The Dangerous Effects Of Parents Enabling Grown Children

Updated November 19, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

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.

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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.

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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:

  • A lack of boundaries is the hallmark of enabling behavior. Setting boundaries is the first step in improving familial relationships and creating stronger, healthier attachments and behaviors. Boundaries will vary from family to family, but some examples include providing money in legitimate emergencies or only functioning as a backup home rather than a primary residence.
  • Reasonable Expectations. As they say, old habits die hard, so expecting a family's dynamics to change immediately is setting an unrealistic expectation on everyone involved. Expect conflicts to arise. Expect 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 is not enough to stop enabling or inappropriate dependence; instead, taking steps to set both parties up for success is advisable. Begin by setting realistic goals, such as a child searching for apartments or setting up a savings account to move into a home.
  • Setting goals, boundaries, and expectations are all useless if neither party follows through on these regulations. 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 progress, it can lead to backsliding for one or both parties. Draw up all of the rules you've created to allow parents and children to regularly refer back to and readily enforce your agreed-upon strategies for success.
  • Outside Help. When all of these methods are 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 children and help families move from enabling relationships to healthy, independent, and nurturing companionships. Therapy may be delivered via a trusted local therapist or sourced through an online source, such as ReGain.us.

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.

Every Parent Wants Their Child To Be Okay And Letting Go Can Be Hard
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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.


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