Don’t Allow the “Tail” to “Wag the Dog”

Q: My husband and I feel very stuck in many ways with our 31-year old son who is living at home. Any advice or direction you can give us would be gratefully appreciated.

He attended the same yeshivos as our other three boys, two older and one younger, who are all now married, baruch Hashem, with families of their own. When he went to learn in Eretz Yisrael, however, he never seemed to fit in anywhere. He came back and got married when he was 25. Three months later he was divorced and moved back into our home.

Since then he has held numerous temporary jobs, none of which lasted for more than a couple of months. Last year, we even paid someone we know (unbeknownst to our son) to hire him. While he seemed satisfied with the job initially, he eventually left that one too, complaining that he did not find the work “meaningful.” He now spends most of his time in his room.

He says he wants very much to remarry. When shidduchim come up, however, he constantly says he is “not ready yet.”

We suspected that he might be suffering from depression and had him evaluated by a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. He took the pills sporadically but has now discontinued them because he doesn’t like the way they make him feel.

Recently, we have also tried to get our son to speak to a therapist. He agrees in principle but has yet to follow through. For example, sometimes he offers us deals like, “If you buy this for me, then I will make an appointment to see a therapist.” When we purchase whatever he wants, however, he still does not keep his end of the agreement. And sometimes, when he is angry with us, he shouts, “Now I am not going to a therapist!”

What would you recommend we do at this point?

A: First, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with your son. He is certainly not ready for marriage now. Marriage is not a treatment program or an ir miklat. He must get his life in order before he considers shidduchim.

Next, I must agree with you. Your son does seem to be suffering from depression. Your letter describes all the classical symptoms. I also agree with your son’s psychiatrist. Apparently, your son does need psychotropic medication now.

Finally, to answer your question, you and your husband appear to be what are called today “enablers.” What does that mean?

Whenever family members become manipulated into the position of reinforcing the dysfunctional behavior of another member, they are referred to as “enablers.” The classical case of enabling is when family members cover, protect or lend financial assistance to a relative suffering from an addiction, such as substance abuse or compulsive gambling. The misguided rachmanus of these family members motivates them to act in ways which support the addictive and self-destructive behavior. Instead, they should be withdrawing support and confronting the addict’s denial of his or her addiction.

Clearly, you have the very finest of intentions. You want only the best for your son. And I do realize that it pains you greatly to see him wasting his time and energy this way. In spite of that, however, in a typical case of the tail wagging the dog, your son is controlling you. He has succeeded in getting you to indulge his desires and satisfy his wishes without his having to do anything other than manipulate you.

Regarding Adoniyahu, the passuk says, “And his father [Dovid Hamelech] never said anything which might upset him [i.e. to criticize him]” (Melachim I 1:6). Rashi comments, “This comes to teach you that whoever withholds [necessary and appropriate] criticism from his child leads him to an [untimely] death.”

Returning to your son, by letting him off the hook for reneging on his agreement to enter therapy, you and your husband have become enablers. More specifically, instead of making deals with him where you deliver the goods and then hope he keeps his end of the bargain, you must reverse this. He must enter treatment before you purchase the next item he requests.

I must warn you, however. He will violently resist this change in tactics on your part. He may raise his voice. He may whine. And he may even issue threats or attempt to blackmail you. He will do everything he can to make both of you feel guilty. For example, he may accuse you of not caring or loving him. When this happens, you must be prepared to stand your ground. Do not compromise. The stakes are too high and the current stalemate has gone on far too long.

Even a cranky, overtired toddler understands, deep inside, that he must get to bed. Similarly, your son must also realize that he needs outside professional help which neither you nor your husband can provide. As Chazal have taught, “A prisoner is never capable of freeing himself.” (Brachos 5b)


The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.