PROBLEM SHARED with Professor Tanya Byron
I have a son in his mid-30s who is much less successful than his siblings. While the others are both settled in their careers and with their families, he still seems to be floundering. I know that he is in debt and I think this is holding him back. I sugg
TANYA SAYS It seems to me you are holding on to the emotional aspect of your son’s predicament, feeling protective of him and sorry for him. You may fear that his debt will exacerbate his feeling of helplessness and send him into a spiral of unhappiness, perhaps leading to depression.
Your husband may feel that digging your son out of his financial hole will only increase his helplessness, encourage future spirals into debt and possibly lead to depression. So I suspect you are both worrying about the same outcome, even if you can’t agree on a solution.
While I understand your maternal perspective, I also wonder, like your husband, how paying off your son’s debts helps him in the longer term. In taking away the pain, are you also taking away the burden of responsibility? Will he continue to take risks or make poor financial choices because he thinks the Bank of Mum and Dad will always bail him out? At what point do you both say enough is enough? When you do reach that point, how bad will things be?
We have to teach our children to be accountable for their decisions and deal with the consequences. Your son has to play a central role in the management of his debt or he will never accept full responsibility for his actions, nor will he learn from them.
Before you decide whether to offer him financial assistance, think about how your son got himself into this position and what he needs to learn. Rather than presenting him with a clear-cut solution, like bailing him out, ask your son to find a realistic way of eliminating the debt. He could seek advice from thedebtcounsellors.org.uk. If he wants you to clear it, he should propose a plan for paying it back – and identify what behaviour patterns need to change to prevent this happening again. Perhaps a course in money management would be useful, or speaking to a financial adviser.
He must also prove to you that he is learning from his mistakes. How will he budget his money? Will he create a monthly spending plan? Cut up his credit cards?
If you agree to bail him out, you will have to decide whether or not you’ll be charging him interest. Payment arrangements will need to be established, as will the sanctions you’ll impose if he does not stick to them. Everything agreed should be put in writing, and signed by all of you to avoid future misunderstandings.
Other issues that contribute to a chaotic lifestyle may also need to be addressed. If his self-esteem is low, he may benefit from therapy or life coaching. He could try visiting its good to talk.org.uk or lifecoachdirectory.org.uk.
You can all move forward by ensuring that he understands and accepts the seriousness of the situation, respects any financial sacrifice you are making, and shows respect, humility and a determination to make real changes for himself. If he does not, however hard this may be for you, I suggest you step back and let him work it out on his own.
We have to teach our children to be accountable for their decisions
Professor Byron is a chartered clinical psychologist. Each month, she counsels a reader going through an emotional crisis.