For some parents, it may be challenging to know how to stop enabling grown children. However, sooner or later, you’ll come to realize that you need to do certain changes so that your children can continue to thrive as adults.
Hence, we asked experts to provide some insights on how parents can be a positive influence for their adult children.
Table of Contents
- Internalize your anxiety and worries as a parent
- Challenge your anxiety
- Recognize that habits that your child has developed have not happened overnight
- Sit down and have a conversation with your son or daughter and begin to set limits
- If you cannot work it out with your grown child, you may want to pursue professional help and advise
- Take stock of your own feelings
- List the ways in which you are enabling your grown child
- Set up and enforce boundaries with your adult child
- Expect some resistance at first
- Address your own relationship with failure
- Make a list of their skills
- Get a life
- Recognize the motives
- Learn the difference between helping and enabling
- Developing compassionate indifference
- Motivation for developing independence
- How to set boundaries
- Understand that struggles are needed to develop resiliency
- As parents, it is our job to provide supports and guidance, but not undermine those messages
- Communication is perhaps the most crucial skill for parents trying to stop enabling behaviors
- My work with both parents and their children is to teach them that both of them are engaged in this dynamic to meet their own needs
- If you want your child to succeed, it’s necessary to watch them fail
Dr. Kahina Louis
Licensed Psychologist | Founder and Owner, Strengths and Solutions
Often we enable our children because we’re worried that if we don’t do something for them, then it won’t get done and something bad will happen as a result. While there can be some truth to that in rare cases, it is important to realize and own that this is your anxiety talking.
Anxiety is only a thought, not necessarily reality, but it is up to us to challenge our anxious thoughts in order to change our behaviors.
Internalize your anxiety and worries as a parent
So when you find yourself worried that your grown child won’t make something happen and you feel that urge to enable them, ask yourself: “Are other grown children able to do this on their own? Do they all need their parents to do it for them? Did I need my parents to do this for me?”
If your sequence of responses to those questions is somewhere along the lines of “yes, no, and no,” then give that a moment to sink in.
Now, even after internalizing this, there might come that downward spiral of thoughts of, “But if I don’t help, then [insert tragedy here] will happen!” Pause there; that’s more anxiety. It’s actually a particular form of anxious thought called catastrophizing, where we assume that the worst possible outcome will happen.
Challenge your anxiety
In the spirit of challenging your anxiety, remind yourself that the worst possible outcome is not necessarily the most likely outcome. There may even be a number of positive or neutral outcomes that you’re not thinking about because your brain is focusing on that one negative possibility.
To continue to move away from that scary spiral of negative outcomes, reframe your thoughts by repeating to yourself something more adaptive, e.g., “People manage to do this on their own every day without that tragedy happening. My grown child can do it too. And if they mess up, there’ll be a lesson there for them to teach them how to do it better next time.”
Take a sigh of relief and repeat these steps as much as needed until the urge, anxiety, or event passes.
Dr. Stephen Jones
Associate Dean for College of Engineering, Villanova University
There are some great solutions that a parent can pursue with a grown child who has not taken on adult responsibilities.
Recognize that habits that your child has developed have not happened overnight
It happened over time. You must make commitment overtime to get the behavior to change. There will be numerous occasions where you will need to say no when you have not said no in the past.
Sit down and have a conversation with your son or daughter and begin to set limits
At the same time, find ways to empower your child to take initiatives and responsibility for their own life. Some parents fear the rebellion that they will get if things change and their child must pay for things that they have not paid for in the past.
Your child may not appreciate what you are doing. Change can sometimes be uncomfortable and you must make a commitment to the results that you want at the end.
If you cannot work it out with your grown child, you may want to pursue professional help and advise
Some parents will need a coach to break the habit of supporting their grown child. Don’t give up you can accomplish your goal and get your child to become a mature and responsible adult.
Ania Scanlan, JD, MA, LAMFT
Lawyer| Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, Empowered Relationships
By enabling their grown child, parents, in essence, foster that child’s dependence on them, which in turn makes the parents feel needed. From the adult child’s perspective, enabling parents are great – who wants to do laundry when mom will do it for them.
The dynamic of enabling parents and a grown child who much enjoyed having no responsibilities in the home was well depicted in Failure to Launch, the 2006 romantic comedy starring Matthew McConaughey as the adult son and Kathy Bates as his loving, doting, and very much enabling mom.
Some writings focus on the enabling of a grown child living with their parents. Yet, parents also find ways to enable their adult child even when that child lives on their own.
The ways to stop enabling is similar regardless of whether your grown child lives with you or not.
So, how do you stop enabling your adult child?
Take stock of your own feelings
Do you feel guilty about the way you parented your now-adult child – maybe you feel you were not supportive enough, you worked too much when they were little and now you’re trying to catch up. Do you feel you owe something to your child for whatever reason?
Are you trying to make up for a divorce or a move across the country? Are you protecting them from the difficulties of life? Are you trying to address your own needs that were never met by your parents or caregivers?
Or are you trying to just be “good” parents? Talk about these feelings with a trusted friend or, better yet, a therapist.
List the ways in which you are enabling your grown child
Some examples of enabling behaviors include paying your grown child’s rent (it’s fine if they fell on hard times and you do it for a short period of time), you do their laundry, clean their room, go grocery shopping for them, you ask them to do something, they don’t do it, so you step in and do it.
Really dig in deep – what do you do that takes the responsibility and accountability away from your grown child?
Set up and enforce boundaries with your adult child
This means that your child will need to start taking responsibility, make their own choices, and learn from the mistakes they make. If the concept of enforcing boundaries is new to your grown child, it’s likely new to you, and it may be difficult for both of you.
Take a breath, and focus on why you no longer want to enable your child. The reasons may be many, including helping your child become the responsible, productive, reliable adult you know they can be.
Expect some resistance at first
Changes are difficult and this one may feel threatening to your adult child. Support them emotionally, love them unconditionally, and enforce the limits you have set. You got this!
Michelle Dittmer, OCT, M.A.
Teacher | President & Co-Founder, Canadian Gap Year Association Inc.
As a team that works with youth transitioning between high school and post-secondary, we actually do more work with the parents of these emerging adults.
The goal of taking a Gap Year is to help your kid gain independence, confidence and maturity – all this can only happen if you get out of their way, let them take risks, let them fail and then, and only then, will they achieve their fullest potential.
Here are the top 3 recommendations for learning to step back:
Address your own relationship with failure
Spending some time understanding the type of failure you have experienced in your life. Pick two or three experiences where you failed hard. Remember how you felt but more importantly, what did you learn?
More often then not, our biggest failures turn out to be some of the most pivotal experiences in our lives.
The hurt, disappointment and scaring is real. But you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off and were more resilient than before, had more clarity on what works for you and where you should be heading.
By constantly removing barriers and protecting our kids from failure, we are depriving them of those growth experiences. We are limiting their potential. We are stifling the way they learn to interact with the world in a way that will lead to success and happiness.
Related: Overcoming Fear of Failure
Make a list of their skills
Spend some time listing the thing that they can do (NOTE: This is not a list of what they are doing but what they are capable of doing). Can they feed themselves? Clothe themselves? Make money?
Sometimes we mistake their inaction for inability. There is a big difference.
By stepping in when they are not taking action, or not taking action the way we would like them to, we are furthering their ability to stay inactive. If someone was going to make you breakfast every day, would you ever stand up and say, “No thank you, today I will make my own breakfast”? I don’t think I would!
The same thing goes for your kids – giving them money, making decisions for them, providing for the things that they can do themselves.
With your list of skill that they have, you can have more confidence to step back because you know they can do it, now you can give them space to take action.
Get a life
What would you do with an extra 6.5 hours this week! We are all strapped for time and wish we could find more time for ourselves! Wouldn’t 6.5 more hours go a long way! A massage, a long hike, reading a good book, going out for dinner with your friends!
Check-in with yourself. How much of your time are you spending on their life?
Take last week as an example. Pull out the calendar and calculate all of the activities you did for them. Doing laundry (1 hour), making and delivering them a meal (3 hours), calling to check in on them every day (20 minutes x 7 days – 2.5 hours).
Now add it up. Look at that number! That is the time that you should be spending on your own life. I am sure you have a ToDo list that you could tackle in that time or people you wish you could spend more time seeing or even a hobby that you want to take up. Make your own life a priority!
Related: 13 Fun Things to Do at Home
Natalie Burtenshaw, LCSW, LCDC
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, Own Your Colors Counseling
Recognize the motives
This part is important, because if you don’t know how you keep falling into this trap of doing something that seems good but ends up leading to a lot of bitterness, then it’s going to be very difficult to avoid the trap in the future.
The insidious thing about enabling is that it can seem very caring and altruistic, like, ‘I’m helping this person.’ But the truth is, the real motivation is ‘I feel uncomfortable when you are uncomfortable, so I will take on your pain’ — which over time makes the children increasingly dependent on you and unable or unwilling to do things for themselves.
And meanwhile, you’re not able to enjoy your own life in the way you want.
There are some messages that parents give to children that can set up vicious cycles:
Most exhausted parents of adult children tell themselves the story that their child is incapable of taking care of herself
Then, they take on her responsibilities until they are completely exhausted and resentful. And finally, when they can’t take it anymore, they explode in anger blame her for their bitterness — which can further tears down her sense of self-worth and her belief in her ability to do better.
She then feels as worthless as ever and continues to make a minimal effort in her life, which proves her parents’ low opinions of her to be right.
Another vicious cycle is rewarding bad behavior
For example, the adult child might drink and drive and end up in jail. The parents pay to bail him out because they don’t want him to be angry.
He doesn’t face natural consequences for his dangerous style of living, so he keeps doing it. It’s comfortable for him to stay the same, so he keeps drinking and driving, knowing that his parents will save him if anything happens.
Meanwhile, the parents are aware he’s continuing to drink and drive, so they get less and less sleep. He gets arrested more often because they always bail him out.
Learn the difference between helping and enabling
You help someone to get better — to become more capable and independent. When you truly help someone, then they are less likely to need your assistance in the future.
You enable someone to stay the same or get worse — requiring no changes because everyone has agreed that you will care for your adult child when he won’t. When you enable someone, they’re more likely to ask for the same hand-out again and again.
You want to help your child to learn to be responsible.
To be responsible is to be able to respond to life. Learning how to do that mostly comes from cold, harsh experience — which is uncomfortable.
It’s important for you to come to understand that just because your child is uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you’re failing as a parent. It’s actually the opposite: You are strong and wise enough to know that it’s necessary to allow your child to learn from mistakes.
Paradoxically, when you try to keep your kids ‘safe,’ you end up crippling them. They aren’t really safe when you enable them, and the more you enable, the less safe they get.
So-called ‘helping’ usually is an illusion of having some control over the uncontrollable parts of life. But when you accept that life always has risks, and you encourage your child to rise to the occasion, then they do get better at taking care of themselves. Safety, to whatever degree we can have it, comes from the inside — from your child’s ability to respond skillfully to life.
Parents can make a mistake in thinking they can keep their child safe by removing the external threats — the bills, the drugs, the ‘bad influence’ friends, the jail time. I even had a client whose parents would always break up with her boyfriends for her.
It’s a really hard truth that you can’t keep your child safe and happy by setting up the world to be comfortable for them. The child needs to find that sense of safety from developing skills to deal with life on their own.
Developing compassionate indifference
That’s a big sticking point for a lot of parents — that they believe their children can’t take care of themselves, when the reality is, the child could learn responsibility if given the opportunity.
The hard thing is that learning requires suffering.
Think of when you first put your child on a bike. You knew they were going to fall down and hurt themselves. When they did, they came crying to you. You kissed their boo-boo and gave them a big hug. You showed compassion. But, you also encouraged them to get back on the bike. That’s the indifference piece. You don’t let your heart override your wisdom.
You encourage the child to go out there and do life and get hurt if that’s what happens, knowing that you will be there to offer emotional support — only to the degree that you don’t feel taken advantage of.
You can stay in a place of compassion, even if your child is suffering. That’s real love: Not necessarily joining someone in rolling around in the mud, but sitting next to them and talking them through the process of getting themselves out.
Learning requires suffering. Parents think, “If I allow my child to suffer, I’m a bad parent” — when in reality, the opposite is true. If you do not allow your child to learn from life’s inevitable pains, then in the long-run it causes both you and the child more pain.
Motivation for developing independence
Adult children usually don’t enjoy being dependent, either. They know they can’t provide for themselves, and their self-esteem takes a huge hit as a result.
They probably wish you trusted them more — unless they’re maliciously playing the victim and trying to emotionally blackmail and extort you for all that you’re worth.
How to set boundaries
Get really clear on exactly how much you can give before you start to feel resentful. Set a boundary first with yourself: An agreement that you will check in with yourself before giving, and ask yourself if you are giving freely from a full cup.
If you would not feel resentful no matter what your child did with the money or attention you’re giving, then you know it is safe to give. If you’re depending on a certain outcome in order for you to feel okay, then you’re putting your child in control of your emotions if they decide to do their own thing and not respect your wishes.
If you’re only giving with the idea that your child must behave a certain way as a result of your giving, then that’s actually controlling. You’re trying to use time, money, or attention to control your child ‘for their own good,’ which almost never works out well for either of you.
Better to use your resources to help yourself to be content and satisfied with your own life, and let your adult child sort out theirs on their own. It’s time.
Donna M Volpitta, Ed.D.
Teacher | Founder, Center for Resilient Leadership
“Self-esteem is not a gift we can give, but a neurochemical response we rob kids of when we don’t allow them to struggle.”
This is one of my favorite lines as I present to parents and educators about the brain science of resilience and mental health. As parents, our brains are wired to protect, compelling us to want to help our children. It feels good to help them and it feels bad to see them struggle.
Understand that struggles are needed to develop resiliency
However, by understanding the brain science, we can recognize that in the long run, they need that struggle in order to develop healthy brains.
When children are given the opportunity to work through challenges, the brain releases very important neurochemicals that send messages to the brain like, “Wow- you are really good at this” and “That was really worth the effort” and “Wow- that felt really good.”
It is through those messages that our brains learn grit and persistence. Without them, we are priming their brains for addiction, anxiety, and depression.
As parents, it is our job to provide supports and guidance, but not undermine those messages
The Four Ss of Resilience (self, situation, supports, and strategies) serve as a framework for how to provide guidance.
Rather than doing a task for a child, parents can use those four Ss to help build the tool kit for children to handle any challenge by asking questions or making suggestions: “What strategy are you going to use for this challenge?” “How can you break it down into steps?” (situation), “Is there anyone that you can ask for help?” (supports).
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Certified Case Manager |
Program Manager of Outpatient Services, Mountainside Huntington
Enabling behavior is essentially doing for someone else what that person is capable of doing independently. Enabling is especially harmful because it prevents people from suffering the consequences of their actions and thus perpetuates irresponsible behaviors.
The enabling relationship can take many forms, but most frequently it is protecting a loved one from a consequence, blaming something external for irresponsible behavior, or making excuses for a loved one.
Every family is like a bowl of apples. The longer the apples stay in the same position in the bowl, the more they squash together. The idea is that if an apple is moved or taken out of the bowl, each of the other apple shifts to accommodate the change. Parents need to recognize that their child is not the only apple in the metaphorical bowl capable of change.
Often, the negative behaviors of a child are met with a surge of attention, concern, and support when they should be met with honest discussions about setting boundaries and expectations for the behaviors to change. By changing how they react to their children’s behavior, they can help establish healthier lines of communication.
Communication is perhaps the most crucial skill for parents trying to stop enabling behaviors
Be clear and direct with your concerns when talking to your child. Allow them to express themselves without speaking for them. Parenting is an exceptionally difficult job.
Healthy parenting is not just providing your child unconditional love and support but allowing a child to make their own decisions and face their own consequences in the process of taking control of their own life.
Children will not behave differently until they decide to change on their own. Therefore, parents should focus on the aspects of life they can control and put their energy into those things.
Parents struggling to stop the enabling patterns that have developed over time can put their energy into controlling the responses they have toward their children.
Author | Psychotherapist
I start out with the assumption that enabling parents are consciously or unconsciously getting something out of their adult child acting inappropriately. Perhaps the parent wants to be cared for or have companionship.
Often, parents do too much to assuage guilt from dysfunctions the child suffered in childhood: parental alcoholism, abuse, neglect or abandonment. These parents are trying to make up for past mistakes or failures.
My work with both parents and their children is to teach them that both of them are engaged in this dynamic to meet their own needs
Parents may not allow their adult children to mature appropriately financially or socially, leaving them stunted. It doesn’t matter that the adult child is highly capable–intelligent, talented, etc.—they end up stunted one way or another.
Sometimes they develop an addiction that makes them dependent. Other times they make a terrible job or romantic choices and need to return to Mom or Dad or demand a great deal of help.
If either party has difficulty accepting responsibility, I reframe their behavior as nobly sacrificing for the other person, which is easier for them to accept, yet also often change-provoking.
When I work unilaterally with parents, I help them find more appropriate ways to meet the needs they’re dysfunctionally “getting” their child to meet—loneliness or fear of abandonment, for example, so that they and their adult child can both grow in healthier ways.
I explain to parents that change won’t happen overnight, that they need to continue setting limits and doing whatever we discuss consistently even if it is painful to them, and that over time and with practice parent and child will individuate and separate appropriately.
Adina Mahalli, MSW
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics
There is a difference between enabling and helping out your grown child but it’s too easy to tip-toe the line and create a negative situation for all parties involved.
The economy isn’t what it used to be and many times people have to work lower-paying jobs in order to get enough experience to get a better job where they can support themselves.
That being said, if your grown child is working part-time, living at home, and spending the majority of their time playing video games and not being productive or proactive, you’re enabling them to be a failure.
If you want your child to succeed, it’s necessary to watch them fail
No successful person has gone their life without failure. Failure breeds wisdom and wisdom breeds success. Force your child to learn from the school of hard knocks and let them fail a little. It’s hard to watch your child struggle, but it’s the best thing for them to grow and develop as an adult.
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