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Three Ways to Stop Enabling Your Adult Child In 2021

Help your adult child gain more healthy independence.

Based on my many coaching sessions with stressed-out parents, this current pandemic has been very cruel to their struggling adult children:

  • Many adult children have lost service-sector and other types of jobs and are back at home with their parents.
  • Those who could not hold jobs prior to the pandemic are now feeling more disempowered than ever.
  • A lot of adult children are living at home again because colleges have returned to remote learning due to surging Covid cases.
  • As I explain in my latest book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, many struggling adult children (including those in their 20s, 30s, and beyond) feel shut down, stalled out, frustrated, angry, and helpless.

Many overly dependent adult children who seem "stalled" out with little motivation are emotionally and financially draining on parents. Common among this population, and consistent with myriad comments from readers who contact me, are stories of lies, depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and substance misuse. These adult children are hurting big time and the parents who contact me for consultations and coaching are hurting big time as well.

As you begin 2021, it is time to take some serious relationship inventory if you have a struggling adult child.

Are You Caught in the Enabling Trap?

Enabling is driven by the desire to stop the flow of situational and emotional pain—but it only serves to create a coercive cycle of perpetuating it. Many parents who enable adult children end up trying to "fix" their problems (mostly through some form of financial support). While the desire to help hurting adult children is understandable, the way in which parents do so interferes with their ability to grow and take responsibility.

Do you create an enabling dynamic for your adult child? If they, for example, frivolously buy new clothes instead of paying rent, which you are directly or indirectly funding, this would result in a consequence of losing an apartment. Enabling parents, in common situations like this, hear the "crisis sirens" going off and rush in and to change the problematic situation (like not being able to pay the rent). When parents rush in, the consequences are removed, giving the adult child no reason or opportunity to learn a valuable lesson.

Stopping the enabling is just as much about changing your mindset as it is about changing your behavior. That's because your mindset is what drives your behaviors--for better or worse.

The Statistics Say, "A lot"

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. The many overly dependent adult children who seem stalled out with little motivation, however, can be emotionally and financially draining on parents.

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. But, obviously, the parents of those adult children who are striving towards independence are not the ones who contact me for coaching.

Parents in Pain Have Polarized Thinking

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/yet possibly enabling the struggling adult along. The answers are not always so "all or nothing."

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

Three Surefire Signs That You Are Enabling an Adult Child

1. You willingly wear a "kick me" sign. 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.

2. Your adult child "borrows" money from you. The Bank of Mom or Dad often runs the risk of financial losses. They intend 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. 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.

Start 2021 by saying, "You will feel better about yourself by feeling more independent."

In this new year and beyond, 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. While living with you, encourage your adult child to also live in "the doing" instead of stewing. Yes, lots of jobs have been lost in the service industry—for now. But there is Door Dash and Instacart or even doing some projects at home to help contribute. Helping out at home can include decluttering, taking things to donation sites, cleaning, or other chores.

2. Think before you give money. Yes, it is tempting to want to financially help out your child. And, I think doing so is fine—within reason. Providing spending money should be contingent on children’s efforts toward independence.

3. Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. I coach parents that when adult children come to them with "urgent requests," they won’t give an answer for a certain time period whether it be the next morning or at least for 24 hours. For example, the next time you get a crisis text that says, “I need money,” respond with, “I’ll have to talk it over with your father/mother and we’ll get back to you tomorrow.” (Or, if you are single, “Please let me have some time 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.

One final note: Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind."

You're parenting an adult child, not testifying at a Senate hearing. Yes, it is good to show you stick to your words. But when it comes to managing the twists and turns of struggling adult children, as I describe in 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Edition, you really need to create and maintain emotional freedom and flexibility. So, continue to make observations and adjust your responses in a measured manner, versus rushing in, due to feeling guilted, manipulated, and coerced. This is for their sake as well as yours!

For more, click here.


Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2003) Why Can't You Read My Mind? Perseus Books, New York,

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