likewise, how I deal with the situation is my business, including whether I cancel my plans to visit.”

You’re worried about your family, of course. But think of it as putting your oxygen mask on first. You can’t help if you’re not healthy yourself, and that means “opposition to her insistence on continuing to support my sibling” is not an act of correction, but of conscience. It’s an outcome unto itself.

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