Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dismaying Story #86: The Designated Driver

Dear Andrew,

I am the oldest child in a large family that has seen a lot of instability and destruction in the past decade. My mother suffers from debilitating alcoholism and my father from equally destructive addictions. However, I have a healthy lifestyle, happy marriage, a college degree and a successful career — and I wish the same for my younger siblings.

One of my little sisters in particular has impressed me. She beat several odds (including placing a baby for adoption at the age of sixteen) to go from high school to college as seamlessly as possible. However, I recently learned that my sister is dating a total jerk, eight years her senior, with whom she is sexually active (despite her reform to premarital abstinence). She's flunking out of her first semester of college courses, and worst of all, drinking. She gave up her baby to avoid our mother's outcome, but she seems to be heading that way anyway. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but I believe that in our family, the difference between stability and alcoholism is little more than that first drink.

I've made a bad habit of wanting to "save" my mom and my siblings in the past, acting like a parental figure — taking them under my wing, moving in with them to help out at home, even having my sister come live with me this past summer to prepare her for college. When I see my sister compromising her values (again!) for some guy she says she doesn't even like, throwing away her hard-earned chances at an education, and experimenting with a substance she's genetically predisposed to become addicted to, my first instinct is to take over her decisions for her. I want to become the Designated Driver for her life.

I can't decide where to draw the line between helping her and watching her learn the hard way. I feel that "doing it for her" robs her of the refining fire experiences and the valuable learning curve that molded me into the person I am. I know my sister will listen to me if I talk to her. With this sort of influence, however, it's important to me that I have the right approach.

I suspect that her lack of motivation and self-respect may be a sign of depression. She is genetically prone to that as well, although I've never really noticed it in her before.

What should I do?

Signed, Designated Driver

Dear Designated Driver,

You are right to be concerned about your sister, and there is nothing bad about wanting to help her. Taking over the reins of her life may not be the only answer, though.

We all learn by observing the world around us, and it sounds like your sister witnessed many years of your parents displaying severely compromised life skills. In such circumstances it may not be surprising (though it is sad) when a young person starts making bad decisions of their own.

Like it or not, statistics tell us that it is common for college-age people to experiment with drinking and sex. For some this amounts to a natural transition into adulthood, while for others this type of behavior can lead to drastic consequences. Three signs of trouble concern me In your sister's case. The first is the pregnancy, which can happen to anyone when sex begins, but is nonetheless a sign that she was not able to successfully navigate through that particular patch of potential trouble. Then there is the older boyfriend. While age gap relationships can be made to work, they are uncommon and fraught with issues, so this also serves as a red flag. One of the issues, as you mentioned, is that sex for an older guy may be normal, whereas it may be more emotional baggage than your sister can handle right now.

The third issue for me is the fact that she is failing her college courses. As a university professor I have worked with thousands of college freshmen. In all those cases I have yet to see a student fail because of lack of ability. If they have the high school marks to be admitted, then they have the brain power to succeed. The issues are always around lifestyle and work habits. If your sister were applying herself to her studies, then she would be passing, it's as simple as that. She has lost sight of what is important right now (her studies) and has instead fallen into a destructive pattern of focusing on other things, which likely means partying with her boyfriend and other friends.

I have friends who are alcoholics, so I acknowledge there are many people for whom one drink is too many. That may indeed be the case with your sister, I don't know. What I do know is that I hear "drinking" and "failing courses" together. She has proven she can't handle both at the same time.

So what can you do about all this?

Should you treat her like an independent adult? Let her sink or swim on her own? Allow life to teach her some harsh lessons? I don't think so. First-year college students like to think of themselves as all grown up, but after working with them for over twenty years I can tell you they are usually not done maturing. She is too young for you to abandon her to the wolves.

Should you try to yank her out of college and protect her by sheltering her in your home for a while? That seems to be an over-reaction. She has to continue to strive, to live her life.

Happily, those are only the two extreme approaches. What about the other 99 percent of the options open to you? Since you say she will listen to you, I would sit her down and have a heart-to-heart chat with her. Start by convincing her that you are correct to be concerned. See if you can get her to agree that not all is well in her universe. Bring up the issues you mentioned in your letter, and try to be supportive rather than accusatory when you do so. Rather than acting exasperated and demanding to know "Why are you going back on your intentions?", ask her gently what she hoped to accomplish at college. Persist at this, even if she claims not to have any goals. Ask what any college student should be trying to achieve, such as building a foundation for her future. Then ask her whether she believes she is doing so.

You must stay with this step until you get her to buy into the idea that she has problems. You may or may not get agreement on all the issues (coursework, older boyfriend, sex, and drinking) so you will have to use some judgment as to when you think you have made enough progress to move on. You can talk again another time; it doesn’t all have to get done in one sitting.

Once she acknowledges there are issues, then you can move on to discuss potential solutions. Teenagers usually hate being told what to do, so I suggest you use the approach of asking for her ideas first. The answers may seem obvious to you (e.g. break up with the boyfriend) but are likely to be far less so to her. After all, she has made her current decisions for reasons that make sense to her. If the boyfriend is less than an ideal match, it is highly likely she believes she can't do any better. "No one else would want a loser like me, someone who has already had a baby and has parents like mine and can't even pass a few college courses." I would bet money that she has thoughts like these, so the prospect of dumping him will seem stressful. The thought of being alone may seem worse than the status quo. You need to recognize the underlying factors and patiently help her to see the truth, that she is worthy and doesn't have to settle in life.

Talk to her. Be her coach. Help her work through the issues behind her poor decision-making, and then cheer her on as she starts to take halting steps in healthier directions. That way you haven't abandoned her to life's cruel lessons, nor have you stolen her opportunity to experience and grow.

If none of that has any effect, and if her life continues to spiral downward, then the time may come when a more intrusive intervention makes sense. It doesn't sound, though, like you are at that point yet.

I wish both you and your sister good luck.

All the best,


  1. What a well thought out response.

  2. hmmmm.

    you said: "Once she acknowledges there are issues, then you can move on to discuss potential solutions"....

    i'm not so sure that one can be very successful at attempting to convince another individual what our idea of "issues" are.

    in my opinion, its harder to convince someone they have issues, than it is to just let them learn their lessons...everyone has to learn, not everyone wises up from a good "chat". i think the intrusive sister needs to mind to her own life, and let little sis learn her lessons...could be some enabling going on here, and little sis may never grow up if this continues

  3. Anonymous10:30 PM

    This is a real doosie. With a predisposition to alcoholism, combined with her need to connect with an older guy (father figure) she is setting herself up for failure. As a sober alcoholic I can tell you one very important not scold, condemn or judge. All attempts to talk sense into this girl must come from a place of genuine love and best wishes for her sister to do well. If the message comes across cross or scolding in anyway, the sister will do the opposite of her sister’s hopes. Rebellion seems to be a common trait among those who drink too much.
    Talk to her, but keep it loving...

  4. Anonymous2:12 AM

    i was in that situation. failing classes that i could have passed with my eyes closed... sleeping around (even worse than her, i was sleeping with more than one person)... drinking to the point of total drunkness at least twice a week. and when someone asked me why i did it i said: "because there's no reason not to." i felt no-one cared what i was going to do with my life so i simply let go of it. maybe this girl's attitude is also a cry for attention. teenage rebellion usually is.

  5. Andrew’s advice to be a coach is key.
    One of the keys to being an effective coach is to ask questions. Telling someone your opinion on what they should do seldom persuades them to change their behavior. You coach sessions with your sister should be 90% of her talking. I recommend that you formulate your questions beforehand and write them down. What is the best way to ask questions? Think about the response you want to get from her and then design your question to elicit that response. The objective here is to get your sister to say the things that you want her to say, because once she hears herself saying it, she will be more likely to buy into it.
    Andrew's advise on having multiple sessions is right on. Sounds like you have multiple issues to talk about. I suggest that you limit each session to one or two issues, anything beyond that will be overwhelming to your sister and you.
    The last thing I want to say is be prepared for emotional derailments. Often times when coaching someone, they may feel like you are getting them to admit to things they do not want to face and they will become emotional and try to get you emotional which will normally derail your discussion. Be prepared for that and think about how you will keep the conversation on track.
    I recommend that you have a clear objective set in your mind before you start the conversation, i.e. what do you want to achieve with today's discussion. What are the action items, if any that you want you and your sister to walk away with, when will you meet again, etc?
    It's okay to set some ground rules and expectations before you start your conversation.

  6. Most folks who deal with alcohol abusers agree that attempting to counsel a family member is a recipe for failure, frustration and often resentment.

    The safest course for DD would be to express concern, letting her sister know that she will always love her no matter what, and will be there for her if she's really needed. She should then back off, and consider attending a few Al-Anon meetings so that she will know how to handle things when the excrement really does hit the impeller...only a matter of time.