My parents help pay rent for my two older brothers, who are both in their early 30s. They also help one of my brothers with child-support payments he makes to an ex-girlfriend, and my mom got him a job at the company where she works. This frustrates me a lot, to put it mildly. I’m 29 and I’ve supported myself since college (not easily — I’m a social worker, and I have a lot of student loans). I’m not looking for handouts, but my parents have never even offered to help me financially. It’s like they hold me to a completely different standard. More importantly, my parents won’t be able to retire anytime soon, if at all, because of the help they’ve been giving my brothers. This has caused a lot of fights between me and my family, and I can’t even be around them anymore without making snide remarks. Right now my brothers aren’t speaking to me, and it’s making my mom upset. But I also don’t want my brothers to feel like this is normal and fine. How are they not embarrassed by this? Is it possible to resolve this, or do I just need to get over it?
No parent can divide their resources, financial or otherwise, equally between their kids with surgical precision. But there’s something about a glaring disparity, like the one you’re describing, that brings out your inner 6-year-old who just wants things to be fair. I’ve watched my most cerebral, mature, generous friends turn into emotional wrecks over this kind of stuff. (Not me, though. If, for example, my parents gave my brother a ceramic duck from their house that I didn’t even like, I would never mention it repeatedly and harbor irrational fantasies of snatching it for my own bookshelf. Definitely not.)
You are correct, of course, that the situation between your brothers and your parents sounds like bad news for everyone, with serious consequences. But shaming your brothers for taking your parents’ money isn’t helping, probably because they’re already ashamed of it. And airing your frustrations to your parents will also be a bust, because they must be frustrated, too (like a lot of people in their generation who won’t be able to retire as soon as they hoped). I guarantee you that no one in this arrangement is pleased with how it’s going.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that this whole thing isn’t your business and you should keep your eyes on your own bank account. But I can also see a hypothetical scenario where this could affect your financial future in a major way. When your parents do eventually stop working, who’s going to help support them if they haven’t saved enough? Just a guess: It won’t be your brothers. So you do have skin in this game. But if you’re going to steer this family ship in a new direction, you need a very different approach.
To gauge your best path forward, I talked to two financial planners who specialize in family relationships around money. Sarah Asebedo, a professor of personal financial planning with Texas Tech University, says she has counseled many families like yours. “Some parents try to be equitable with their children down to the dollar, while others give not just money, but time and other opportunities on a variable basis according to need,” she says. Obviously, your parents fall into the latter camp.
Her first piece of advice: Keep in mind that just because your mom and dad seem more responsive to your brothers’ problems doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate your good decisions. “Without knowing your parents, I can say from experience with numerous clients that parents are always bragging about their children who are independent, and lamenting where they went wrong with any children who are burdensome,” says Asebedo. Even as your parents seem to be enabling your brothers’ poor financial planning by showering them with rent checks, know that they’re proud of your successes — even if they never say so. (They may be trying not to rub it in your bothers’ faces.) Try to remind yourself of this as much as possible. It could help you keep your temper in check.
Next, Asebedo recommends following this four-part rule: listen, observe, respect, then counsel. When you blow past the first three steps and jump straight to judgments, then your remarks (however true) won’t land. “Telling your brothers they should stop asking for money and feel embarrassed by it is an aggressive conflict style that ends with one party winning and the other losing — a negative result overall,” Asebedo says. Your family will be more likely to hear you out if they feel respected, which requires empathy on your part. (Remember, empathy doesn’t imply agreement — just understanding.)
Right now, your primary objective is to mend fences. Pose open-ended questions and let your family members take the floor. It probably seems counterintuitive to give your brothers even more attention, but it’s the only way you’ll get theirs. Ask them about how work is going and what they aspire to do next; resist the urge to point out they’re a little too old to be getting handouts from your parents. Ask your mom about her grandkid; hold back on insinuating that your brother should be footing his own child-support bills. Focus on what everyone is doing right: Your brothers have jobs; your parents care about their family.
If you need further incentive to tone down your criticism, consider that it could be making the whole problem worse. Megan McCoy, a licensed family therapist who teaches financial therapy at Kansas State University, points out that you may have wedged yourself into the unfortunate position of family scapegoat, which gives everyone else a convenient distraction from the bigger problems. “Your reactions may have caused your family to vilify you, which allows them to avoid accountability for their actions. When the family focuses on how your behavior is inappropriate, it turns their attention away from self-reflection,” she says. This is a vicious cycle. The more angry you get, the more righteous your family will feel in fighting back and ignoring your points.
Also, remember that you don’t know the full picture of what’s driving your parents’ decisions, and they might surprise you. “Perhaps your parents feel like they somehow failed your brothers in childhood and want to make up for it now,” says McCoy. “It could be that they were less financially stressed by the time you came around, and so they were able to offer you certain opportunities that they couldn’t give to their older kids.” It’s just conjecture, but knows? Their motivations are surely complex.
As for your parents’ retirement: This is a legitimate concern, but also one that you can only do so much to control. McCoy suggests introducing the topic like this: “I know I became really frustrated in the past about you supporting my brothers. Some of that came from the jealous part of me, but it also came from a place of concern. Can we sit down and talk about your retirement plans so that I no longer have this anxiety around the financial support you are providing them?” This way, the conversation comes from a place of common interests rather than wanting to prove anyone wrong. “Your parents need to feel your respect,” McCoy says, “and you need to trust that they are doing what they think is right.” Even if you don’t always agree.