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    ask amy

    They enable

    Q. I have a niece who lies, cheats, and steals — mostly from her family, but in the workplace as well.

    Each time she gets into a huge jam, the family pulls together and “rescues” her. If she is about to get evicted, we pool together money to get her up to date. When she embezzled from her employer, we pulled together so she would only get fired and not be arrested. We also bailed her out when her car was being repossessed.

    We know that continuing to rescue her isn’t helping, it’s only enabling the behavior. We know we need to let her face the consequences of her decisions. The problem is she has a 4-year-old son whom we love and adore, and she won’t be facing the consequences alone — she’ll be dragging an innocent child down with her.


    She is drifting through life, lying, cheating, and stealing as she goes. We don’t want this beautiful boy to follow her path or get sucked down by her bad decisions. Every time we get together as a family to come up with solutions, she cries and promises to do better, but of course it is just a matter of time until the next crisis!

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    Because she has stolen from all of us, she is not allowed in any family member’s house un­escorted. We all spend as much time with her son as we possibly can, but he loves and misses her when away from her for too long. We pay for his day care so he won’t spend his days in front of the TV being ignored by her.

    She refuses to get counseling, and she won’t turn over custody of her son. How do we stop enabling her without hurting him?

    Bewildered Auntie

    A. There is a difference between assisting and enabling. This situation is heartbreaking with a young child involved, and I agree with your family’s choice to set limits while trying to protect (and provide for) the boy.

    Without her cooperation it will be challenging to accurately assess exactly what’s going on with her — whether she is struggling with mental illness or addiction or is just chronically messed up.


    Your family should seek counseling to help you navigate this process of boundary setting. You must let her face actual consequences (life without a car, for instance, spending the night in a shelter, or facing the reality of the court system). You do this by diminishing the money supply and by calmly refusing to rescue her.

    Unfortunately, she may be using your love and concern for her son as a way to control your family. This is why you need to manage your own anxiety (and be on the same page) as you find a way to maintain strong non-negotiables while continuing to envelop this child in your family’s safe embrace.

    Q. I must take serious issue with your response to “Parents in a Quandary.” These parents were “creeped out” by a neighbor’s friendship and gift-giving to their 19- and 20-year-old sons.

    Amy, these aren’t little boys — these are adults! They can have any relationships they want!


    A. Many readers share your view, and I agree. It was hard to tell from this letter what exactly was going on, but I responded to their account of a creepy and secretive relationship by being creeped out myself.


    I have children this age and realize that although they are legally of age, they aren’t quite adults. But I agree that legally these young people can have any relationships they want to have.

    Send questions via e-mail to or by mail to Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.