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Friday, October 14, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Set Some Limits For The Family Mooch

Orlando Sentinel

You're snuggled up in your bed one morning when the doorbell jars you awake. Like a zombie, you drag to the door and fling it open, and nearly die from shock.

Yikes! It's cousin Goober and his brood. You look the bunch over - all 12 of them - spying what appears to be a knife and fork in each of their breast pockets.

Ring a bell? The unexpected cousin who one day drops on your doorstep, intending to eat you out of house and home. Or maybe it's a father-in-law. Or a brother who frequently hits you up for "loans."

Dealing with relatives' demands for time and money can put a strain on home and hearth, but family counselors say by setting reasonable limits you can preserve your mental health and prevent family feuds.

"You have to be extremely upfront and direct, so that you don't sacrifice your own family time and responsibilities," said Susan Kilman, a therapist at the Jewish Family Service of Greater Orlando in Winter Park, Fla.

"People swallow a lot," she said. "They just accept it and don't tell their true feelings and end up feeling compromised. By all means welcome them (your relatives), but make it very clear about what you can do and what you can't do."

Of course, that's easy to say, but often people find it tricky to put into practice because "with family, it's (setting limits) always more difficult because you have more to lose" such as family harmony, said Saundra J. Boyce, an Orlando, Fla., social worker.

To avoid bad feelings, broach the subject in a gracious manner, experts say.

"You wouldn't be verbally brutal with them," Boyce said. "You really need to think about what you're going to say. You don't want to leave them feeling like they've been run over by a verbal steamroller."

Tense family situations can degenerate even more quickly when it is someone on your spouse's side of the family that is creating friction. Many times, problems with in-laws evolve into marital problems, experts say.

"The mistake that a lot of people make is they take it out on their spouse instead of the family member," Kilman said. "You need to directly speak to the person that is the source of the frustration."

But before you go to the source, it is often prudent to chat with your spouse first.

The key is deciding appropriate limits for a given scenario and avoiding anything more than that.

Most people feel compelled to fulfill family requests, but experts say you should be careful not to trip over the fine line between helping and helping too much.

When you help too much, experts say, you're enabling the person to carry on irresponsible behavior, fostering their dependence on you.

Successful plans require relatives to shoulder their share of the responsibility, for you to spell out expectations of behavior for the offending relative and clearly define what you will or will not do.

Tips on setting limits

-- Ask your relative to shoulder some responsibility. If a cousin wants to bring his family to your home for an extended visit, ask him to provide food for his brood.

-- Clearly define what behavior you expect. If your brother frequently asks for money to pay his rent because he has squandered his, tell him that you won't bail him out anymore until he seeks help in handling his finances.

-- Define thoroughly what you will and won't do. Tell your mother-in-law that you don't mind driving her to the mall occasionally but that you cannot leave work to do it.

-- Practice what you're going to say. If you are prepared, you're less likely to be manipulated into lessening the limits you intended to set.

-- Stick to your guns. Be loving but firm.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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