What To Do When Mom and Dad Need Help With Money

attachment style money fights Jul 07, 2021

Your parents need help with money. 

Maybe you are just figuring this out for the first time and you are experiencing your own shock and disorientation about what to do now. 

Or perhaps you have known for some time that your parents need help with money, and now it has risen to the level that it is a problem. 

Your gut is probably saying HELP, what should I do? 

There is a good chance that if you are reading this article that you are the responsible one among your siblings, you have had the responsibility of caring for one or both of your parents in the past. 

Perhaps you don’t feel confident about money, but you have other areas of your life working so your parents turn to you. Or perhaps you have become the family money expert and now your parents are looking to you for help and guidance. 

Acknowledge Yourself

Let’s start by acknowledging this is a difficult position to be in. 

There are no magic wands or fantastic solutions to this type of problem. 

Finding the balance of caring for yourself, your marriage, and your kids while caring for your parents is a developed skill. 

By reading this article, and likely others, you will be growing as a person and developing and refining who you are so that you can find your way through helping your parents with their money. 

Take a minute to check in with yourself. 

  • How fast or slow does it feel in your head?
  • What tensions or distress do you feel in your body?

Take a moment to see if you can bring yourself towards a greater state of calm. 

An Example Of Parents Needing Help

I get all kinds of emails and calls from people asking for help with some element of money and their life. 

The one below will help to highlight some of the common patterns I see between adult children and their parents. 

Please know that I have changed identifying details to protect this family's identity. 

 

Email from adult son Ron:

“Mary and I went through the Dave Ramsey program and loved it. We read Total Money Makeover and went through Financial Peace University, and it changed our lives. We paid off a lot of debt (mostly student debt from my school!). Here comes the challenge, my parents aren’t in the same spot as us. So, to find your information as someone who is a therapist but also is a certified financial planner was awesome because those are incredibly important skills that have made a difference in our lives. So much of what I've seen in my life is couples fighting about money. So to have those two skill sets in one person - you - was pretty exciting (I found you via google search!)

My parents, Nate and Zoe, are wonderful people. They live in Knoxville, TN. They are each in individual therapy and find it very valuable. They have also done couples counseling, but I believe it's been a long time since they've done that. They have fundamentally different viewpoints about money, and it's causing a lot of difficulties. My mom decided to retire from teaching a few years ago, and my dad lost his job due to COVID. 

We got them Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University as well, and they watched the video series and seemed to take some things from it, but they continue to have issues in how they want to handle money. My suggestion to the two of them was to work with a counselor, someone like yourself, who can help them navigate the "human" side of it, but also navigate the financial side of it and help them put together a financial plan to help them move forward.

My take is this - mom thinks she's the "tightwad" and in many ways is one, but also spends quite a lot and is very good at justifying her spending. My dad is the "spender" and doesn't want to be held to a "plan" because he wants freedom (I would argue a plan brings freedom). 

Both are trying to figure out what to do job-wise - they both have a lot of skills, but can't seem to translate those skills into a concrete job (and would likely retire if they could do so financially). They don't have any debt, but are struggling on the income side and are headed to a very difficult place if they don't get a plan together. 

Thank you for any help in advance,”

 

Let me start by acknowledging that it can often take a lot for someone to reach out and ask for help around their finances. 

This email is a great representation of what I have heard in similar ways many times over the course of my work with clients. 

What feels familiar to you from this email, what feels unfamiliar to you? 

I know that there are many different family configurations and that many of the clients I work with also have parents where there are or has been some or all of the following issues: 

  • Divorce
  • Emotional abuse/neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Chronic mental health issues
  • Addiction

All of these additional layers of complexity to navigating their parents' financial life and the feelings my adult clients have about helping their parents with money, and how much help their parents are willing to receive. 

Three Key To Helping Parents With Money

Your Parents Have Their Own Money History & You Don’t Know The Full Story

Wanting to help your parents with their money is completely understandable and in some cases admirable, and in other cases it can be a continuation of dysfunction in the family functioning. 

Your parents, like you, have a personal relationship with money and have a comprehensive money map in their mind, brain, and body that guides the way that they show up around money. 

This is not something that you will likely be able to change for them. However, it is an idea you can introduce to them. 

In this family, the son was able to take action and follow a very specific and detailed plan about what to do to get out of his current financial situation with his partner. His wife presumably was willing to go with the same plan. 

Unfortunately, that is the exception, not the rule. 

Many financial programs function similarly to crash diets, where if you have willpower and self-determination then you can make the program work, at least for a period of time. 

These programs also assume your partner will join you in the program. 

However, for most people, it takes far more than willpower and self-determination to change the direction of their financial lives. 

It takes engaging in a deeper journey of self-reflection, healing past wounds, relationship skill-building, and acquiring a new set of knowledge about how money can work for them now. 

Your Parents Have Their Own Attachment Style

Let me introduce you to attachment styles and how they can help make sense out of why your parents are struggling to connect around money and come up with a solution that would work for both of them. 

We all have an attachment system, which is made of processes in our mind, brain, and body that help us to form, maintain, and repair relationships with other people, especially early caregivers and eventually adult intimate relationships. 

This attachment system helps to govern the way that you experience your relationship with yourself and with others. 

Psychologists and therapists have been studying attachment for many decades now and there is very compelling evidence about how different attachment styles function in adult intimate relationships. They’ve also studied the extensive work it takes to help adults repair their attachment system if certain elements either did not develop or have become injured during the process of growing up. 

Our attachment system can be classified into four categories of functioning: 

  • Secure
  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Disorganized 

People who experience secure attachment functioning often feel comfortable with themselves and engaging others in intimate relationships that feel safe. When there is a misunderstanding there is trust that the relationship can be repaired. 

People with an anxious attachment experience relationships with anxiety about their own acceptability and will often work very hard to maintain relationships and feel disappointed when a relationship is not working. 

On the other end of the continuum is avoidant attachment where the person has learned to keep people at an arm's length distance to maintain a sense of relationship security and safety. 

Those with disorganized attachment struggle most in their relationship with themselves and others, often with themes of trust and safety being very difficult for them. 

I talk at much greater length about the attachment system in my book The Healthy Love and Money Way: How The Four Attachment Styles Impact Your Financial Well-Being. 

Each pattern of attachment makes sense in the story of the person's life. 

None of us pick our particular attachment style, but we can become conscious of its reality and then work to move towards earned secure attachment.  

What This Looks Like For This Family

For this family, there certainly is not enough detail to make any formal assessment, but let’s assume that the wife Zoe has an anxious attachment pattern and the husband Nate has an avoidant attachment style. 

This means that when she goes to talk to Nate about their financial reality they are starting from an internal expectation that they won’t be understood. 

This sets off a chain reaction. 

Zoe may say something like “I am always looking for the best deal and all you do is overspend on everything”. 

Nate responds with “you can’t control me and what I want to do with my money”. 

It would seem they are fighting about money, but at a deeper level, they are fighting over how they experience each other in their relationship around money. 

They are both carrying forward unresolved relationship and money pain.  

Zoe is likely looking for Nate to validate and appreciate her frugality. 

Nate is likely wishing that Zoe might understand why his own financial autonomy is important to him. 

I am going to make up a back story to help complete this example (this is totally hypothetical). 

Zoe grew up in a family where her father worked all the time for low wages and complained bitterly about it while her mother would always tell her father she was doing the best she could to save money. Her father was never satisfied. Neither of Zoe’s parents made the time to connect with her emotionally. 

Nate’s father was successful in business and would accuse Nate of being wasteful with his money as a child. Criticizing any of the toys he would start to buy for himself as a child. 

These lived experiences amongst likely many others are what color Zoe and Nate’s relationship with money, and until they take the time to look at them, grieve them, and move towards resolution they will continue to influence the way they show up around money. 

It Is Okay To Take Care Of Yourself First & Your Intimate Relationship

Let’s pull up for a minute and take a breath. 

If you have never thought about attachment systems and your parent's attachment system it can be a lot to navigate and absorb. 

You also have your own attachment system. 

Working on your own experiences of attachment is likely where you are going to be most helpful to your parents. 

At first, it might seem a bit counterintuitive that you need to work on your own attachment needs before you can help your parents with their money. However, it will make sense if you give it time. 

Let me explain. 

Every time you go to engage your parents, especially about money, it is going to activate your attachment system. 

Depending on the way you experienced your parents this will set up the way that you interact with them around money. 

You are the least neutral person in their life, even when you are doing your best to be so. 

Both you and your parents hold complex systems of memories and expectations about each other that will govern how you interact with each other and what information and guidance can be absorbed. 

Simply said, if your parents aren’t doing what you are asking them to do there is more to the story. 

If you are in an intimate relationship of your own, and you have not been able to get coordinated about where to go with your own financial life, then taking the time to work on this will likely help give you increased empathy, understanding and yes eventually new approaches to talking with your parents about their financial reality. This is the work I do with my clients in my private practice

Conclusion

Parents are people. 

They have so many of their own experiences that are shaping them that you can’t fully grasp what’s going on in the background. 

It’s likely they don’t know all of them or some of the big ones that are shaping the way they show up for each other around money. 

As much as you can muster and develop the ability to bring empathy, curiosity, and compassion into your parent's financial life it will give you the best chance of helping your parents to face their financial reality and come up with creative solutions that work for everyone. 

 

Here is to your journey towards Healthy Love and Money,

Ed

Curious About Your Attachment Style? 

Take the Attachment Style Quiz now and learn how it impacts your relationships, finances, and life! 

TAKE THE QUIZ