Dear Dr. Wes & Sam: My brother has become less caring and more distant from the family in recent years. Over spring break I tried to get him to come with me to visit our mom, who moved almost 200 miles away last August. The last time he saw her was last Christmas. I’ve felt bad for my mom because she tries to stay connected via texts, Facebook, phone, etc., but he just never responds. Everyone in my family has tried to get him to spend some time with her. He also refuses to spend time with the rest of us. When he does, he argues and curses us over small things like haircuts and taking out the trash. How do I get him to stop avoiding our family and his angry behavior?
Samantha: It sounds like your family has tried to reach out to your brother, even after he’s treated you badly. I suspect his attitude has little to do with you and much more to do with other issues. For this reason, I hope you and the rest of your family do not take his withdrawal personally.
Try to find out what’s going on in his life without badgering or seeming intrusive. Be like a ballerina; tread lightly, but with purpose. Offer to meet him for lunch or arrange a phone call at his convenience, but set a specific time and date so he can’t blow you off. Keep things casual at first to start building rapport and trust. Wait until the second or third lunch to bring up serious issues.
If your brother refuses to communicate with you or share what’s bothering him, consider approaching his friends and others he’s close to. They may have inside information that can help you discover what your brother is going through so you can help find some solutions. This might make him mad, but at least he will know you care.
If he’s still unresponsive, you have done all you can possibly do. Let him know that you care, you love him, and you will be there when he is ready to talk about whatever is bothering him.
However, you also need to tell him that he is reached a point where, if he continues to treat you poorly when he visits, you won’t be inviting him anymore. Let him know that he is at risk of harming important relationships with his family, and you really don’t want that to happen. Make sure he knows that, as long as he treats you respectfully and kindly, he is always welcome.
Wes: I’m taking a very different tack here, not because I disagree with Sam’s perspective, but because I want to broaden it. Unfortunately, you left out two extremely important details: your brother’s age and why your mom lives 200 miles away. I’ll try and work around that by making some assumptions based on your letter. First, that he is a late teen and free to decline visiting your mom, and second that your mom did not just up and leave the family or divorce your dad and move. If I’m wrong on either point, then your whole family needs to head to the therapist, pronto — even if mom only joins you on Skype. Feel free to write back if we’ve missed your point.
Whether you like his behavior or not, your brother may be acting out unresolved conflicts with your mom, even if she had no choice but to move away, perhaps for work. That’s a serious problem for many families in this time of recession. It’s a horrible decision to have to make and should be avoided if at all possible, but sometimes it’s necessary for survival. That choice should only be made after getting everyone else on board and acknowledging the impact it will have. Regardless of the reason for your mom’s departure, your brother strikes me as one angry guy, and your family owes it to him to try and find out why.
Here’s where age makes a difference. If he’s under 18 and living at home, he needs to either pull it together or be required to see a therapist to help him do so. Unless a parent has done something terribly unjust or grossly inadequate, a child is obligated to work toward reconciliation, just as is a parent. Even if he’s a young adult, someone needs to clarify that same obligation, and the family should put substantial pressure — economic, emotional, logistical — to force the issue. That DOES NOT mean your brother is not entitled to his feelings or ways of seeing the world. In the end nobody has control over that, except him. But growing up means dealing with conflict, and he isn’t. He’s just creating it, and apparently nobody knows why.
It is also the obligation of the family to see that every member exists in a reasonably just environment. Obviously not everything is “fair” in life. If your mom has to live 200 miles away, that’s unfair to everyone, including her. But the real question your brother may be facing is whether his best interests were taken into account in making that decision. If they were, then he needs to understand those circumstances and come to terms with them. If they weren’t, then your family will be struggling for some time with your brother’s issues.
Next week: We will (hopefully) announce the contest winner.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.