How to Stop Enabling Grown Children

Author Tracy Smith
Updated on June 23, 2021

Once considered unusual, it is now quite common to encounter parents that treat an adult child like a teenager in one respect of another. In fact, approximately half of adults in the US aged 18 to 29 live with their parents.[1] This might include having the child live at home rent-free, while the parent is out working to support them. It may also manifest in the parent handling adult responsibilities for their child, such as making their their doctor’s appointments, cooking dinner and doing their laundry. 

father and adult son doing dishes

In some cases, the adult child displays a sense of entitlement, helplessness and a lack of respect for the parent. While the parent’s love and devotion may be admirable, under normal circumstances they are doing them quite a disservice by stunting their ability to gain independence and develop life skills. If this scenario depicts your current situation with your adult child, continue below to better understand this relationship dynamic and what you can do to change it.

What is Enabling?

Enabling occurs when an individual contributes to, supports or encourages the poor decisions and behavior of a loved one. An enabler permits someone to make bad choices, despite knowing they are detrimental. One who enables provides instant gratification, while intervening in situations to prevent loved ones from incurring negative consequences. 

Enabling can quickly morph into a destructive pattern, as the enabled person fails to learn how to function independently or how to solve their own problems. When the enabler is the parent of an adult, overly-dependent child, they may live in fear of hurting their child, while feeling overwhelmed, taken advantage of, and burnt out.[2]

Enabling parents often have a strong desire to feel needed and have trouble setting effective boundaries with their adult children. It can be difficult for parents to enforce limits, as they want their children to succeed, but are fearful that their child will fail without their guidance, support, and assistance. While parents experience joy and fulfillment in helping their children manage adversity, they may inadvertently send the message that their child is not competent enough to handle issues on their own.

The Dangers of Enabling Adult Children

It is important to stop enabling grown children for a variety of reasons. Enabled children eventually grow accustomed to life running smoothly and to getting everything that they want. These children may begin to act entitled, as if they are constantly owed something. If adult children are constantly bestowed with things that they have not earned, they may become demanding and expect to receive what they do not deserve.

If parents are constantly shielding them from harm, adult children will never get an opportunity to experience or grapple with hardship, which can be a valuable tool for gaining perspective and learning life skills.[3] When there is no chance to face adversity, children are not afforded the opportunity to develop and learn coping strategies to manage life’s disappointments. If an individual never acquires these mechanisms of coping, they are rendered powerless against life’s storms.

These people are likely to have a difficult time functioning in the real world, as they are ill-equipped to handle everyday responsibilities and challenges. Adult children may have trouble managing their finances, going grocery shopping, or cleaning, especially if their parents have always performed these tasks for them.

Ultimately, parents have the responsibility to instill strong values, teach life skills, and to help their children grow into successful, functioning members of society. If a parent fosters dependency in their children, they fail to teach them how to be independent and productive. Additionally, adult children will never learn how to handle disappointment or grow from misfortune.

Putting an End to Enabling Habits

If you are trying to stop enabling your adult child, the first step is to become aware of the habits that undermine your child’s independence. These include cleaning up after them, running their errands, and covering their expenses. That does not mean there is something wrong with taking care of your child, especially if they are going through a rough patch like a separation from a partner or losing their job; there is certainly a time and place for babying your child, at any age, when they truly need it. However, you should make a mental note to yourself that you are doing things your child can and should be doing themselves so that you do not allow them to become routine and habitual.

It is imperative to set limits and boundaries with your adult child, while expecting them to be resistant at first. Adult children may utilize guilt and hurtful comments to perpetuate the enabling cycle. However, it is important to realize that these hurtful responses originate from fear, rather than true sentiment. In addition, here are some helpful tips for transitioning to a healthier parent-child relationship that supports independence and growth for your adult child:

  • Encouraging your child to “pull their own weight” when it comes to helping out around the house
  • Setting clear limits on the amount of financial support your provide
  • Engage in open dialogue about your respective roles in the relationship
  • Seek guidance from a professional family therapist

Summary

Parents can continue to bestow unconditional love and support onto their children without enabling them. It is possible to have a healthy relationship with an adult child, even if they temporarily live at home, if both parties are able to maintain independence and boundaries. While there are circumstances when it is appropriate to serve as a caretaker and nurturer to an adult child, in general they should be encouraged to be self-sufficient, to make their own choices, and to learn from their mistakes.


References

  1. Fry, R., Passel, J. S., & Cohn, D. (2020, September 4). A majority of young adults in the U.S. live with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/04/a-majority-of-young-adults-in-the-u-s-live-with-their-parents-for-the-first-time-since-the-great-depression/
  2. Burn, K., & Szoeke, C. (2016). Boomerang families and failure-to-launch: Commentary on adult children living at homeMaturitas83, 9–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2015.09.004
  3. McMillen, J. C. (1999). Better for It: How People Benefit from Adversity. Social Work, 44(5), 455–468. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/44.5.455
Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.