Stop Enabling Your Addicted Adult Child
Tough love is a hard, but a valuable language to learn.
Posted November 25, 2014 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- "Enabling" someone means fixing problems for them in a way that interferes with growth and responsibility.
- Parents who overly rescue their children from their problems may give the implicit message that they're not competent to make it on their own.
- Providing spending money to adult children should be contingent on their efforts toward independence.
Geno, an adult client of mine, [not his real name] came in to see me, feeling very frustrated and angry. He described recently seeing his adult son's phone number (Geno is paying for the phone line) pop up on his caller ID. It was Geno's day off from work and he had planned to decompress. But, he thought, after all, "This is my son, and I love him," so he accepted the call. As Geno listened to his son's slurred voice, he felt flooded with upsetting thoughts such as “What the heck is it now?” immediately followed by guilt for being so suspicious of his son.
Geno's son went on a 20-minute rant about how his former boss was a jerk and that he still can't find another job. He mentioned that he had smoked less weed, but that he had no money for his rent payment. Geno mentioned that he had financial pressures too and his son immediately said, "Whatever, Dad, don't worry about me!"
As the room started to spin, Geno, to his own amazement said, "Only this one time," but he knew his words had a hollow ring since he'd said this so many times before. So, with mixed emotions, Geno later went to his son's apartment to "loan" him money to pay his rent. As usual, his son, with his beaming, broad charismatic smile, promised to pay Geno back, but he knew that would never happen. Geno thought about how this chaos is unsustainable (Geno's son is only 29) and wondered when he would ever learn to stand on his own two feet.
Does the above scenario sound even remotely similar to your circumstances? Are you distraught and overwhelmed by a dependent, addicted adult child? Does the logic in your head get sideswiped by the emotional pain in your heart?
Do You Enable?
Enabling is fixing problems for others and doing so in a way that interferes with growth and responsibility. Do you create an enabling dynamic for your adult child? If he, for example, buys a new audio system for his car instead of paying rent, this would result in the consequence of losing an apartment. An enabler rushes in and removes the consequence, giving the adult child no reason or opportunity to learn a lesson.
Helping Your Adult Child Without Enabling
Does helping your adult child tend to become a pattern of unhealthy rescuing? If you try to "save" your child every time he or she is in trouble, you may be making things worse in the long run. Do you struggle with knowing where to draw that not-so-fine line between letting him learn how to stand on his own two feet and bailing him out? Parents need to be thoughtful about how to assist adult children without enabling them.
Adult children with addiction issues who remain overly dependent on their parents often are allowed to get into this situation because their parents enable them. Perhaps this dynamic stems from parents who want to be needed. Setting boundaries with an adult child can sometimes be the best thing to do, even when it is hard to say, “I am here to listen, and here’s what I can offer, but I also think you will feel better about yourself if you get some professional help (and/or attend 12-step meetings) and figure this out on your own.”
Whether you’ve got a 35-year-old daughter who keeps asking for money while falsely claiming she will pay you back or a 25-year-old son who just can’t keep a job, adult children with addiction issues who behave immaturely can be stressful. I have seen many sad stories in my office of families with children over age 21 (in one case, 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. This is by no means an easy situation.
In some cases, these adult children may have significant mental health issues in addition to an addiction, such as depression or anxiety, which need to be addressed. At the same time, mental health treatment does not have to be mutually exclusive from the adult child contributing to their recovery in any way they can. Too many times, I see parents overly rescuing their children from their problems. While it may feel good for parents to do this, the implicit (or even explicit) message is, “You’re not competent to make it on your own.” Parents in this situation can help themselves be mindful of enabling their child by carefully considering the following questions:
- Does your child now act entitled to, and demand, things you once enjoyed giving—car privileges, gifts, perks at home, or rent money?
- Does it feel like you are living from crisis to crisis with your adult child?
- Do you sacrifice too much to meet your adult child’s needs?
- Are you afraid of hurting your child?
- Are you feeling burdened, used, resentful, or burned out?
Encouraging Your Adult to Live in Her or His Own Skin—Skin That’s Also in the Game
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 a child to become more independent. The goal is to be supportive and understanding with a collaborative mindset. Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:
- Encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board.
- Don't indiscriminately give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on children’s efforts toward independence.
- Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. Agree that you won’t give an answer for a certain time period whether it be the next morning or at least 24 hours. For example, the next time you get an urgent call that says, “I need money,” respond by saying, “I’ll have to talk it over with your father [or mother]," (or, if you are single, “I’ll have to think it over") and "we’ll get back to you tomorrow.” This will allow you time to consider it and give you a chance to think and talk about it beforehand. It will also show that you are remaining steady in your course while presenting a united front.
- Agree on a time limit on how long children can remain at home.
- If you can afford it, offer to help pay starting costs of rent on an apartment.
- Make an agreement for decreasing contributions to rent until the child is fully responsible.
- Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise.
- 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?”
- 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.
- Attend support groups such as Al-Anon. Only give spending money to an adult child consistently involved in treatment.