By Dr. Ken Druck,
author, Raising an Aging Parent
I’ve learned a great deal about the difference between support and enabling in my 40 years of coaching. And there are few places where this difference is more important than in our families.
Some parents face the unwelcome and daunting challenges of raising a special needs child. Loving, caring for, supporting a child who suffers from a physical disability, mental illness, substance abuse problems calls for parenting sacrifices most of us cannot even imagine. Dealing with learning disabilities, autism, antisocial behavior and other arduous conditions that impair a child’s ability to function is not something any of us are prepared for. As parents age, the demands of helping special needs children, now adults, achieve and maintain some degree of social, emotional and/or financial independence can be all-consuming.
There are moms and dads who rise to the occasion, devoting a good part of their own lives to the support, care and well-being of their special needs child. Making sacrifices that most of us cannot even imagine, they search for the resources to help their child find a place in the world. At the other end of the spectrum are parents who are overwhelmed by their son or daughter’s special needs and bail out, abdicating responsibility and distancing themselves. They may even deny that there is “a problem,” enroll another one of their children as a caregiver, ship their marginally-functioning child off to boarding school or engage in endless arguments with their spouse about who is to blame.
Some mothers and fathers deal with their special needs child quietly, and often undetectably, by enabling them. Rather than directly addressing their child’s needs, fostering confidence and independence, and instilling an ethic of self-reliance in their child as they get older, they perpetuate “the problem” by teaching them to act helpless, weak, and dependent. Granted, not all children are functionally capable of being independent. And not all parents have the resources necessary to support, train and educate their child to one day become independent.
Parents who enable, however, populate the world with socially and emotionally immature and functionally inept young adults who may or may not possess the ability to take some degree of responsibility for themselves. Intent on saving, rescuing and being a safety net for their special needs child, they may never find out. Kids who have never done a hard day’s work in their lives may never find out what they’re capable of because mom and/or dad was always there to do it for them. In a culture that prides itself on staunch self-reliance, special needs children may be looked down upon as “Spoiled brats” and “Trust babies” with silver spoons in their mouths. As they grow into adulthood, they may feel fragile, frightened and become reclusive. Or be arrogant, entitled masters of manipulation in their families and society.
Special needs children can also become a source of contention, jealousy and conflict in their family. Married couples can be splintered when one parent becomes “the savior,” justifying their hovering behavior at every turn. And the other becomes the “heavy,” demanding accountability. Brothers and sisters can also be deeply affected by their special needs brother or sister’s “favored child status” or their parent’s negligence and enabling. Healthy competition between siblings and watching over our kid brother and/or sister is one thing. But parents who pit their children against each other, or who engender a false sense of responsibility in their children and teach them to be enablers is another.
As they enter young adulthood, kids may pack up and move a thousand miles away or become dangerously entangled in the family drama. In the movie Love Actually, for example, a pathologically-devoted big sister elects to take a phone call from her chronic schizophrenic brother who is in a psych ward rather than continuing to make love to the man of her dreams who is finally in her arms. Her compulsion to save her brother wins out and she loses a chance at the love she has always longed for.
Co-dependency runs deep in our families and can destroy otherwise loving relationships if left unattended. Freeing ourselves of self-limiting and destructive enabling behavior can be painfully difficult. And it may take a lifetime to free ourselves. Ask anyone who summoned the strength to finally say “no” to a drug-addicted or alcoholic member of their family and they will tell you, “It’s worth the effort. Saving ourselves by drawing lines in the sand with family members who are unwilling or incapable of doing so themselves is the only path forward.”
How a family handles a special needs child, whether they become an asset, liability or point of conflict becomes even more of a factor as parents age. Not only is an aging mother or father’s ability to care for a dependent, special needs child diminished, they themselves are in greater need of love, care and support than ever before.
My coaching client, Jim’s, 84-year-old dad suffered a debilitating stroke and could no longer take care of his younger brother, Jerry, a 57-year-old unemployed, alcoholic who had moved in with his aging parents after his divorce. Although Jim had begged his dad to stop enabling his brother and insisted on getting him into a local treatment program, neither his brother or parents did anything. Despite threats from his older brother, Jerry thought nothing of draining his parents bank account. Jim was furious. Standing at his dad’s hospital bedside, talking about “next steps” with his mother and brother, he realized there was nothing he could do to stop his father and mother from enabling their alcoholic son. They, like a cancer patient who lights up a cigarette as he leaves the hospital, would sooner throw their own health under the bus than deal with the Jerry situation straight up.
Jim’s dad returned home and died six months later. Forced to sell the family home, Jim move his brother out (kicking and screaming for his share of the sale) and relocated his mom to a retirement community where her sister lived. Jerry disappeared into the night, occasionally calling his mother for money. As angry as Jim had become, he still loved his kid brother. “Jerry’s a very sick guy. My heart breaks for him. But I have to live my own life to live now, and I need to let go of him.”
Without enabling parents to turn to, responsibility for the care of special needs siblings like Jerry falls to others, including their siblings, spouses and communities. In the best of cases, the care of aging parents, whether they have supported and/or enabled their special needs child, is taken up by one of their other children, a sibling, friend, grandchild or retirement community.
Here are a few tips for disentangling ourselves from co-dependent family relationships and preventing these kinds of family train wrecks as our parents get older:
- Uncover destructive co-dependencies in your family. Reset the terms and conditions for healthy involvement. Write them down and hold yourself accountable to begin living them.
- Learn to say “no” to your parents and siblings whether that means refusing to get sucked into a go-nowhere conversations/transactions, going along with old family patterns involving dishonesty, denial, avoidance, the use of hurtful sarcasm, humor and guilt and enabling.
- Redirect family members to the person they need to speak with instead of allowing yourself to be “triangled” into situations you have no business mediating.
- Learn, cultivate, practice and promote self-care, healthy support and compassion in your family and life in general.
- If you have a special needs sibling in your family, take steps to stop enabling them and set up terms for offering your support.
- Sit down with your siblings, if possible, and fess up to the ways you’ve been caught up in rivalries, jealousies, and games. End sibling wars and change the playing field to one of openness, respect, compassion and collaboration.
- Sit back and enjoy the benefits of having a loving brother and/or sister in your life.
One of the hardest and smartest things we can do over the course of our lives is to break free of unhealthy patterns in our family of origin. Rewriting the script for how things go down in a healthier, more direct and forthright manner is the way we build courage, integrity and successful relationships. And pay the best in ourselves forward to future generations.
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