Undoubtedly, at one point or another, we have all come across a parent that treats their adult child like a teenager. We watch incredulously as the adult child lives at home rent-free, while the parent is working two jobs to keep the family afloat. We witness the parent making their child’s doctor’s appointments, cooking dinner, and mitigating any conflict that should arise. In response, we observe the adult child’s sense of entitlement, learned helplessness, and lack of respect. While we unquestionably admire the parent’s unparalleled love and devotion, we simultaneously wonder why on earth they continue to put up with their child’s dependency and disrespect.
Enabling occurs when an individual performs tasks and solves problems negatively impacting the development and accountability of another person. An enabler permits someone to make bad choices, despite knowing that these choices 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. Meanwhile, the enabling parent may live in fear of hurting their child, while feeling overwhelmed, taken advantage of, and burnt out.
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.
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 from harm, adult children will never get an opportunity to experience or grapple with hardship. 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, to 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 to grow from misfortune.
The first step in stopping enabling habits is to become aware of them. 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.
Parents can continue to bestow unconditional love and support onto their children without enabling them. Parents and adult children can have a healthier relationship if both parties are independent from each other and maintain respect. Adult children should be encouraged to be self-sufficient, to make their own choices, and to learn from their mistakes.
Tracy Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor and employed as a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in the mental health field and has worked in a wide array of settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy has worked with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the resistant adolescent population. Tracy enjoys facilitating groups, coming up with creative interventions, and is interested in creative art therapies, such as sand tray, play therapy, and psychodrama.