My younger brother isn’t doing anything with his life. Is he depressed? | Ask Annalisa Barbieri
My brother and I have a very close relationship and were fortunate to have a very happy childhood.
He is the baby of the family and graduated last year. Since then he hasn’t done much at all. Not getting the result he hoped for in his degree, he said he wanted to take a bit of time to relax before looking for a job. The summer passed and we all assumed he’d start to look, but he never did.
This is starting to concern us. My brother has always done things: he was involved in lots of societies and sports clubs at university. He has never been lazy. But for some reason he has spent a year doing very little.
The family has encouraged him to look for work – we send on roles that look like a good fit and suggest less structured ways that he could get back on his feet, but these suggestions receive no reply.
I wonder about his motivation to work. He has savings from working over the summer, and lived with our parents during university – and still does – without being asked to pay any rent or bills, so he has gathered a tidy sum of money to pay for the odd meal out with friends etc. He’s still not asked to contribute at all. My siblings and I have suggested to our parents that they set a deadline after which he will be charged rent, but I know they do not want to do this and worry that it would be damaging to him.
When we are together he seems happy and his usual self, but this situation is not like him. I don’t know how to help, and I am worried that if we can’t help him move past this lethargic limbo he is in, it will do a lot of damage to his mental health.
How I can support my brother to find a life for himself or at least open up about what is stopping him?
Is he worried? Nothing in your letter points to this or to him being depressed, so maybe he’s just enjoying a hiatus after always “doing things”. After all, finishing a degree marks the end of nearly two decades of formal education. It was only last year that he graduated, and the world has been pretty topsy turvy these past two years. I think it’s marvellous he feels he can take a bit of time out. I wonder if you had this opportunity.
But you are worried enough to write in, so I went to psychotherapist Graham Music, author of the brilliant book Respark, which talks about the ways some people lose their way (“spark”) or have never found it.
We wondered if, because he is your younger brother (and the “baby” of the family), you felt he’d always had things done for him. We noted that you and your siblings have asked for a deadline to charge rent but your parents don’t seem concerned, so why do you all feel you have to? “Maybe,” says Music, “he still needs something from his parents.” Maybe he still needs to feel looked after or have some emotional support. And isn’t that OK? He sounds as if he’s been pretty driven thus far.
Incidentally, sometimes the youngest child doesn’t feel they can move out and “leave” the parents because all the others have already fled the nest, so it’s often more altruistic than it may appear.
While no one wants a child who stays at home all day and does nothing, we also wondered if perhaps in your family success was measured by particular achievements.
“Your brother,” says Music, “seems happy. Would you be happier if he was in a high-flying job but not happy?
“There is a possibility that there are things to worry about lurking underneath, and signs of that might be not eating, being very, very inward, spending hours gaming or addicted to screens, or not coming out of his room. Those might be signs he’s avoiding something. But just ‘not looking for a job’ isn’t one of them. If there is emotional difficulty, the response needs to be sympathetic and curious. There needs to be room for difficult feelings.” How has your family dealt with difficult feelings in the past?
What is rarely helpful is just telling someone what to do – as you’re seeing – however tempting it may be. We are, as Music says, rarely “extrinsically motivated – it has to come from within us. When you’re allowed to ‘go into yourself’ the chance is you’ll find your own way out.”
Maybe this is what your brother is doing: discovering himself, finding out what he wants to be. It’s very rare, as young adults, that we get this chance – and he may never get it again.
So be interested in your little brother just as he is instead of suggesting how he should be. He may yet surprise you all.
Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected] Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see theguardian.com/letters-terms
Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, series 2, is available here.
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