What to Do When a Family Member is Out of Control

mental health personal growth relationships May 31, 2018

For some people, family is the greatest source of joy in life. For others, it may be the greatest source of pain. For most, it’s often a combination of the two. In my practice as a psychologist and in my own arenas of life I have known people who were struggling with a family member – child, sibling, parent, etc. – who was out of control. Many of the situations these people face involve a loved one who is struggling with addiction, spending money unwisely, refusing to control their anger or selfishness, or who is living with a mental illness.

The almost universal question is, “What can I do?” Situations and resources vary from family to family, but here are some general principles that may help you when you have to make a decision about what to do.

1. Don’t do harm by becoming part of the problem. Harm can take the form of enabling unhealthy behaviors by lying to employers about absences, paying debts, or making excuses. It may also take the form of taking revenge for the pain and cost of bad behavior.

2. Set appropriate boundaries for yourself, first, then for the family member. Your boundaries may be the hardest to set because it may mean resisting a very strong urge to help someone you love when consequences might really be best for them. If they don’t feel the sting of natural or logical consequences – like getting fired, sick or injured, or experiencing legal problems or losing their family – they may never feel the need to change. If you “help” too much, you may prolong their misery.

Another boundary to set for yourself is consistency in your position that communicates clearly, “I love you too much to help you hurt yourself and others anymore.” Don’t try to manipulate the person with bribes or threats, and don’t over-pursue. For example, a parent calling an adult child every day to see if they’ve been drinking. Remember, it isn’t your job (and it isn’t possible) to control the life and actions of another adult. You have to accept that they have the right to make bad decisions. Letting them make their own decisions and live by them is ultimately an act of respect and love.

Boundaries for your family member depend, of course, on what the problem is. For example, it is completely appropriate to tell them they may not be in your home if they are drunk or high or abusive in any way. It may be important for you to take steps to protect yourself, your family and your home from a family member who has been chronically disrespectful, stealing or aggressive. Controlling when the person may be in your home or even changing the locks may be necessary in some cases. Another example is that it’s completely appropriate to discontinue financial aid to a family member who is gambling away their money, spending unwisely, not paying their bills or is unwilling to work.

3. Have the courage to intervene if the family member is a danger to himself or anyone else, even if you think they may not forgive you. Intervention may simply involve having a heart to heart talk with the person to state your concerns, clarify your boundaries, and offer whatever help you are willing or able to provide, like, “I will take care of your children while you are in rehab” or “I am willing to do some research into organizations that can help, but you must make the appointment.” In more dire situations, it may be the hardest call you ever make, but if you feel threatened and need to call the police, don’t hesitate because you’re trying to prevent your loved one from having a police record.

If someone is drinking excessively, using drugs, gambling, or engaging in other harmful behaviors, seek help to set up an intervention with the guidance of a professional. This is especially critical if there are children, elderly or other dependent people being endangered by your family member’s actions.

There are few things more painful than seeing someone you care about hurting themselves or others by their choices and actions, but by doing the right things – and only the right things – you may be able to contribute to making the situation better.

And let’s not forget that prayer is a powerful intervention that can change lives. Don’t stop praying for your family member and for wisdom regarding what you should or shouldn’t do to help your out-of-control family member.

No two families are alike, but we can benefit from sharing experiences. Would you be willing to share how you handled a situation with a loved one who was spinning out of control? Or what happened when someone loved you enough to intervene? Let us hear from you in the comments below!

Live, Work & Relate Well!

Dr. Todd

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