May – Setting Boundaries with Allison Bottke

Q. I can hardly believe I am writing these words but I’ve hit a wall. My husband and I have just returned home from an attorney’s office. Unbelievably, not a divorce attorney, but a bankruptcy attorney. Hal and I have always made good money, paid our bills on time, gave to charity as we could, and tried to teach our children these same moral principles. Our oldest—a daughter is remarkably responsible with her finances and always has been. She is married, she and her husband have built a beautiful home, have good credit, and two children. Our son, age 28, is the opposite. Even as a teenager with a part time job, we were always “loaning” him “ten for gas…otherwise I can’t get to work.” He enrolled in college but keg parties took priority to studies and he dropped out, leaving us with the bill. He’s now enrolled and dropped out of college three more times, has started two failed businesses, and has fathered a child by a woman “he” supports but did not marry. He lives in a small house we bought and furnished. He promised to pay rent but it’s like pulling teeth every month! Why we’ve allowed his bills to become our bills, I don’t know. I only know we’re now about to lose everything and have been forced to file bankruptcy. Is there any hope?

A. I cannot begin my response without first telling you how sorry I am you’ve had to make this life altering step. It’s one none of us who have responsibly made our livings and paid our bills would ever want to take. But as responsible as you were with your finances, you were irresponsible with your son’s.

Your son was demonstrating a pattern in high school which should have been recognized but wasn’t. The first time he said, “Can I borrow a ten?” might have been fine, but when the second time rolled around the answer should have been, “No.” When he woefully cried, “But I’ll lose my job!” you would have said, “I hope you can get another one soon.”

While you may be thinking, “But that was more than a decade ago!” allow me to remind you that your response and reaction to your son’s negative behavior has not changed in all this time.

First, you and Hal must agree to stop the flow of money! Secondly, find out what the real estate rental laws are in your state. The next time the first of the month rolls around, and you have not received rent from your son, follow the procedures with him as you would anyone else. He may not like you for a little while, but I promise you he will thank you in the end.

I must address the issue of your grandchild, which complicates things for you, I know. While you certainly don’t want your little one doing without food or other basic necessities, you must stop paying your son’s child support. Ask yourself, “What will happen if he doesn’t pay?” The mother of his child will then make her own adult decision as to whether to take him to court or not. In the meantime, let her know you are there if anything critical should arise. Otherwise, financial support is between her and your son.

Finally, I strongly advise you and Hal to sit down and write out an agreement between the two of you, followed by an agreement between you both and your son. This should include a list of all the things you will not do for your son again. Then stick to it! Find or begin a support group (remember my SANITY method) in your area for those times when you feel yourself weakening to enable your son. Above all, allow your son to fail on his own and then to pick himself up on his own.

– Respectfully, Allison

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