An overprotective mother stunts her son's social development.

An overprotective mother stunts her son's social development.

An overprotective mother stunts her son's social development.

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 24 2010 7:40 AM

Unhealthy Attachment Parenting

Mom stunted my brother's growth with her overprotective ways. Can the damage be reversed?

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Dear Prudence,
My problem is my 22-year-old brother, who's been coddled into uselessness by our mother. First some background on me: I have a slight limp due to the after-effects of a childhood illness. My mother was very protective of me, keeping me out of gym classes and certain field trips because she (mistakenly) thought the activities would be bad for me or that I would be embarrassed. By the time I went away to college, I realized how much I had missed because of her well-intentioned hovering. I managed to break away and live on my own terms. My brother, meanwhile, has his own issues. He has a small speech impediment and is socially awkward. My mom has indulged—even encouraged—his tendency to avoid the outside world. He's been home-schooled since middle school and has never had a job. He attends community college, is nowhere near a degree, and basically hangs out at the house and fools around on the computer. Except for this blind spot, my mom is a wonderful person, and I love her more than anything. As for my father, I think he's frustrated and wishes he'd done something about my brother sooner but now thinks it's a lost cause. It's painful to see my brother missing out on life. Is there any way I can intervene?

—My Brother's Keeper?

Dear Keeper,
Your mother doesn't just have a blind spot. As far as mothering is concerned, she has two inoperable cataracts. She may have wonderful qualities, but she sounds like a dismal parent. One of her central obligations was to prepare her children to be independent, productive people—instead, her approach was to emotionally cripple them. In a misguided attempt to protect you two from a possibly cruel world, and elevate herself as your protector, she sought to weaken you both. Thank goodness you had a core of resilience and made it out. But she became your brother's whole world. He had no classmates, no teachers, no therapists, no friends. The result is a young man who's been trained to be a parasite. So encompassing is your mother's need to drain her children emotionally that your father gave up and let her ruin his son. A lot of remediation needs to be done here, but first your brother must acknowledge that he wants more out of life and that it's going to require hard work. I'm not sure your mother is capable of admitting the gravity of the problem and her role in creating it. You should try to enlist your father to re-engage in your brother's life. Tell him that it's not fair to write off a 22-year-old. Your father needs to help formulate a plan to get your brother professional help with his social skills and independence—which might mean standing up to his wife. You should treat your brother as an adult. Take him out to dinner, talk to him out about what he would like to do with his life, and tell him you'd like to help him get there. Let's hope it's not too late to free him from being a hostage to your mother's psyche.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Meddlesome Matchmakers

Dear Prudence,
I am a 24-year-old guy whose sister is getting married next month. We get along well, and I'm good friends with my future brother-in-law. I have the honor of being the best man, and the wedding will be an extravagant affair. My sister has insisted that I shave my beard for the occasion, but I really don't want to. I've had my beard for more than two years. It's full and thick and extends a few inches below my chin, so it takes months to grow to the right length. I've offered to trim it down for a neater appearance, but my sister says she won't accept anything but a clean-shaven face. Am I being unreasonable, or is she? Should I give in to my sister's demands, or should I stand up for myself and risk the full wrath of this bridezilla (and possible expulsion from the wedding party)?

—Bearded Brother and Best Man

Dear Bearded,
Given the growing demands of brides who view the people who are invited to the wedding not as guests but as extras, wedding planners might consider creating holding pens in which to corral those who show up to celebrate the happy day, but who fail to meet the bride's aesthetic standards. I've gotten letters from people who are threatened with such a ban because they require devices to aid their mobility or thick glasses to help them see, or because they decline to purchase garments to match the bride's "wedding colors." I'll admit that the description of your chin hair puts me in mind of Joaquin Phoenix during his temporary-insanity days, but your hirsuteness is your business, and your offer to trim is a fair concession. If that isn't good enough for your sister, then you'll have to forgo your duties. Without rancor, tell her you're sorry she feels that way, but you understand that she'll have to find another best man. Then, since she's your sister, try to ascribe this whole episode to her own temporary insanity and hope that once she's finally married, her normal personality will rise like a phoenix.

—Prudie

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Dear Prudence,
I recently became emotional at work and am now mortified as to what my co-workers must think of me. I have been at a small nonprofit for about six years now and have always been hard-working, positive, and upbeat. Recently a job opened up in the office, and I applied for it. The director indicated to me that the job was mine and a replacement would be hired to fill my position. I even attended some training sessions for my new role. When I returned to the office from the latest one, I was introduced to the "new hire" and informed that she would be filling the position that I was training for. I was so hurt and frustrated that I could feel tears coming on. I decided to leave the building before the waterworks started. However, in the parking lot a co-worker came to talk to me, and just then the director walked out to see me sobbing. I'm so embarrassed. How do I approach my director about him seeing me like this?

—Wet Hankie

Dear Wet,
John Boehner, commenting on television about his soon-to-be elevation to speaker of the House, was so overcome reciting his own biography that he started blubbering like a kindergartener whose kitten was stuck in a tree. So you should not feel chagrined that after receiving stunning and hurtful news at work, you went outside to deal with your distress. You have nothing to be embarrassed about, but your boss does. The question is not what you say to him because he saw your waterworks. The question is what he says to you for misleading you about your promotion. You need to get yourself together—practice in the mirror at home—and have a cool, professional conversation with the boss. Explain that you believed the job was yours because of what was said and because you were sent off for training for your new duties. So you were taken aback to be introduced to the person who would now be filling the job, and you'd like to clarify what happened. Don't make any mention of the events in the parking lot. Have a tissue in your pocket and if you start to get teary, don't run away, just dab your eyes and carry on.

—Prudie

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Dear Prudence,
I'm finishing medical school, and my husband is doing his medical residency. He's doing a women's health rotation, and I feel he's being unprofessional. I found out that he and a friend went out for coffee, and my husband saw one of his patients sitting at another table. He pointed her out, told his friend that he just finished a Pap smear on her, and said she was very tight. His friend proceeded to make some crass jokes, and they both had a laugh. I've heard my husband make other immature comments about women patients—most are directed to his friend. I think what he's doing is a breach of ethics and in poor taste. I've told him that I don't think his remarks are OK, and a part of me would like to tell his supervisor. I don't want to jeopardize my husband's career, but I feel an ethical duty to do something about it. What should I do?

—Malpractice

Dear Mal,
Your husband's bedside manner indicates he should consider an exciting career in pathology. Although I've watched many episodes of Scrubs, for expert advice on medical ethics, I turned to my friend physician Kerry Foley. Foley agrees with you that your husband's behavior is way out of line. Early on in their education, medical students are taught to respect their patients' dignity and privacy. Foley says that outside the boundary of a professional consultation, there is zero excuse for discussing a patient's vaginal tone, and she was appalled at the idea of a doctor pointing out a patient in a public setting and laughing about her. Your complication is that you're married to this jerk. Taking the step of reporting him to a supervisor would likely put your marriage on life support. The fact that you are considering this might indicate you need to examine your own feelings about your union. But at this point, simply have another conversation in which you explain to him that his flouting of professional ethics is damaging not only to his career, but your marriage. Foley said even without your intervention, she was confident that if your husband's behavior is as egregious as you say, he'll bring himself to the attention of his supervisors without your having to take a scalpel to his career.

—Prudie

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