Caring Currents

Family Financial Feuds: The Case of the "Borrowing" Sibling

Last updated:

October 26, 2009
Money fight
Image by HikingArtist.com used under the creative commons attribution license.

Watching those close to us age is stressful for everyone, but certain situations seem guaranteed to set family members against one another and start families unraveling at the seams.

And nothing causes more distrust and divisiveness among siblings than feeling they're not being treated equally or that one sibling is taking advantage of a parent at the others' expense. Case in point: Our support groups at Caring.com are filled with discussions about difficult family situations involving money, uneven sharing of caregiving responsibilities, dishonesty, or all three.

When One Sibling Repeatedly Borrows Money From a Parent and Other Siblings Resent It

This story plays out in all sorts of ways, but the central player is an adult child (or cousin, or nephew...) in difficult straits who frequently goes to aging parents asking for "loans," help with living arrangements, or out and out handouts.

Take Bill, a less-than-successful 36-year-old who always seems to be moving home while he "gets on his feet again." While there, he eats his parents' food, drives their car, and always seems to need $40 to "tide him over." He was mom's baby, and she can't say no. Meanwhile older sister Kate is driving dad to doctor's appointments, bringing hot meals, and coming over on Saturdays to clean the bathroom. (Somehow, in this story, it's almost always a sibling who's not doing much of the caregiving who's asking for help; meanwhile, other sibs who are bearing the brunt of helping out, feel unrewarded for their loyalty.) Sound familiar?

I asked several experts in family dynamics for some suggestions in dealing with this situation, and got a lot of ideas. I also asked people whose stories followed this plotline to tell me what worked for them, and what just made tensions flare even more. Here are their thoughts, suggestions, and admonitions.

  • Recognize selfishness for what it is -- a focus on the self at the expense of others.
    Let's face it, psychologists say, people are wired differently, and some naturally think carefully about how their actions affect others -- while others don't. If you reflect back over your childhood, you may realize there's a pattern here -- self-obsession to the point of narcissism is often at the root of this kind of behavior, psychologists and other experts say. Recognizing that your sib falls into this category doesn't solve your problem, but it gives you some context, so you're not continually caught by surprise. And it allows you to stop expecting something different from him, and getting hurt when it doesn't happen.

  • Don't take selfishness personally.
    One thing experts suggest in all these types of scenarios is to depersonalize it as much as you can. While you certainly have every right to feel hurt and angry -- and to have thoughts such as "how could she?" -- your sibling is probably not preoccupied with the emotional side of things. She probably doesn't even fully recognize her actions as hurtful. Remember, to these folks, it's all about them; you're a bit player in their ongoing drama.

  • Desperation makes people do desperate things.
    Remind yourself that when people back themselves into a corner, they tend to come out swinging. If the problem child in your family wasn't like this in the past, it may be that personal troubles have overridden her better judgment. That's not an excuse -- remember the old saying about hard times showing people's true colors. At the same time, it's a good strategy for managing your own feelings of betrayal to point out to yourself that it's not your sibling's best self you're dealing with.

  • Recognize if there's alcohol, drugs, gambling, or another addiction involved
    One useful strategy comes from family therapists who deal with addiction: Try to separate the addiction from the person. For example, counselors might tell you to picture the gambling addiction or acoholism as a monster riding on your family member's shoulder, controlling his or her actions. This is not to get your family member off the hook -- but it can be very comforting when dealing with feelings like, "My baby sister used to be so sweet; what happened?"

  • Self justification is a powerful thing -- don't try to fight it. The adult child who begs, borrows, or even steals from a parent or other family member usually surrounds himself with an elaborate scheme of self-justification. Attempts to break through this bubble of victimization and get him to admit he's behaved badly, or to apologize, are likely to be met with complete failure. The reason? To take such an extreme step in the first place, your sibling had to talk himself into feeling his actions were justified. Most often, some old resentment, mistrust, or dissatisfaction that's festered for years is the foundation on which the self justification is built. Do any of these sound familiar?

Once you've accepted that your sibling is mired in a quicksand of self-justification, don't try to break through it. It will just be an exhausting and pointless waste of time and energy, because these types of justifications tend to multiply like Gorgon's heads.

What do you do? This is where it gets tricky, because unless your sibling (or cousin, or nephew...) out-and-out stole or defrauded your parents, you have to recognize that it's your parents' money, not yours, to do with what they will. But there are still a number of strategies that others have found effective.

1. Separate the personal and the practical. Recognize that to your sibling this is a financial matter -- he needed money, felt he was entitled (or constructed a new reality to make himself feel entitled) and took it. You have all sorts of emotional issues of trust, respect, and loyalty mixed up in the situation, but your sibling may not see any of this. So depersonalize the situation as much as you can and treat it like any other business deal. Do your parents feel resentful, or do they feel it was a fair deal? Was the money a loan or a gift? If it's a loan, on what terms will it be repaid?

2. Change what you can change -- your own actions -- and leave others' actions to them. What often complicates these situations is resentment, experts say; the sibling who's behaving honorably and responsibly resents the contrast between her role and that of the freeloading sib. Unfortunately, the hard reality is that you can only change yourself, not others. And it's quite possible that your resentment is fueled by your own panic. In other words, you're burdened beyond what you can handle, and desperately wish your sib would help out.

But let's face it: That's not going to happen. So where can you get some help? How can you reduce your load? Look for help from other sources -- neighbors, friends, other family members, your parents' church. Talk to your parents and sibling(s) and explain that you're shouldering more than you can manage, and have to step back a bit. Then wait and see - maybe faced with a need, your parents will demand that slacker sib step up. If not, their response is not up to you, but you can help your parents look for other solutions.

3. Focus on long-term rather than short-term fairness. You may not be able to make the situation fair now, but it can help to think of ways to make things better in the future. Many siblings have had good luck bringing loans or gifts to the attention of the executor of a will, and getting the money treated as an "advance" on that sibling's inheritance. In other words, if your sister "borrowed" $20,000 from your parents for the down payment on a house, her share of the inheritance is $20,000 less than yours. You may need the help of an estate attorney to help you and your family sort this all out, but it's probably worth it to get the issue out in the open.

No question, we've only touched the surface of this important topic. More to come, and please feel free to describe your experiences and solutions.