Adult children and their parents can face tenuous relationship hurdles. Sometimes, parents and their adult children do not see eye to eye on living life or parent. Sometimes, adult children continually take advantage of their parents, and parents' resentment begins to flourish. Sometimes, parents of adult children exhibit controlling, demanding behavior and fail to recognize that their children need to separate from their parents and take on a more personalized, independent role. Perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks, however-and the most common is the presence of enabling behavior among parents and their adult children.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling is a behavior that actively encourages or supports someone in indulging unhealthy practices by doing for someone what they can do for themselves. Although the term is most often used to refer to addiction and the behaviors that often accompany addiction, it can also describe the dynamics in a relationship between two people, such as a parent and a child. With addiction, enabling typically looks like behavior that encourages addictive acting out, but in a relationship between a parent and child, enabling usually takes on a different set of actions.
In a parent-child relationship, enabling is usually focused on support; parents who financially or emotionally support their (capable) adult children well into adulthood may be accused of enabling unhealthy coping mechanisms, and encouraging irresponsible, selfish behavior. Although it is often used as a trope in sit-coms and other forms of media, enabling adult children is a very real problem and can have ramifications that extend far beyond a single family's situation. Local economies can suffer, as can relationship dynamics, job prospects, and both parties' general independence and stability.
How Do Parents Enable Children?
The most common way that parents enable adult children is through financial support. This looks different for everyone but can include giving an adult child a monthly allowance, allowing a grown child to stay with them indefinitely, purchasing a home or apartment for a child, paying for the child's life, and similar behaviors. Financial support may be needed at some points in a child's life when they have fallen on hard times or are experiencing some form of disability. Still, continual and unbroken financial support is not healthy for adult children or parents.
Parents can also provide emotional support for their children. Although parents should offer unconditional love for their children, emotional dependence is a far cry from general parental support; parents who consistently come to their children's emotional rescue, functioning as a one-stop-shop to boost self-esteem gratification, are engaging in an emotionally enabling relationship. Although parents can and should encourage their children, regularly telling a child, "They're just jealous…" or "You're too good for them, don't worry about it…" and other blame-deflecting phrases are common with emotionally-enabling parents. They can encourage problematic behavior for adult children.
Another way that parents can enable children is through allowing inappropriate communication-and even encouraging it. Adult children who are rude, disrespectful, and perpetually critical of parents are being enabled in poor communication and unhealthy communicative behavior. Although parents and children are certain to have disagreements, and you are certainly within reason to express disappointment, frustration, or disagreement with a parent, consistently shouting, abusing, or otherwise inappropriately communicating with a parent is not behavior that can be allowed or encouraged. Many parents resign themselves to this manner of speech, but allowing adult children to engage in unhealthy communication encourages them to use that type of communication with others.
How Are Adult Children And Parents Negatively Affected?
Enabling behavior negatively impacts both parents and children both. Parents are affected primarily through their self-perceptions and the destruction of their relationship with their children. Because parents who are constantly cleaning up after their adult children's messes are often financially, morally, and even legally obligated to take the fall for any of their children's mistakes, they often begin to resent their children and resent their role have in each other's lives. Rather than seeing the parent-child relationship as a fulfilling one, these parents often wish they could get away from their child or children and live an independent life.
Adult children are negatively affected primarily through stunted growth. Adults cannot reach appropriate emotional, financial, or mental maturity if they are constantly and consistently reliant upon their parents. There are some cases in which children must rely on their parents. Still, most children can care for themselves with little interference, and always relying on their parents is a breeding ground for irresponsible behavior, inflated self-importance, and inappropriate dependency.
In both instances, relationships suffer. Although the relationship between parents and children is the primary relationship that struggles, all other relationships can be negatively impacted. Many parents feel embarrassed and isolate themselves consequently, while children do not develop the emotional maturity required to create and maintain lasting, meaningful relationships outside of their family.
Parenting Strategies To Stop Enabling Behavior
Letting go of enabling is a matter of time, effort, and practice; it is not something that happens overnight or after a split-second decision to change. Instead, it requires forethought, planning, and strong communication between all involved parties. While it may be hard, letting go of enabling is possible with the right tools, including:
Although there may be other tools to fully improve an enabling relationship, using these as a basic guideline can help families let go of unhealthy patterns and behaviors in favor of healthier, happier familial ties, independence, and communication.
Parents, Children, And Healthy Relationships
Parenting adult children can be difficult; when children are young, they rely on their parents for absolutely everything. Gradually changing that dynamic can be hard for parents and children alike. Despite this difficulty, though, developing some healthy distance from one another in adulthood is an integral part of being a strong, well-adapted adult.
Children who are consistently enabled in adulthood are likely to suffer from a host of issues, including low self-esteem, difficulty coping with everyday tasks, and even mental health issues. Although some adult children need their parents' assistance, as is when adult children have developmental delays or other disabilities, most adult children do not require their parents' interference or assistance to lead healthy, productive lives. Although parents might think they are simply helping their children, regularly bailing children out, financially or emotionally supporting them, and taking care of them is not an indication of legitimate helping, but is instead enabling behavior.
If you or your child is struggling with enabling, speaking with a counselor can help. Therapists can help both you and your parent (or you and your child) create healthy boundaries and start moving toward a more appropriate relationship for a grown child and aging parent. Although the process can initially be difficult and even somewhat tumultuous, both parties will enjoy a stronger, healthier relationship with themselves and each other as time goes on. The result is worth any difficulty encountered in the process.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Does It Mean To Enable A Child?
If you’re enabling your adult child or adult children, it essentially means that you’re not only allowing them to engage in unhealthy behaviors but are somehow furthering them. Enabling your adult child could mean continuing to give them money whenever they ask, even if they’re capable of paying for things themselves or can get a job. It should be noted that should an emergency of some sort occurs, your child may legitimately need help, and providing this help would not be considered enabling your grown child in most circumstances.
Having your adult children living with you, again when they’re fully capable of being on their own, is another way in which you could be enabling your grown child or children. Another example of enabling your adult child is not setting clear boundaries or sticking with those boundaries and allowing them to verbally or emotionally take advantage of you via acting out or engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms. These are all particular risks if your adult child lives with you, as this environment makes enabling your grown child easier, whether you mean to or not.
What Is The Difference Between Enabling And Empowering?
Enabling adult children, as discussed above, means that you’re somehow allowing them to engage in unhealthy behaviors. Unhealthy behaviors in adult children can consist of substance overuse, financial reliance, acting out, or engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms when they struggle or are uncomfortable rather than dealing with them in healthy ways. Enabling your grown child never helps them but rather hinders their personal growth and success long-term as they learn to become more and more reliant on you and others rather than on themselves.
Empowering your adult child or adult children rather than enabling your grown child can involve words of affirmation about their personal value, encouraging them to discover and go after their goals, helping them when absolutely needed but setting clear boundaries, and overall creating a healthy and balanced relationship between parent and child. When your child is uncomfortable, whether it’s financially or emotionally, you must listen to them, but don’t do the work for them – letting your child struggle and figure out how to cope with and get through that struggle while still offering a listening ear and acting as a portion of their support network, is key to empowering your grown child to be, well, grown!
Should A Grown Child Pay Rent?
There is no clear-cut answer to this. If your adult child or adult children is/are working and able to comfortably pay rent, it’s reasonable to have a conversation with yourself and them about this. If your adult children have become overly reliant on you, the dynamic is unhealthy, and you and/or your partner are acting as enabling parents, it’s absolutely critical that you stop enabling your adult child or children.
One of the ways you may be enabling your child is by financially supporting them when they can help themselves in this way. If you have your adult child or adult children living with you and they are showing no signs of becoming more independent, it may be time to consider making them pay rent as a key stepping stone toward helping you to stop enabling your adult child or adult children and helping them to be more independent and responsible. Though it’s, of course, difficult to watch your child struggle, sometimes they need to do so to learn, grow, and become a healthier, happier, more independent adult.
How Do I Stop Enabling?
Many parents with an adult child struggle to know how to stop enabling them, but it’s important to note that enabling parents aren’t actually helping their adult children. In fact, in the long run, enabling your grown child only results in them becoming further reliant on you and others and less able to know how to rely on themselves. Some adult children, particularly those in their early 20s, can feel rather lost in a world in which they’re suddenly considered adults. Working, possibly going to college, paying bills, dealing with car troubles, figuring out insurance, and so on can seem so overwhelming, and it’s normal for them to lean on you during this time and for you to help, particularly if your adult child lives with you still.
However, over time this reliance should naturally decrease as adult children become more confident in themselves, their abilities, and their role in the world. If they continue to rely on you, and this doesn’t seem to be lessening as months, or even years, go by, you may be enabling your child. To stop enabling your grown child, you must first set clear boundaries and communicate those to your child. You must also be reasonable – things won’t change instantly, and you should also expect some emergencies to occur in which they’ll need some extra help, anyway. To stop enabling your adult child, help them set realistic goals for their lives, as outlined above in the article. Sometimes, outside help like that provided by ReGain may be key in helping you to stop enabling your grown child.
How Do I Let Go Of My Grown Child?
If you’re really struggling with enabling your grown child, it’s important to remember that people who are enabled into adulthood often experience issues like low self-esteem, difficulty in getting and maintaining jobs, and lacking the ability to cope with everyday issues like paying bills or dealing with day to day emotional stressors. Enabling your grown child does them no favors and makes them less likely to figure out how to be happy, healthy, and successful. Remind yourself that letting go of your grown child is imperative for their happiness and long-term wellbeing.
Sit down with them and talk with them about their personal goals and aspirations. Whatever they may be, you must recognize that encouraging but not enabling your child is absolutely critical for their journey to becoming a fully-functioning and independent adult capable of dealing with the world as healthily as possible.