The Harmful Effects Of Parents Enabling Their Grown Children
Adult children and their parents can face tenuous relationship hurdles. Sometimes, parents and their adult children do not see eye to eye. Adult children may continually take advantage of their parents, and resentment could begin to flourish. Other times, parents of adult children may exhibit controlling, demanding behavior. They might fail to recognize that their children need to separate from them and take on a more personalized, independent role. Perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks to healthy parent-child relationships at this stage is the presence of enabling behavior.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling is a behavior that encourages or supports someone who is engaging in unhealthy activities or behavioral patterns. One example of enabling is repeatedly doing something for someone that they can do for themselves. Although the term is most often used to refer to addiction and the behaviors that accompany it, enabling can also describe unhealthy dynamics in a relationship between two people such as a parent and a child.
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 enabling unhealthy coping mechanisms and encouraging irresponsible, selfish behavior. Although it is often used as a trope in sitcoms and movies, enabling adult children can be a very real problem and can have ramifications that affect 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 may look 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, etc. 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, unnecessary financial support may not be healthy for adult children or their parents.
Parents can also enable their adult children through emotional support. 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 and provide instant gratification could be engaging in an emotionally enabling relationship. Although parents can and should encourage their adult children, this support can sometimes go too far. For example, regularly telling a child, "They're just jealous…" or "You're too good for them…” and using other blame-deflecting phrases can be a common practice with emotionally enabling parents. Although it’s possibly well-intentioned, this form of enabling can encourage problematic behavior for adult children.
Another way that parents could be enabling grown children is by allowing inappropriate communication. Parents and children are certain to have disagreements, and adult children are certainly within reason to express disappointment, frustration, or disagreement with a parent. However, consistently shouting, abusing, or otherwise inappropriately communicating with a parent may not be the type of behavior that should be allowed or encouraged. Ultimately, it could serve to encourage adult children to engage in unhealthy communication with others outside the family.
How Are Adult Children And Parents Negatively Affected?
Enabling behavior negatively impacts both parents and children. 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 may begin to resent their children. Rather than seeing the parent-child relationship as a fulfilling one, these parents may begin to wish they could get away from their child and live an independent life.
Adult children are negatively affected primarily through stunted growth. Adults may not be able to reach appropriate emotional, financial, or mental maturity if they are constantly and consistently reliant upon their parents. Of course, there are some cases in which children must continue to rely on their parents into adulthood. Still, most grown children can care for themselves with little interference. In these cases, persistent reliance can be a breeding ground for irresponsible behavior, inflated self-importance, and inappropriate dependency.
Although the relationship between parents and their adult children is the primary relationship that struggles as a result of enabling, other relationships can be negatively impacted as well. Some parents may feel embarrassed about the situation and consequently isolate themselves. Meanwhile, children may 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 behavior often requires time, effort, and practice. It may not be something that happens overnight or after a split-second decision to change. Instead, it could require forethought, planning, and strong communication between all involved parties. While it may be hard, letting go of enabling is possible with the right tools.
Boundaries. A lack of boundaries is the hallmark of enabling behavior. Setting boundaries may be the first step in improving familial relationships and creating stronger, healthier attachments and behaviors. Boundaries may vary from family to family, but some examples include reserving financial help for legitimate emergencies or only functioning as a backup home rather than a primary residence.
Reasonable Expectations. Expecting a family's dynamics to change immediately may be unrealistic. Instead, expect conflicts to arise and difficulties to ensue. When these things do happen, expect prompt, considerate, and respectful communication from one another, and expect to reach some compromise-based resolution together.
Realistic Goals. Simply kicking a grown child out of the family home may not be enough to reverse enabling or inappropriate dependence. Instead, consider taking steps to set both parties up for success. Begin by setting realistic goals such as a child searching for apartments or setting up a savings account.
Enforcing Rules. Setting goals, boundaries, and expectations are all useless if neither party follows through. Perhaps the most important part of reducing or eliminating enabling behavior is enforcing the rules that have been created. Although a single slip-up is not necessarily going to destroy all progress, it can lead to backsliding for one or both parties. You may want to document all of the rules you've created and regularly refer back to your agreed-upon strategies for success.
Outside Help. Even with all these methods in place, you might still find yourself in need of additional help. Therapists can use family counseling and individual therapy to improve the relationship dynamics between parents and adult children. They can help families move from enabling relationships to healthy, independent, and nurturing companionships.
There may be other tools to improve an enabling relationship between parents and their adult children. Still, 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.
Long-Term Effects Of Enabling
Children who are consistently enabled in adulthood are likely to experience a host of issues. Some of these may include low self-esteem, difficulty coping with everyday tasks, and even mental health issues. Although some adult children might need their parents' assistance (e.g., 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 their problems for them could be considered harmful, enabling behavior.
Therapy For Enabling
If you are struggling with enabling, speaking with a counselor can help. Therapists can help you create healthy boundaries and start moving toward a more appropriate and fulfilling relationship.
Some parents and children experiencing enabling can find it hard to talk to a counselor about these issues, especially in person. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their situation, which could make it difficult to express their feelings. An online setting could be a better option in these cases. Some people report feeling more at ease discussing sensitive issues in an internet-based setting versus a clinical one. It can also be more flexible since appointments are available day or night.
Online therapy has been heavily researched, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. One recent study showed that therapy conducted via videoconferencing was both feasible and effective for not only individuals, but couples and families as well.
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, developing some healthy distance is often an integral part of being a strong, well-adapted adult. Although the process can initially be difficult and even somewhat tumultuous, both parties stand to enjoy a stronger, healthier relationship with themselves and each other as time goes on. If you’re encountering challenges with this process or need additional support, reach out to a Regain counselor today.
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 child, you must first set clear boundaries and communicate those to your grown 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.
What is an enabler parent?
When should I stop enabling my adult child?
Why do parents enable their children?
How do you say no to an adult child?
What happens when you enable a child?
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