Updated on 11.22.07

Should You Help People Who Won’t Help Themselves?

Trent Hamm

When I was young, I was very, very close to a particular relative of mine. He was about ten years older than I was, yet he was always there for me in a very supporting way, almost exactly in the way you would hope a loving and caring older brother would be.

I have a very clear memory of when I was about seven and he was about seventeen. He was involved in all the typical things you would expect a high school senior to be involved with: work after school, hanging out with his friends, driving around in his old car, and dating girls. Yet I remember him clearly spending an afternoon with me in which we actually sat together in a sandbox making elaborate paths for my Matchbox cars to follow, and I also remember him showing me very specifically how to throw a baseball, including how to snap my wrist to make it go fast.

Over a period of years, though, he changed into a very different person. It was a mix of things, mostly attributable to drugs and a lack of self-confidence, but it’s resulted in a person who has very little initiative to do anything at all with his life, two children who receive only the most minimal of care and encouragement, and a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

I see him quite regularly at family events and talk to him about how things are going. He usually seems quite down about the state of things in his life, but even the most basic suggestions about how to improve things are met with extensive explanations about either how he can’t do it or else something else is holding him back from doing it.

I deeply wish to help him, but I am at a loss as to where to start. I’ve learned in the past that loaning money to family or friends is usually a mistake, and I would likely say “no” if he ever directly asked me for money (mostly because that’s a door that I don’t want to open).

I would somewhat prefer to simply give him money instead of lending it to him, but I know quite well that if I just handed him some cash with an admonition to use it well, two things would happen: first, he’d resent the gift and second, he’d spend the cash on drugs or something else entirely wasteful instead of using it for a foundation for life. Thus, I won’t be giving him any money to help any time soon.

What I would most like to give him is advice on his life, but he’s simply not interested in receiving it, especially from me. He simply doesn’t want to hear a word of it.

The question that really troubles me is whether I should just give up on the situation as a lost cause or not. His situation has really troubled me for a long time, because I know that deep down inside of him, there are a lot of good attributes, but they’re buried behind a wall of shame and self-destructive behavior.

My current belief is that I should wait until he hits bottom and finally finds some initiative to turn things around, then give him a helping hand so that he can recover from his state more quickly. On some level, it feels very cold to me, almost as though I’m sitting around watching an inevitable train wreck, but I’ve finally reached a point where I’m beginning to truly believe that you cannot help those who won’t help themselves.

The best thing I can do is keep talking to him, offering him very simple encouragement to do the right thing, and just waiting until he’s ready to start making the right steps himself, at which point I’ll be very happy to offer him a helping hand.

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  1. Celeste says:

    It’s hard to sit back and wait for the train wreck, but I’d argue sadder to continuously offer unwanted help and money that’s being flushed down the toilet. I would try and help his family for now, that’s how you can still support him and not get frustrated. Maybe someday he’ll reach out. I feel for you!

  2. Laura says:

    I think it’s great that you want to help him, but you have to realize that you can only HELP him, you can’t do it for him, and you can’t force him to make the choice that you would make if you were in his shoes. And as it currently stands, he is not willing to change himself, and therefore your offers to help are falling on deaf ears. In fact if you’re not careful you may do more harm than good: it sounds as though you are constantly giving him unsolicited advice that he does not welcome or want to hear, so he may simply begin to distance himself from you.

    I’m not saying that’s how he should respond to your offers of help, or that you are wrong for offering – it sounds like you have the best of intentions. But it might be more fruitful to just wait for him to ask for assistance rather than pushing it on him. You may see a clear path that would set him straight, and therefore feel the urge to constantly give him advice and reminders about this because you know it would help him if he would follow your advice. But if he doesn’t want to hear it, this will sound to him like nagging. And it will annoy him no end.

    This is a choice that he has to make for himself. You can’t control the choices of others. You’ve made it clear that you are willing to help him if and when he wants to take advantage of your offer. Now it’s time to step back and leave him alone until such time that he comes to you and asks to take you up on your offer. He’s an adult; he has to want to make the changes for himself, not because someone else told him to. And I know from personal experience with family members that people are generally more likely to want to make positive changes when left to their own devices for awhile; if they’re constantly being “nagged” to make changes, they usually resist the advice.

  3. Man, that’s a tough situation. I admire you for wanting so much to help. I also think that you’ve probably (unfortunately) got the right idea in waiting. But I also think it would be good to regularly let him know that you’re always there if he wants to talk or a shoulder to lean on (hopefully he hasn’t turned verbally abusive, if so then this may not be such a good idea). Perhaps you could also provide non-enabling help, such as a meal for the family or better yet inviting his family over for lunch or dinner. In fact, depending on how bad the situation is, maybe the best thing you can do is try to be there for his kids – this may cushion the blow both for him and for them when he hits rock bottom. In any event, best of wishes in this difficult situation. I hope your relative sees the light soon.

  4. smgirl says:


    I am in the exact same situation with my sister. She has a loser husband and 2 kids who don’t get the best from their parents. I have learned the hard way through many hours of stressing about it and lending her thousands of dollars to get back on their feet that it will never happen simply because I want it to. My husband and I finally had to cut off financial help because we felt that we were enabling their situation.

    The best thing I can do for her now, is to be there to listen to her. I often hear the same stories again and do make some suggestions but I know that mostly they fall on deaf ears. I will still be there for her anytime she needs me but I will never again lend her money. I am very close to both of the kids and they know how much I love them and spending time with them makes them happy. When she finally decides one day that she is sick and tired of being sick and tired, I will be there for her once again. That’s what family is for.

  5. kazari says:

    uh oh.
    I agree that you can’t help someone who won’t help themself. But giving advice never works, unless they ASK for it.
    I think the other commenters are spot on. All you can do now is be there to listen. But when he does hit rock-bottom, DON’T tell him what to do. Ask him what he wants to do and then help him do it.

  6. debtheaven says:

    As much as you want to help this man you can’t shove unwanted advice down his throat. He may resent advice coming from that little kid he played with so long ago. He may resent the fact that the little kid got his act together and he didn’t.

    Maybe you can help his children instead. I don’t know how old they are, but either buying them something they need or want (but only something that you value as well), or offering to pay for an activity or an outing. Are they teens? Could you “hire” them to help you with childcare the next time your family goes away for a few days? It sounds like the best gift you could give them is some of your own time, so they get another perspective on life.

    You’ve come a long way and it’s understandable that you want to impart your knowledge to people you care about, but alienating them would be even worse. Sometimes less is more.

  7. Michael says:

    This is a never-ending dilemma. I am a family doctor and regularly run into similar situations professionally. By nature, we are there to help those that come to us, but regularly we are confronted with self-destructive behavior that is the root cause of problems. It is an uphill battle and often you wind up only exhausted with no forward progress. In residency, one of my training doctors told me “Sometimes you care about patients more than they care about themselves, and it can make you crazy.” When you find yourself in that situation, sometimes acceptance that the person knows that you are there for them whenever they are ready to make a change is the best you can hope for. If you push too hard, some people will push back. Often they come around eventually, sometimes they don’t.

    It’s an old joke, but there is truth in it:

    Q: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

    A: Just one, but it has to want to change first.

  8. filipina42 says:

    I really feel for you because I was once in the same situation. Actually, my relatives took it one step further. My generosity was abused and then they spread nasty rumors about me when I refused. I finally moved out of our community just to have my peace of mind and to get away from the incessant knocking at my door asking for “help.”

    Though I was sorry that I had to do it, there was no other choice. We all have our own full lives and responsibilities without having to take upon the burden of others. It was taking its toll.

    It does not seem cold to me that you should wait. It’s only when he realizes that he does need your help will he be open and grateful for it. I envy you your courage to hang around and be by his side until the inevitable happens. Good luck and God bless!

  9. shelviaw says:

    I’m on a similar boat and after trying all sorts of things, I’ve also come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is to just be there for them and wait till they DECIDE to change.
    However, coming to that conclusion doesn’t lessen the guilty feelings of no longer pro-actively doing anything to help.
    It makes me feel MUCH better to know that other people with similar issues have the same idea on how best to handle this.
    Thank you for such a thoughtful post, Trent!

  10. catherine says:

    Perhaps you could do for his kids what he did for you – provide them with real love and an adult’s attention, i.e. spend time with them that he can’t or won’t. Your help doesn’t have to involve money at all. If you do want to involve money, maybe you could start a nest egg fund for each of them.

  11. plonkee says:

    You are almost certainly right. You really can’t help people who don’t want help. He’s an adult, and as such is entitled to make his own mistakes, no matter how much they hurt you and everyone else. Be aware that he may never quite hit the bottom, and hope that he manages to turn his life around, however that happens.

  12. tony says:

    One of the things I have enjoyed most about your website is that focus you put on the every day choices we make that while small at the time can become a huge boon or bane to us later on, and the fact that I finally figured out how to make bread even though it didn’t get big enough.

    I have had the same problem with my relatives and friends. I akin this problem in my life with a form of “survivors” guilt. So far through providence, luck, hard work, and/or wise choices I have managed to survive so far in this life mostly successfully, some of them have not. While it may or may not be their fault, it is definitely not mine (unless of course I did something to put them in that situation).

    My present and hopefully final answer when dealing with this problem is to be “cold”. I cannot control other people, therefore I cannot be responsible for the choices of the people in my life, no matter how much I want to be. Be helpful and understanding, help those that aren’t responsible for their situation (like his children) if you can, but at the end of the day it is about you and yours.

    In the immortal works of Snoop Dog “keep you mind on your money, and your money on your mind”.

  13. anon says:

    Be a friend, rather than trying to help him. Cheer him up when he’s down, not try to fix his issues. Don’t bring these issues up. Pay him to help you paint the house and share a couple of beers with him. Take him out for a god damn pizza. He just needs a positive outlook and sense of achivement again.

  14. Anne says:

    The other posts are all right, of course. What you learn in various anon programs is that you can “help” (nag, give advice, give money, whatever) until you’re blue in the face, but it’s only going to adversely impact you and not do too much for the person you’re trying to help. There are all sorts of slogans, but the three C’s–you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it–come to mind.

    I like the idea of doing something with/for this person’s kids–they’re your relatives, too. Or maybe you can just do something small but meaningful with this person–invite him (and the family?) for dinner or find yourself in a position where you need his help (say, working on a car or something). I think the important part is having a relationship with this person who was important to you–you don’t need to show off or give unsolicited advice, but maybe you can accept him and enjoy his company in some way just the way he is now.

  15. Andrei says:

    Learning is a matter of repetition. If you really want to help you should be around and should be a constant example. Don’t corner him into action, just be a constant reminder of how things could be different. Sooner or later it will click with him. You should probably try helping him solve specific mini problems. This will show him that you care. Solving global meta-problems is next to impossible with people who are lost. One thing I noticed with people is if you give them your ideas in a non-forceful manner – more like a story, they’re more likely to adopt them. The funny thing is, often after some time they come up to me and say ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea…’ and tell me something I told them a couple months back. So I’m used to giving people time to digest information.

  16. QuiteLight says:

    I read a comic (9 Chickweed Lane) a while back that said something along the lines of:

    “On civilized worlds, giving unasked for advice is a capital offence. If we cannot be this humane, then the accused is forced to listen to their own advice.”

    I keep this on my computer & look at it when the urge gets too strong.

    We mean well when we do it. But unasked for advice is usually ignored, so why irritate someone & waste your breath? Save it for when it’s asked for.

    Since I usually do it to participate positively in the conversation, I now try asking questions instead (non-judgemental ones, obviously, not rephrasing my advice as a question). It’s working for me.

    I wish their was an AA for advice-givers. I gave you advice several times in this post alone, before I edited it.

  17. JReed says:

    The frustrating part is that people like this complain but really aren’t asking how to solve the problem. And yes, they resent problem solving advice.
    I now try to ask point blank “how can I help you?” or “what do you want to do about this?”.
    I’m an action orientated person so incessant pointless griping irritates me.
    I also believe that people do not value that which they haven’t paid for in one form or another. This person will not value a given dollar as he would his own earned dollar.

  18. guinness416 says:

    The links to the lending/borrowing posts are confusing … he doesn’t seem to have asked you for money, and “attributable to drugs and a lack of self-confidence” and “a gigantic chip on his shoulder” don’t exactly seem a situation in need of a cash donation. The advice above to include and help out his family are really good.

  19. Carl says:

    The deeper issue here is whether he’s asked for help … and if not, why you’re trying to improve his life.

    Many times we think we know better than someone else, but we forget that it’s not our life … and we are better off butting out of someone else’s life and letting them live it as they please.

    Let’s not judge others because they don’t live life as we think they should. If they ask for help, sure, do what you can or what you feel comfortable doing, but don’t try to force your views on life and finances on others. It’s generally not appreciated — you wouldn’t like anyone to do that to you.

  20. vh says:

    Heartbreaking. I’ve been lucky with my relatives but have watched many friends go through what you describe, with adult children and beloved cousins.

    Just keep in mind: there’s only one person who can help this guy, and it ain’t you.

    And in the advice department, he knows where to get advice from you: http://www.thesimpledollar.com.

  21. Avlor says:

    Catherine’s advice of “Perhaps you could do for his kids what he did for you – provide them with real love and an adult’s attention, i.e. spend time with them that he can’t or won’t.” is absolutely stunning. It can be so hard for a person to break that horrible cycle. If the parents can see their way out of the paper bag, sometimes the kids can. It may give the parents a ray of hope too. I’ve seen this work out pretty well with kids I know.

    You most likely know that the chip on his shoulder is just a front, a self-defense mechanism for broken confidence.

    You’ve been seeing the situation clearly Trent. It’s so hard. But no matter what we want for others, we can’t choose for them. (Been there. I couldn’t beat it into their heads, no matter how hard I tried.)

  22. agm says:

    Be very careful how you handle assisting his family. Make sure you consult him (in a non-judgemental manner, which I’m sure you would do anyway)and get his agreement, or he will see this as another comment on on his inability to provide proper care for his family, whether it’s true or not. People on drugs don’t always see things rationally, paranoia can run rampant, and guilt can cause over-reaction. I know this from my own experience with family members.
    The others are correct. There is nothing you can do to make him change. You can continue to love him, and if you are at all religious, you can pray for him. Believe me, this would be much harder if it was your own child.

  23. Shevy says:

    @ Carl

    Societally, we constantly tell others how to live their lives by passing and enforcing laws.

    To suggest that the best course of action with a person who consistently takes drugs is to butt out and let them live their life is shocking, in that it suggests their choice is a viable alternative to how you or I choose to live our lives.

    That said, there are really only 2 times when you’re likely to have any impact. The first is very early on, before the addiction truly takes hold. The 2nd is when the person hits bottom. The rest of the time the drugs drown out everything you say.

    Trent, you’ve tried and now you’re probably going to have to wait for the train wreck. The best you can probably do for now is to try and prevent him from affecting others.

  24. Jeff Pershing says:

    This is a great topic and one that I struggle with all the time. I get this with my job all the time. I have found you have to wait for the person to hit rock bottom and let them go through it.
    However that is so hard to watch happen.

  25. karishma says:

    I agree there’s nothing you can do unless the person wants help.

    I’ve found, though, that the bigger problem is dealing with other friends/family that are determined that intervention is both useful and necessary, and who feel that you are being cold and insensitive by not getting involved.

    Even if the person in question is content or conversely too proud/ashamed to want to discuss their problems, I still have to deal with the constant updates from the well-wishers about their status and the efforts to fix their lives.

  26. mark says:

    I’ve been on the both ends of the situation like this and here’s what I can say; Do not try to help him. He is not asking for help and probably would also resent you for giving it to him when he did not ask you for it. But do be a friend to him. Listen to him when he speaks; really listen with your heart wide open. Cry with him when he cries and laugh with him when he laughs.

    Also ask yourself, are you open, compassionate and willing enough to be a friend to someone who is not as successful and life-wise as you are? Can you just accept this person as he is without tying to mold him into a “well-integrated and successful human being”? I know you want him to be happy and I’m sure he does too, but why push your agenda onto him? Why not just be there for him? I’m sure that if you would, in time he would open up to you with his pain and longing and eventually even ask for your advice on things you seem more wise at. But for now, I think he just needs a friend.

  27. quatrefoil says:

    I think that the best thing to do in this situation is to tell him that you care about him and that you’re concerned for, that you’d like to help him change his life and you’ll be there when he’s ready to ask for that help. You can say it multiple times, but that’s all – you just have to wait. I did that with an alcoholic friend – it took 10 years, but eventually she was ready to face her problems and came to me and others for help.

  28. m says:

    I believe that it is not our place to “solve” other people’s lives or problems. Not only that, but just because we may feel we have some or a lot of our own lives figured out does not mean we have that same type of knowledge and understanding when it comes to another’s life and actually do know what it right for them.

    There are many ways of being loving and supporting: such as actively listening, being there for someone when they’re down or need company, letting them know you feel for them, care about them, love them, etc. Spending time with them, supporting them in their goals for themselves, letting them know you are there to help should they want and need it (in the ways you can), etc.

    Unsolicited help and advice are usually just not effective anyway because since we can’t walk in another’s shoes, we really can’t know better than they what they need and ought to do. What we can do, though, is just walk by our loved ones and stay by their side as they traverse their path.

    (Kind of like that saying “Don’t walk in front of me I may not follow, don’t walk behind me I may not lead, just walk beside me and be my friend.” I think that is what most of us want out of our loved ones, just someone to be there with us in our journeys through life–not someone to direct our lives or hopes for us to direct theirs.)

  29. rob says:

    I usually just give away books that I liked and that I thought would be useful to the person. Most likely they won’t read it, but there’s a chance they will, if they hit rock bottom enough.

    Also, I know I can’t change another person’s way of thinking, but I can stay positive and give some optimistic responses in the hope that some of it will rub off. The only thing you can offer is optimism and hope but it’s a long shot.

  30. Eileen says:

    I agree with the folks who say try and find some way to be there for the kids. Doesn’t have to mean money–an afternoon doing a fun activity with them might mean the world!

  31. chris says:

    Oh boy, this is my husband’s family! His sister (in her 50’s) left her husband, met a man online, moved to Maine and became estranged from her family. The man recently died. She was “stranded” in Maine and wanted to move back to Oregon to be with her family. Not one of her 5 adult kids would come together and give her $500.00 to move back. My husband did. He didn’t even receive a thank you. Sure, you can help but when you do you’ve got to “let it go”, give freely, and certainly, don’t expect much appreciation. If they haven’t learned to do it themselves and haven’t learn thank you by the time they are adults, they never will. I certainly can’t say it is a good idea to help, because even if you do so freely, there is still that sour feeling in the back, which comes when you give and don’t get any appreciation in return. Good luck!

  32. Allie says:

    Generally people like this cannot be helped until they are ready for the help. This usually only happens when they hit rock bottom like you mentioned. Fow now, I would think the best thing you can do is to be supportive of his children and provide them with a good father figure. Someday he will appreciate how you helped his children even if he doesn’t now.

  33. Quinton says:

    You WILL NOT change him! No matter what you do or say!

    The only thing you CAN tell him, is how much that meant to you when he spent time with you, and how THAT experience made you want to spend time with your children. Thank him!

    But you can have a positive influence on his children. If they are old enough, say what happened and how you are glad for it. And offer your love and companionship to his children if he doesn’t give it to his kids, AFTER you told him the above.

  34. Susy says:

    DH’s mother is this exact person (her family has been giving her money and bailing her out of her problems for 30 years).

    We’ve been approached by her for money on many occasions and the family is often harping on us to buy her things or give her money. They’ve spent years enabling her and are now tired of doing it and want us to take over supporting her. We decided long ago that we never would give her money. We only extend offers of helping her get her finances in order when she’s ready and helping her set up a budget. She will most likely never ask because she is not willing to take responsibility for her life. She thinks she’s the victim and everyone is out to get her. Until she sees that only she can bail herself out will she get better.

    Being there for his children is a great choice. DH would not be the person he is without help and love from concerned people at his church.

  35. wealthy_1 says:

    It seems that there is at least one person like this in every family. Two very close family members come to mind as I write. It’s a difficult position to be in. On the one hand I want to shake these people and tell them to get a grip, life is what you make it. On the other hand I want to offer advice to them and give them whatever support they need.

    I admire you for just being there for your relative and gently offering advice. Hopefully, he will change. But unfortunately some people never change.

  36. Stephan F- says:

    There as so many things to say to this post.

    The first thing is that money is not help. Money is a useful tool but it is not what most people really need.

    The second thing is that giving people advice is not help. Talking AT someone is not something anyone really appreciates. That causes just about everyone to flip to rebel without a cause mode and that helps no one.

    The third thing is have you done anything to gain his current trust. Knowing them for a long time is not the same as he feeling he can trust you. Can you stand just sitting with him for a couple of hours without saying anything and letting him open up?

    I have been in rough situations and while lots of people have more then willing to talk about what THEY wanted me to do, they never got around to asking what _I_ wanted to do. Or if they did they never listened to what I wanted. Which is far worse then not asking at all since all that tells me is that you don’t really care about me, and I shouldn’t trust you.

    He probably already knows what he needs to do, he just doesn’t see a way to do it. He very probably has a dream that is very dear to him that has become impossible for him to see a way to accomplish. He does need help finding the path around the block.

    His problem may be that he is depressed about not finding a way to go for his dream, because it seems impossible to him. He probably tried it a few times and has been burned and so his dream is on life-support.

    Remember one of the first things Dale Carnegie talks about is finding out what the other person wants to talk about and talking about it. There are clues all over his house. Is it a guitar in the corner, or several books on a particular topic on the bookshelf?

    He is a person with a problem not a problem to be solved. Treat him like a person and he may come around faster. Treat him like a problem solving exercise and prepare to make his life worse.

  37. Sam says:

    I think everyone has been in a position like that at one time or another. My brother comes to mind. At one point it seemed like he wouldn’t even graduate college. Now he’s one of the most highly paid orthopedic surgeons in the Mid-west. Things have a funny way of working out.

    Like someone already mentioned, you can’t give advice until someone asks for it. If you try to force your help on them, they’ll run away from you.

  38. Ginny says:

    I’m surprised that not a single one of the previous comments mentioned prayer! Whenever we’re powerless over a situation, many find that prayer to a higher power, however you understand that, can be an incredible relief and quite possibly turning the problem over to one who CAN help! As trite as it may be to some, I still think the Serenity Prayer is of great value in my life. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Pray for your loved one and give back to him what he gave to you…time, love and attention in the midst of a full and active life.

  39. Stephen says:


    People with an addiction to drugs/alcohol no longer have the ability to make choices. The substance highjacks their brain and makes it for them. That doesn’t mean that all is lost, however. 12 step programs (like AA and NA) do work. In fact, they are the only thing that really does work to treat substance dependence (aka addiction). That said, in my experience, they will only work after people have hit rock bottom. Sometimes multiple times. Otherwise, people will come to the program will preconceptions and conditions. This prevents people from getting into the 12 steps. Alknowledging there is a higher power, that you have no control over the substance, that you have to turn your life over to the power because the substace has complete control over you, etc.

    As far as the kids go, you have a great chance to really make a difference. One of the strongest predictors for substance use is a family history. Somehow the cycle needs to be broken. People can do this on their own, but it sure helps an awful lot to have the unconditional love, support, and a great example in another family member.

    Finally, I would advise you to take a stand on behalf of people with mental illness whenever you could. There is such a stigma hanging over people with mental illness in society. It makes getting well that much tougher. Everyone has problems; some people’s problems are bigger. It doesn’t mean your character is flawed.

    -Stephen, 1st year psychietry resident

  40. Marcy says:

    Trent, if you feel like you are being put into the position of a therapist when you talk to your relative, there are some things you might want to consider. Giving advice is often good but there are times when people don’t really want advice (even if they are saying things to indicate they want advice, like “I don’t know what to do”).

    This might sound silly, but it is a real technique, developed by Carl Rogers. You listen to him with empathy and unconditional regard. You take the role of an active listener (this means no advice). You simply repeat back to him what he is saying to you. Now, you don’t want to sound like a parot, just repeat back the main points of what he’s saying, paraphrase them when possible.

    If he says “I hate my life, it really sucks” you could say “oh, you hate your life”
    See, these are the people who know what they need to do, they’re just scared to do it. When you reflect back what he’s saying to you, it helps him think about what he’s saying. I have had friends in similar situations, especially the drug thing. It’s never a good situation because they will lie to you and lie to themselves. They have rationalized their use of substances, like I’m in a lot of pain, I need this to feel normal, etc. It’s never a good situation and the best you can do is not share too much about your personal finances with him (or he might target you). Just be there and be an active listener.

  41. Anne says:

    You talk about helping him in a very distant way. It seems like you must give him money or advice to help him or say nothing. Yet what you described him doing with you was playing. Play is incredibly important for the human mind and incredibly undervalued in our culture. Your description of him sounds like someone who’s forgotten how.

    The goal is to activate his desire for something different and his innate creativity to get it. Maybe you can do that by nagging at him and making his life more painful, or maybe you can go to the local race track, take in some BMX or stock car races and get to the place where you’re laughing together. It is laughter that releases the energy for change, not shame.

  42. Emma Reese says:

    I think everyone has had good comments. I can only think of the slogan, Neither a lender nor a borrower be. This seems to be more true for family members. I think now a days they call it Tough Love. Good luck and if your a religious person, prayer works wonders and it might do more good than anything monetary.

  43. Emily says:

    You are learning the hard lesson than everybody who has ever want to help anyone else will eventually learn. You can provide support–playing with his kids, offering to go out bowling or something with him (if you guys are still that close)–but you can’t offer advice, and you can’t give money, and you can’t email them job offers, and you can’t expect them to read the self-help books . . . Until he wants to help himself, you can’t do anything to get him to change.

  44. kim says:

    Indeed, this is one of the hardest lessons in life. How doe we help people who won’t or can’t help themselves. Well, I have had times in my life where I could not see the way out, could not see the choices I had made that were keeping me down, but true friends stuck by me, not throwing money at me, but helping when things were out of my control (the flood that went through my home). It was a long road to be able to see the things that were holding me down, the screwed up thinking, the emotional pit, the poor choices…

    Since coming out of that, I feel like I see so clearly what others are doing wrong to mess up their lives and long to help them avoid the mistakes and the painful years I suffered, but the most I can really do is offer advice WHEN IT’S ASKED FOR, help at the toughest of times and be an occasional shoulder. I don’t listen to all the whining, but instead try to keep things on a positive tone. Some things do suck, but despite my own disabilities, I keep on going and refuse to get down, so I do a lot of smiling and affirming a person’s good qualities and good choices whenever possible. At rare moments I will lay down the heavy stuff–like hey, we all know what tough stuff is like, but when we compare our lives to_______________well, we don’t really have anything to complain about. Sometimes I need that reminder myself after being around a gloomy Gus.

    Sadly, when a parent makes these poor choices over the years, they teach their children the defeatest thinking and poor behavior, and so spending time with the kids as much as possible (no preaching) can be a positive way to model good choices for them and allow them to see a healthier way to think and live. It may be their only hope.

  45. Kristi says:

    I’m really big on learning from others’ mistakes so I don’t have to go through them and… THIS IS ONE OF THEM! I’ve seen so many people regret loaning money or helping someone out in a situation like that. Almost every person who has gone through that will tell you if they could go back in time, they wouldn’t have done it. There’s a big difference between giving someone a hand and giving them a hand-out. Or being a helper vs. an enabler.

    This is one lesson that I learned from other people’s mistakes and one that I’ve vowed to never make myself.

  46. kt gertig says:

    Be the friend to his kids that he was to you. Tell his kids where you learned what you are teaching them.

  47. Nebula says:

    No one has commented on what happens if there is no choice: my husband’s relative has been going downhill for years now (no end in sight) has two babies he is not supporting and has moved all of this into my eldery mother-in-law’s house. My husband has to send money, because otherwise his mother will overdraw her account (already overdrawn by $1500) or run up her credit card even more (already up to $11,000) trying to “help” him. So my husband sees this money go up in smoke (somewhat literal, since the relative smokes as well as doing other drugs) whether he likes it or not; he wants to protect his mother but she won’t refuse to help the relative who mistreats her and lives with her. She is raising his children for him as well as doing all his laundry, cooking, chauffering, cleaning, etc.

  48. Anon says:

    As others have said, I agree with most of the comments posted. Be there as you feel comfortable. The one caution I would raise is that you’ve mentioned a drug problem. Please be very careful about what aid you offer. I’ve had friends I would have never thought would put me in harms way, put me there because they aren’t thinking rationally, or in their need they have convinced themselves that there is no risk to something they’ll ask you to help them with and before you know it you’re being threatened or possibly assaulted or as bad, breaking the law. Hopefully this is not your case, but still, be careful.

  49. Minimum Wage says:

    Maybe I missed something, but I didn’t figure out what he does for a living. Does he have a consistent job, does he do odd jobs to get by, or what? I assume he must be earning a living somehow.

  50. Tall Bill says:

    Seems like he’s see some war and burned out in some manner. Most my friends who have served have returned stressed and or completely different than they were before serving. If not military duty, then some other stressful thing has happened. Stand by with an ear when needed – but you’re right to keep the checkbook at home. Play Uncle as kt suggests, which will provide the support his kids needs & show them (and him) the way in a manner as to break the cycle. God Bless.

  51. Dean says:

    I am a retired clinical psychologist and have spent some 40 years as a psychotherapist;not tooting my own horn but want you to know where I’m coming from. If he won’t see a therapist (doesn’t have to be a psychologist, but a medic is more likely to prescribe meds) the you can be very helpful by:
    1) Avoid giving any advice, but instead:
    2) Listen to him and do your best to convince him that you truly understand exactly how it is from his perspective.
    3)Ask questions to clarify your & his descriptions of what is going on in his life. Don’t be manipulative, trying to get him to say what YOU think, but provoke his own exploring about anything he might do, and gracefully (from your writings it is clear that you can be very graceful) let him become aware that he is “Playing ‘yes,but'” as we All love to do (it’s not a crime). At best you can lead him to discover it himself without your even mentioning it; at worst he simply continues it. You might explore with him the FEELINGS of helplessness. Non-professionals have been proven to be highly effective, so don’t feel you’re getting in too deep. It is really not different from simply being loving. Dean

  52. Minimum Wage says:

    Terapists aren’t free, and rarely cheap. If he doesn’t have money, who would pay for a therapist?

  53. Sharon says:

    Actually, MW, therapists are often free or cheap. Poke around looking for a public mental health clinic and you pay on a sliding scale…

  54. m says:

    Nebula @ 4:49 pm November 23rd, 2007
    If he wants to protect his mother he needs to contact the Dept on Aging in what ever state she lives in. In IL that is considered elder abuse, taking advantage of an older person, this includes verbal, financial, emotional. They will send a person to check and see what is going on. You can’t help him, you can help his mom.

  55. Margaret says:

    Nebula — can his family go and physically move him out of your MIL’s home? Maybe once removed, she would be able to refuse to let him come back (maybe).

    I have to say, I wouldn’t send any more money. I know my husband has sent money a few times (3 or 4) to his parents to help pay bills, even though they usually have at least one adult child living with them at any given time (and are, in fact, raising two of their grandchildren). There is no way we would constantly send money, though, even though most of the burden falls on MIL. If it comes down to it, MIL can come and live here with us, but we will not support the siblings who have messed up their own lives. Personally, I think it is very likely that MIL and FIL will end up in some sort of nursing home (they both have health issues), and at that point, I would be willing to help support them. That is something you should consider — an option is to stop providing support now (and maybe MIL will be forced to deal with you BIL sooner rather than later), but be prepared to help her out later after BIL has moved on or she is living in extended care because raising her grandchildren has worn her out and she’s lost her home due to bad finances. Easy for me to say, I know, but if the money your husband sends is just going to BIL anyway, then how is that different from giving the money to BIL directly? Of course, if I were cutting off financial support, I would tell MIL why and I would constantly offer to help her out again once the situation with BIL is resolved. You say there is no choice, but actually, there is. It just isn’t a pleasant one.

  56. beth says:

    whew – lots of responses that I am not going to read right now, so perhaps someone has already said this: it would be a kindness to write down some of your thoughts about your past with him, and his attributes, and send him a letter.

    I don’t think you should say anything about where he is now, or how he can fix his life – just give him a short, loving letter with some fond memories. If I got something like that it would be a treasured keepsake, and I think all of us can benefit by being given simple positive caring thoughts.

  57. DD says:

    All the responses have been wonderfully heartfelt, and right on the mark. I’ve not seen any reference, however, to something I think could be the missing link. A $90 hair-sample analysis provides a fascinating blueprint of the person’s body, what vitamins, minerals, food he’s missing to balance his chemistry. It’s a great thing to see yourself like this on paper, and by applying the suggestions provided by the company that does the analysis, the human system is invariably “restored” because it’s balanced. Checking your urine and saliva to monitor the pH level; checking for food allergies that manifest themselves as depression or extremely low energy; eliminating sugar from the diet that brings on the “sugar blues”. It worked for my family so well that we will never go back to the mindless way we were living.

  58. sulingsi says:

    I just wanted to note something that has been hinted at but not specifically stated in the other comments.

    Oftentimes aid agencies face this kind of difficulty in trying to help clients who are facing these same kinds of problems. The best solution they have found is not giving money to the person, but using their money to pay for something that they hope will produce the desired positive outcome for that person.

    In that vein, you could give him a Christmas present that could encourage him to get help. For example you could find some sort of personal finance or self-help class and pay for that for him. Because I agree with the above that he will not read a book, but if he has a free ticket to a class where he would have to listen to good ideas being presented… maybe… ? Well who knows but I would think more down that path…

  59. regina says:

    I very much agree with Christine’s suggestion of becoming a special person in his kids’ lives. It sounds like they could use it.

  60. bob says:

    I’m really in the same boat. I have a brother who barely graduated high school, has all sorts of problems and now wants to join the military. He is so stubborn that you can’t tell him anything, because he just won’t listen. I’m really in the same boat as you, I’ve tried all I can, but I’m realizing that I can’t MAKE him do anything. Its sad, and I really do sympathize with you. Just wait and be there when if is ready for help. Until then, you [sadly] can’t do anything.

  61. mh says:

    I had a cousin that had a drug problem and left his family. He floated around for years. My aunt would give him money; finally she had to stop. He called her when he decided it was time to be free from the drugs. He went into a rehab and this man is not even close to the same as he was before. My aunt prayed for her son daily and so did other members of her family. He did finally give his life to Jesus and he is not the same. It was an amazing transformation. Jesus is the only thing that can change your cousin.

  62. al says:

    I understand your issue with wanting to/how to help him.

    The best thing I came across was in this book on parenting:

    One section of the book covers being a parent to an adult – and the issues with offering advice and being able to let go. I found it extremely relevant to dealing with family members who have problems.

  63. Jason says:


    If your brother qualifies for the military, it may be just what he needs. “Stubborn” or not, he’ll learn to listen. That’s for sure.

  64. Chelle says:

    One thing you can do is help out with the kids. Take them to the park, buy them ice cream, take them to the cheap movies, tell them they are good kids (even kids who aren’t well behaved need to know that they do have good attributes).

    This will free up time for your friend. Tell him you are doing this to give him the time he needs to try and figure things out, find a better job, get off the drugs.

    If the children are in danger, then there should be a family intervention or social services involved. Why isn’t the family helping him as a whole? Start talking to them and tell them you are worried and there has to be something they can all do.

    If he asks you for money, by all means say no, but don’t say NO. Ask him if there’s a bill you can help him pay or food you can buy for the family. Don’t hand him cash, take him shopping for food or ask him for a copy of the bill.

  65. KM says:

    Thanks for the post – But what if that person is your parent, and their excessive spending and lack of savings mean that YOU will be covering for them in the future, when they can’t work anymore, have no retirement savings and have borrowed all their home equity? This is my situation.

  66. MikeVx says:

    I have a friend who claims to be on the edge financially. He was working three jobs at one point and is now down to one and he complains a lot about the situation. He feels that he has done everything he can to deal with the situation and has no options, but as is often the case, it is that he does not like the options he has.

    He cannot be convinced of this, but he is an angerholic. He cannot stay in a calm state for any length of time. He complains about his medical expenses, most of which are due to his constant stress at being angry all the time. He refuses to pay for medical treatment for a problem that could well kill him because he refuses to go any further in debt. (For critical things, no debt, for fluff, more on this later.)

    Among his other problems, he has priorities that I cannot figure out. Two years ago, when he had three jobs going and was still not making as much s I am, he bought a new car that I could not have justified, and I have no dependents, he has a wife and two kids. Now for all his complaints about finances, let the car, or his house or property develop an imperfection, and nothing will stand in the way of “fixing” it.

    Like pretty much everyone else in this sort of situation, he wants some sort of magic fix that requires no sacrifice on his part. He asks me how I do it, and I tell him, and he doesn’t change a thing. He doesn’t want to hear that he needs to ditch the car with the payments and buy a $300 beater until he is out of trouble. He complains about the electric bill, but suggest putting power strips on all the wall warts and he comes up with the wife and kids could not figure it out or would never turn them off once on. CF lights? “Too f-ing ugly.”

    I have an exposed CF over my head right now. Back when I bought it there were no lights small enough for a ceiling fixture with the diffuser in place. I’ll replace it when it dies, however many years that takes. Ugly, maybe, but my electric bill is anemic, and I like it that way.

    There comes a point where you just clear the station of people and wait for the crash.

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