In the advice column Annie's Mailbox (8/7/10), a letter writer expressed dismay that his 20-year-old son bailed out of homeschooling by getting a GED. His wife had corrected all of his son's homework before it had been submitted, but the son still could not seem to handle high school. He now works just two hours a day, will not help around the house, and has an attitude problem.
The writer complains that his wife refuses to charge the son rent, and pays for his car, insurance and cell phone. The father had to kick the son's girlfriend out of the house and stopped the son from "filching beer from our refrigerator." His wife tells the writer to cool it when he gets upset. Meanwhile, two younger brothers are beginning to play follow the leader with their deadbeat slacker older bro.
Similar stories abound in newspaper advice columns. Just in the last 12 months alone, letters complaining about various relatives freeloading off of various other relatives were seen in columns by Dear Abby (8/16/10, 9/6/10, and 9/15/10), Carolyn Hax (1/26/11), and Amy Dickinson (4/12/11 and 4/16/11). Oh, and in Annie's Mailbox (on 8/11/10, 10/23/10, 11/24/10, 12/24/10, 1/10/11, 2/26/11, 4/2/11, and 5/12/11)!
I see the same thing going on in the families of my patients and in the families of people I have met in everyday life. Is it just me and advice columnists, or is everyone else seeing more and more twenty-somethings freeloading off of their parents with their parents' cooperation?
Yes, I said with the parents' cooperation. Oh, the parents may complain about their kids' behavior, but they never seem to actually do anything about the situation. Their children therefore tend to believe that they merely like to complain, not that the parents want them to move out and become independent.
The father in the Annie's Mailbox case complains about his wife's treatment of the son but does nothing to stop her from enabling him. It is the parents' behavior, as time goes on, that produces most of these Freddie Freeloaders and Minnie the Moochers.
I am also certain that if these twenty-somethings were dragged to psychiatrists, they would be immediately diagnosed as "Adult ADHD" or some other nonsense diagnosis, and the parents would then be reassured that they had done absolutely nothing wrong.
Why do children react to their parents enabling behavior in this odd way? Because the parents compulsively do everything for their kids and expect nothing from them, their kids get the idea that providing for children is an extremely vital activity for their parents.
If the parents fight over what to do with the kids but never come to any agreement or compromise, the kids think they like to do that as well. The "children" continue to offer up themselves so that the parents can continue with the role they seem to want to play so desperately. Far be it from children to deprive their parents of a cherished role!
Do children really give a damn about what their parents expect from them? Readers, what do you think?
So what is going on with the parents? Often, one can show these parents reams of expert opinions of all sorts that almost unanimously say something to the effect tha:, "If you don't let kids do for themselves, they never learn how." If you quote these experts, said parents will, more often than not, get extremely defensive. All the while, they will completely ignore the evidence.
The fact that the expert opinion may be correct is, as evidenced by their children's continuous helpless behavior, seems to means nothing to them. Expert advice goes in one head and out the other.
When some horrid psychiatrist asserts that the kids' failures are really due to some sort of brain pathology, and immediately put the offspring on medication, it obviously does not change the kids' overall behavior one bit.
Nonetheless, a significant percentage of parents will then hurry off to join the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation instead of looking at their own seemingly counter-productive behavior, in order to have their views reinforced by like-minded parents.
Actually, I disagree with the experts who believe that offspring growing up in this environment "never learn" to take care of themselves. What dysfunctional individuals are and are not able to do, and what knowledge they do or do not possess, is not something they are necessarily going to admit to for fear of not being able to continue in their role of "losers who are totally dependent on their parents."
Quite often they are secretly capable individuals indeed. How do I know this if they will not demonstrate competence nor admit to any if they have it? Simple. If they learn to trust a therapist, and if the therapist knows how to ask the right questions, they will then admit to said competence and then clearly demonstrate it in order to remove all doubt.
So again, what's going on with the parents? There are several possibilities, but the most common are three in number.
The first is sort of a pathological empty nest syndrome. These parents are so wrapped up in taking care of children that they would literally have an existential crisis if the kids left, and not know what to do with themselves any more. They might become extremely depressed.
If they are covertly conflicted over the very role of being a parent and feel guilty about those feelings, they may also have a compulsive need to parent and yet constantly be angry with their children for continuing to be around. This is the situation that is most frequently seen in offspring who develop borderline personality disorder (BPD). "Don't leave me, I hate you."
The second family dynamic in which a Freddie or a Minnie results is when the child is triangulated into the parents' relationship. They parents do not get along with each other but remain so focused on the alleged inadequacies of their hapless offspring that there is almost no time left for them to get on one another's nerves.
If the child "grows up" and moves away, they then start fighting with each other more and more.
In a milder version of this dynamic, an adult child moves nearby and is "on call" for the parents to mediate disputes. Usually it's a daughter but not always. Mom will come over and say: "Your father won't do [such and such] for me. But he'll do it if you ask!"
Said daughter will often not marry because when she asks Mom why she does not ask for help from the daughter's brother or sister, Mom says, "Well, she has a family and I don't want to bother her." In other words, "She has a family and you don't." Since Mom seems to need someone to do this, daughter takes Mom's statement as an instruction for her to remain single. Otherwise Mom is in trouble.
The daughter will accomplish this feat in a number of ways. She might choose to stay celibate, but if this is unsatisfactory, she may instead date - nothing but a series of commitment-phobic or married men. At least then she gets to have sex and companionship. But that's just a silver lining to a rather disturbing cloud.
The third common family dynamic is the most interesting. To the outside world as well as to the family, the parents appear to be taking care of their incompetent child, but underneath the surface, the child is actually taking care of the parents' emotional or physical needs. I refer to this shell game as Who Is Taking Care of Whom? The answer to this question depends on the answer to another question: Exactly which needs are we talking about here?
In my book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders, I described an interesting example of this. It is the story of a man in his late thirties who still lived with his parents. He would rarely keep a job for long, often stole money from them, and ran up significant bills on their credit card without permission.
Oddly, the parents always left money lying around the house in plain view, and never once called the credit card company to make sure he could not use their card any longer. They never once suggested that he move out. In fact, whenever he offered to, they would tell him that he was too incompetent to make it on his own. Of course, they certainly had reason to believe that such was the case, but from the patient's point of view, they did this because they secretly wanted him to stay there and continue his seemingly outrageous behavior.
During his therapy, the other side of the Who Is Taking Care of Whom shell game gradually emerged. The facts: The parents were elderly and lived in an extremely crime-ridden and dangerous neighborhood. Several other elderly residents had been burglarized and in some cases assaulted and almost killed. Almost all of the original inhabitants of the block on which they lived had moved out because of the escalating crime rate, but the patient's parents refused to budge. Furthermore, they were developing physical infirmities which made them easy targets, and would act in careless ways that almost invited victimization.
The patient originally presented to me as an angry and potentially explosive individual. Many of my office staff was fearful of him. In his neighborhood, he acted like a dangerous and possibly crazy fellow in many different and public ways that communicated a strong message that he might go postal at a moment's notice. His behavior said: "Do not mess with me." In all probability, because of this behavior, his parents and their house were never touched by crime.
Despite his angry appearance, he was in fact a highly fearful and non-violent person. His "false self" had the effect of protecting his parents from crime while at the same time making it appear to everyone else that he was abusing them and seemed to most others to be completely dependent on them. His apparent abuse of his parents took place with their full cooperation.