When and How to Help

His brother was broke and in debt, having moved back in with their mother. After going through a divorce and a rebound girlfriend, he was left with credit card debt, no car, no assets, and, of course, no job.

His good-hearted brother wanted very badly to help out but realized that throwing cash at his troubled brother would solve nothing.

Their father taught them to save and spend responsibly, but apparently one brother got it and the other brother didn’t.

Ever since Cain and Abel, mystified parents have wept many a tear over the enigma of one brother turning out so very differently from another.

So first, it will help to come to terms with two truths: we may never figure out why two brothers turn out so differently. And secondly, the troubled brother may never change.

If any of this sounds familiar, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you, or any of us, deal with difficult family situations of our own:

1. You can’t fix someone else. Only he or she can do that.

The brother in this situation was displaying a lifelong pattern of serial irresponsibility. And let me be blunt – in my experience when a middle-aged man has not seemed to escape the gravitational pull of serial irresponsibility, it’s highly unlikely that he ever will. It’s not impossible. Just unlikely.

So, yes, you may be able to help, but only if the other person wants help. Real help. The kind of help that assists you in the act of helping yourself. Not the kind that does it for you – that’s not really help at all. That’s just enabling.

2. Everyone needs to learn personal responsibility, not just financial management. This is not about knowing the right things but doing the right thing. The first thing someone in this situation needs is a job. It may not be a job he loves or even likes for right now, but he needs to be off Mom’s couch working somewhere.

3. Some people surround themselves with people who keep rescuing them. Don’t be another one of those people. Don’t let Mom talk you into being one, and don’t let a misbehaving sibling talk you into being one. By definition, tough love is tough. Be tough.

4. You can love a misbehaving family member, even if they never change. Love means seeking the other person’s highest good – even if it means allowing them to learn some painful and experiential life lessons. Sometimes love takes a hard line, declining to enable while keeping the door open for what I’ll call “healthy-helping.” You might think of healthy-helping as the kind of helping that leads one step closer to an embrace of personal responsibility.

5. Love the manipulator – but remember the manipulated too. I told the responsible but big-hearted brother, “Hey, I sure don’t have to tell you to love your mother. But…love your mother. Love her enough to protect her from your brother’s personal irresponsibility, which could take her down financially and emotionally and otherwise.”

The first rule of lifeguarding is “don’t drown with a swimmer in trouble.” Any lifeguard knows that he might approach a seemingly docile drowning victim and, upon arrival, that same victim becomes violently aggressive, grasping on to the lifeguard, in an effort to save himself. And the result may be a double drowning.

Family situations like this are really, really hard. And the odds of success, I hate to tell you, are kind of low. You may love your sibling and want to help. And that is wonderful. Help him with all your heart…to the degree that he wants help, but not further enablement.

Just be careful. A drowned lifeguard does no one any good.

Offering you Wisdom on Wealth, I’m Byron Moore.

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