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Empathy

How To Tell If You Are Enabling Your Adult Child

Being supportive by knowing the difference between empathy and enabling.

Key points

  • There is a widespread problem of adult children who are struggling to become more independent.
  • Many adult children may have underlying mental health issues, yet parental encouragement of their growth and independence is crucial.
  • Being supportive should not interfere with an adult child's ability to develop their own skills to calm down and problem-solve.

Cora is having a relaxing lunch talking with her friends and then, wham! Cora's phone vibrates with a text message from her adult daughter, Maria, who is in a self-proclaimed major crisis because her car payment is due. Maria has texted to Cora:

Hey, can I just borrow some money? I will pay you back later.

Lunch now feels like the farthest thing from Cora's mind as her stomach is doing loops in her abdomen. Cora writes back to Maria,

How about we discuss this later?

Just as Cora's stomach starts to settle down, Maria writes back:

WTF, mom? Fine, you don't need to worry about me!

Cora feels manipulated by this latest response. She starts to say to herself, "I'm not falling for this."

But then, almost inexplicably, Cora gives in and texts:

OK I'll help you out. But only this time.

Do You Enable?

When coaching parents of struggling children, I repeatedly see that there are many well-intended parents who get ensnared in the enabling trap. Enabling is fixing problems for others and doing so in a way that interferes with growth and responsibility.

Overparenting is a term used in the parenting literature that captures the concept of enabling. It involves the application of developmentally inappropriate parenting tactics that far exceed the actual needs of adolescents and emerging adults. Past research by Segrin, C., Givertz, M., Swaitkowski, P. et al. (2015). shows that this type of parenting is associated with increased emotional health issues in adult children.

Do you create an enabling dynamic for your adult child? If they, for example, buy a new audio system for their 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 valuable lesson.

Struggling Adult Children Are a Widespread Problem

My coaching clients vary from parents of adult children in the U.S. as well as many countries abroad. While there may differing cultures and customs, the dilemma remains fundamentally the same for parents: how to healthily and optimally offer support to their adult child.

In some cases, struggling adult children may have significant mental health issues, including addictions, which need to be addressed. According to the CDC, 75% of young adults have reported struggling with anxiety or depression during the pandemic, while 25% reported serious suicidal ideation.

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, however, I see parents overly rescuing their children from their problems. This does not help their emotional health.

While it may feel good for parents to do this, the implicit (or even explicit) message to the child is, “You’re not competent to make it on your own.” Parents in these situations need to be mindful of how damaging it is to enable their adult children.

Whether you’ve got a 33-year-old son who keeps asking for money while falsely claiming he will pay you back, or a 27-year-old daughter who just can’t keep a job, adult children who behave immaturely and irresponsibly can be stressful. I have seen many sad stories in my office of families with children over 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.

Helping Your Adult Child Without Enabling

Do you struggle with knowing where to draw that fine (or not-so-fine) line between letting him learn how to stand on their own two feet and bailing them out? Does helping your adult child tend to become a pattern of unhealthy rescuing? If you try to "save" your adult child every time they are in trouble, you may be making things worse in the long run. Parents, for sure, need to be thoughtful about how to assist their adult children without enabling them.

Adult children who remain overly dependent on their parents often are allowed to get into this situation because their parents enable them, as discussed above. Perhaps this relationship dynamic stems from parents who want to be needed. Setting boundaries with your 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 figure this out on your own.” Or, "I can help you to a point but do you agree that also doing your part is going to feel best for you?"

Ask Yourself the Following To See If You Are Enabling

If you answer "Yes" to even one question below, it is important to stay mindful of how your actions may influence your adult child's inaction:

  • 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 burnt out?

The tips below will help you convey empathy, remain supportive, and steer back out of the enabling lane.

Helping Your Adult Child While Keeping the Oxygen Mask On Yourself, Too

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” their 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 more independent.

Here are 11 helpful suggestions below from my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd. Ed), about how to be empathetic and supportive to your adult child without enabling them:

  1. 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.
  2. Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations below to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:
  3. If they live with you, encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and home expenses. Gently remind them that their contribution is something they owe more to themselves than to you.
  4. Don't indiscriminately give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on children’s efforts toward independence.
  5. 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 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" (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.
  6. Agree on a time limit on how long children can remain at home based on their abilities, willingness to strive toward goals, and what you find tolerable.
  7. 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.
  8. Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise.
  9. 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?”
  10. 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.
  11. Attend support groups if your child has a substance abuse or emotional problem. Only give spending money to an adult child consistently involved in treatment.

Final Thought

If you find this information helpful, I hope you can use it to have calm, mutually respectful, constructive conversations to address the concerns between you and your adult child. Wouldn't that be best for all parties involved?

References

Alkhouri, D. February 21, 2021, ABC News, Pandemic's mental health burden heaviest among young adults.

Bernstein, J. (2020), The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI Publishing, EuClaire, WA.

Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship Paperback, Perseus Books, New York, NY

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, second edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior Paperback, Hachette Publications, New York, NY.

Ehrenreich, S., Meter, D., Beron, KJ, Burnell, K, and Underwood, MK, (2021) How Adolescents Use Text Messaging Through their High School Years https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8669751/

Segrin, C., Givertz, M., Swaitkowski, P. et al. Overparenting is Associated with Child Problems and a Critical Family Environment. J Child Fam Stud 24, 470–479 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-013-9858-3

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