Are you a Reckless Rescuer?

Margo didn’t really want therapy for herself.  She had called about her 23 year-old son, Stephan.  She was hoping I’d see him for therapy to help “straighten him out”.  I told her I don’t work with kids that age if they are still living at home and financially dependent on their parents, which was the case with Stephan.  I suggested if Margo wanted to help her son, she could consider coming in for sessions herself; if she addressed her behavior in relation to Stephan, maybe things would improve.  She was doubtful, but agreed.

Once in therapy, Margo disclosed her feelings of frustration with Stephan.  He was lazy, selfish and argumentative.    She had tried everything to help him “grow up”, to no avail.  She told me, “Just last week I had to call the boss at his new job and tell the man Stephan was too sick to come to in.  Of course he wasn’t really sick, he was hung over, but I didn’t want him to get fired again so what choice did I have?!”  I asked for other examples of how she’d tried to help her son to become more responsible and conscientious.  Funny, every example seemed to be about Margo being responsible and conscientious!  She took him to the DMV so he could get an expired driver’s license renewed, paid off credit card debt when he promised he’d never rack up charges again, and kept him on her car insurance even though his driving record was so bad she could barely afford the monthly premiums.  She found marijuana in his bedroom and threw it away.  She also let his girlfriend sleep with him in her home, saying, “I hate condoning this, but they’ll just be together somewhere anyway”.  These stories went on and on.  I explored with Margo if this type of parenting was really effective.  She said, “I don’t know, but I do know I’m not going to abandon my son like his bum of a father did.”  What came out was Margo’s resentment at her ex-husband for cutting off contact after the divorce when Stephan was just 4 years old. She lived in terror that if she didn’t keep intervening between Stephan and the consequences of his actions, something terrible might happen to her only son.

When Margo said she would do anything in her power to help Stephan, but didn’t see how she could get him to grow up at this late stage, I gave her my grand pronouncement: “Margo, you are a loving and devoted mother, but did it ever occur to you that you are a Reckless Rescuer?!  Your actions around Stephan are all based on your anxiety and fear rather than rooted in your values and good decision-making.”

I got lucky in working with Margo-she was very motivated to improve the situation in her home, and more than willing to look at her part in the dynamic with her son.  This isn’t so easy for everyone.  I know that when a parent is convinced that the problem lies exclusively in the child-his or her genes, temperament, diagnosis, or some other trait independent of the environment of the home, it will be much more difficult for this parent to adjust his or her thinking to a family systems perspective.  Not so with Margo.  When she really thought about it, she WAS ready to let go.  She got on board with a more “tough love” philosophy and made a plan to get Stephan out of the house.  As anticipated, his behavior got worse before it got better; he got a DUI, lost his job, and refused to talk to Margo, even when she spoke directly to him.  She held firm.  She had come to understand her pity and fear had actually undermined her son’s ability to cope with life.  She was determined to stay the course, appeal to the best in Stephan, and let him find his own way.

As part of this effort, Margo put more energy into her own life.  She re-connected with old friends, started an exercise regimen, and joined a book club.  She felt freer and better than since she had first married, so many years ago.

Stephan eventually pulled himself together.  He got a job, enrolled in Community College, and moved out with a friend.  His choices were not Margo’s preference-she wasn’t too keen on the friend and some other aspects of Stephan’s life, but she could see he was doing better.  At least they could have a conversation without arguing.  Stephan even seemed to like visiting with his mother, which made her very happy.  Time will tell how things turn out for Stephan, but at least now he has a chance to discover his own path, and so, finally, Margo can too.


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