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Dealing With Demanding, Dependent Adult Children

Getting unstuck from your overly dependent, adult child.

I have seen sad stories in my office of families with children over age 21 (in one case age 44!) who still are overly dependent on their parents. It can be very challenging for parents to set limits with adult children who have become overly dependent. The parents often feel drained and emotionally depleted. They want their child to be happy on his own, yet they live in fear of not doing enough to help their child get there.

In some cases these adult children may have significant mental health issues, which need to be addressed. Too many times, however, I see parents overly rescuing their children from their problems. While it may feel good for parents to do this, the implicit message to the child is, “You’re not competent to make it on your own.” Parents in this situation can help themselves to be mindful of enabling their child by being mindful of the following questions:

• Are you afraid to say “No"?

• Do you sacrifice too much to meet your adult child’s needs?

• Are you afraid of hurting your child?

• Does your child now act entitled to, and demand, things you once enjoyed giving—car privileges, gifts, perks at home, or rent money?

• Are you feeling burdened, used, resentful, or burned out?

Empowering your adult child and fostering independence

As children either graduate or quit school, they need to increasingly have “skin in the game” and strive toward being self-sufficient. This does not mean parents should abruptly put their adult child on the street. At the same time, the adult child needs to “own” his or her goals and plans to become self-reliant.

Sometimes, crises occur that send children back home such as a bad breakup, problems at college, or health issues. This is acceptable as long as there is a plan in place for the adult child to become independent.

Try not to be adversarial as you encourage your child to become more independent. The goal is to be supportive and understanding with a collaborative mindset. Be calm and firm in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations below to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:

1. Encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board.

2. Don't indiscriminately give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on children’s efforts toward independence.

3. Agree on a time limit on how long children can remain at home

4. If you can afford it, offer to help pay starting costs of rent on an apartment.

5. Make an agreement for decreasing contributions to rent until the child is fully responsible.

6. Remember that you always have the right to say, “I changed my mind” about a previous promise.

7. Make sure you are in full agreement on any financial support. Work out disagreements (with a therapist, if necessary) before presenting the child with a plan.

8. Set limits on how much time you spend helping your child resolve crises. Encourage the child to problem-solve by asking, "What are your ideas?”

9. Remember you are not in a popularity contest. Be prepared for your child to reject you. He or she will most likely come around later.

10. Attend support groups if your child has a substance abuse or emotional problem. Only give spending money to a child consistently involved in treatment.

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist, personal, and executive coach, and motivational speaker in the greater Philadelphia area. He has been on the Today Show, Radio, and has written four popular books, including 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. You can also follow him on twitter