Dear WholeFamily Counselor,
I have been married for 27 years and have three children and two grandchildren.
For the past four years, I have had nothing but difficulty with each of my children. My 22-year-old son is spoiled and abusive and one of my daughters stole $6,000 from me while she was pregnant. My eldest daughter lies to me in order to get what she wants, but I have to overlook her behavior since I want to continue to have a relationship with her children.
Although all my children are adults, two of them are still living with me and the other one is always calling on me for help. They use tricks and lie until I finally give them what they want.
I can't understand how this happened. I gave my children everything they needed or wanted when they were growing up. I had holiday and Sunday dinners. I paid for school, sent my kids to baseball and dancing lessons and took them on vacations.
Sometimes I feel that I must be the sick one, but my friend of 27 years assures me that I have done everything possible for my family.
How could all my children turn on me and hurt me so badly? Is it possible that all the people around me are sick and I am not?
A: I can tell from your letter that you are a caring mother who has always tried to do what is right for your children. It sounds to me like you may be suffering from a difficulty called co-dependence. Co-dependence means that you take such good care of the people around you that their difficulties start to affect your life. You could call it the "taking too good care of people disease."
Co-dependence is particularly prevalent among women, spouses of abusers (alcoholics, cocaine, etc.,) nurses, therapists, teachers, and moms. Basically anyone who believes in taking care of our fellow man.
The one thing you cannot and should not do is stop caring. What you can learn to do is simply say "No." You must stop helping the people you love with their difficulties until they start to learn to help themselves.
This does not mean, of course, that you should start randomly refusing every request. Choose your battles. Begin to set limits with your children. If one of them calls you when you are busy, simply say, "No, I can't help you right now." Even if he insists, stand up for yourself.
The word "No" can have an amazing effect on a person's self-esteem. What you might see once you start saying "No" is that the people around you will stop taking you for granted and start respecting you more. What is more important, you will start respecting yourself.
Your children are adults now and you need to let them take responsibility for their own actions. It may feel weird and unnatural at first, but once you start standing your ground, you will see that separating yourself from your children's difficulties will give you a new feeling of independence and self-confidence.
It is also important for you to insist that your children deal with the consequences of their actions. You cannot allow them to expect you to help them out either financially or emotionally every time they get into trouble.
I would also recommend that you consider finding a therapist that you like, can afford, and trust and tell him that you want to work on the problem of co-dependence.
Don't expect instant results. You have spent a large part of your life caring for your children and it will be difficult learning to "let go." But once you reach the end of this process, you will be able to feel better about yourself and develop a healthy relationship with your children.
Marc H. Garson MSW, ACSW, ACP