Dear Therapist:

My 27-year-old brother has become very stuck in his life and dependent on my sisters and me. He should be fully capable of getting a job, getting married, and moving forward with life. Instead, he has come to completely rely on his siblings for everything.(Our parents are sweet people but older and not so involved.) He sleeps in my sister's basement and eats the meals by us. He will occasionally get a job, but it never lasts long. His sleep habits are completely abnormal, and he gets up at crazy hours. He has actually started therapy twice, but it never lasted long. We care a lot about him, but we also realize that as long as he feels that he can rely on us it doesn't really give him any incentive to get his life together. At one point my sister asked him to find his own apartment but at the end of the day he didn't, and my sister says she could never throw him out. I feel that until we really show him that we won't bail him out he won't take responsibility and that means things might be uncomfortable for him for a while. My sister is worried about hurting him and feels we have a...[responsibility] him as siblings. Can you please offer suggestions that will help us navigate this in a way that is best for him?



Unfortunately, your brother's situation has become all too common in recent years. Many of us know someone who is being enabled in one way or another. Sometimes the behavior that is being enabled is drug or alcohol use. Sometimes it's another, seemingly less problematic, behavior. 

It can be easy to get stuck in a quandary, whereby we want the person to change the problematic behavior but we don't want to feel like we are hurting them. Sometimes the enabler is unaware of--or in denial about--the negative impact of their refusal to change their own behavior. Some people tend to focus on possible short-term consequences, paying little attention to long-term goals. Often, they are aware of the impact of their inaction, but are afraid of the immediate consequences of taking action. Often, the fear of a specific reaction by the person toward whom the action is taken overcomes any logical thought about taking action.

Sometimes people are afraid of an angry reaction. Sometimes, the fear is that the person will do something drastic. Often, however, the fear is not well-defined. For instance, your sister may be afraid that your brother won't be ok, without focusing on what might actually occur, and what it would mean for him not to be "ok." When we're not properly identifying a fear, this typically leads to two exacerbating factors. It usually causes the fear to increase. It also makes it more difficult for us to work through the fear in order to come to the proper conclusion.

The better that your specific concerns are identified, the easier it will be to act appropriately. Perhaps the best way to do this is to imagine the situation playing out. At each step, ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is. The go to the next step. For example: If I tell my brother that he needs to be out by the end of the year, he may not find a place to stay. For how long? How likely is this to occur? If this does occur, what will happen next? Where will he live? Will he live on the street? Typically, the more detailed your analysis, the clearer you become about your fears, about the reality, and about how realistic your fears are.  

It is also important to separate concerns that relate to ourselves from those related to the person in question. To what degree are you afraid that something bad will happen to your brother, and to what degree will you feel badly about yourself? Are you afraid that people will judge you for not taking care of him? Do you not want to feel responsible for his perhaps transient feelings of unhappiness? Do you feel a sense of responsibility based on your role in the family, and "letting your brother down" is in opposition to this. Again, the concept is to analyze the situation and your emotions to the degree possible. The better your handle on both your own emotions and your fears about your brother, the more likely you are to take the appropriate action.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200