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Stop Enabling Your Adult Child, Revisited

How much to help a struggling adult child? The answer sparks a heated debate.

I have posted several times over the years on the topic of how much parents should help their struggling adult children. According to the latest Census data, more than half of adults age 18 to 24 live with their parents. About 13 percent of those ages 24 to 35 also do, the highest percentage ever recorded by the Census. Let's be clear that in many cases, adult children living with their parents may be working hard, or doing well in college or grad school, or saving up money to rent an apartment or purchase a home

The many overly dependent adult children who seem stalled out with little motivation, however, can be emotionally and financially draining on parents. Common among this population, and consistent with myriad comments from readers to this page, are substance misuse, depression, low self-esteem, and social anxiety.

Comments from readers on this topic have frequently included personal and emotional accounts of frustration, anger, and despair. Commenters have responded with hostility to one other due to the polarizing effect these issues can produce. That is, parents of struggling adult children tend to go all-or-nothing in looking at their situation: Either the struggling adult child needs to be allowed to sink or swim or the parents are okay nurturing the struggling adult along. The answers are not always so black-or-white.

Following are three guiding signs that you may be enabling your adult child.

Three Red Flags That You Are Enabling an Adult Child

1. Your adult child does not take life on—but you do. You are shouldering his or her debt, taking on a second job, or taking on additional responsibilities while your adult son or daughter is caught up in inertia, being seemingly endlessly non-productive. You and your spouse or other family members feel strain created by the excessive neediness from this overly dependent adult child.

2. Your adult child "borrows" money from you because she or he can't maintain solid or consistent employment. He says he intends to pay you back but that never happens. Yes, it is okay to help adult children out financially at times, as long as you are not being exploited in doing so.

3. You're resigned to disrespect. You think that because your adult child has "problems," that lets him or her off the hook from showing heartfelt respect. You may notice that he or she seems respectful when wanting something from you, though they turn on a dime or get passive-aggressive if you refuse the request. You feel worn down and accept this emotional chaos as normal.

Encouraging Your Adult Child to be More 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, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:

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

2. While living with you, encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board. If unemployed, have them help out around the house with gardening, cleaning, or other chores.

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

4. 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 certain time period whether it be the next morning or at least for 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/mother and we’ll get back to you tomorrow.” (Or, if you are single, “I’ll have to think it over.") This will allow you time to consider it and talk about it beforehand. It will also show that you are remaining steady in your course while presenting a united front.

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

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

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