Enabling your grown child is something that many parents unwittingly do, often through well-meaning gestures that simply have gone too far for too long. Breaking the cycle of enabling, a common occurrence in substance addiction recovery, involves encouraging or allowing an individual to meet their own needs.1 In order to stop enabling your grown child, a parent must remove oneself from the cycle of fixing or helping.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling is a set of behaviors that serves to protect the person who is being enabled from bearing the full weight of their decisions. It includes making excuses for the person being protected, intervening to buffer them, or avoiding discussion of problematic behaviors.2 Enabling is common in families or dynamics where there are other codependent behaviors.3
Signs You’re Enabling Your Grown Child
Signs that you’re enabling your grown child include feelings of overwhelm or resentment toward your child or a sense of entitlement coming from your child. Also, your child may expect or demand things from you that are not considered developmentally appropriate for their chronological age, such as an adult child demanding that you pay for something that they can pay for themselves. This may even lead some to question whether they’re being a bad parent or have feelings of regret for having kids at all.
Here are some signs you’re enabling your grown child:
- You make all decisions for them, by helicopter parenting or over-involvement
- You pay for everything
- You feel taken advantage of or resentful
- They don’t respect you
- They have failure to launch syndrome
- You question if you’re a bad parent
- You feel overwhelmed by their requests or demands
- You feel like your child isn’t fully grown up and has Peter Pan syndrome
- You feel mom guilt over the way they turned out
- You sense a power differential between you and your child, as if you cannot communicate adult to adult
- You regret having kids or notice that your parent/child seems different than others around you
- Your child expects childcare or other services from you
How to Stop Enabling Your Grown Child
Though it is easier to stop enabling your child by setting solid boundaries and expectations while they’re young, it’s never too late to change the relational patterns between you and your child. Shifting the boundaries and expectations within the relationship puts them in a better position to create healthy boundaries with their own children in the future, allowing for greater self-efficacy and competence in all parties.4
Here are ten tips to help parents enabling their grown children learn to stop:
1. Learn to Say “No”
Though our culture praises being helpful and saying yes, it is imperative to learn how to effectively say no in order to protect ourselves and to teach children to do the same.
2. Set Boundaries & Follow Through On Holding Them
Boundaries, the internal and external lines that we draw for ourselves and others, only work when we communicate them clearly and keep them in mind.
3. Try Parent Coaching
A lack of parenting confidence is often what makes insecure parents engage in enabling behaviors, as they are too needy for the child’s approval in order to feel competent.5 Parent coaching can give you the skills and confidence you need to redirect your relationship with your adult child so that you can stop the cycle of enabling.
4. Adopt New Language
When your child approaches you for answers or to solve problems for them, utilize phrases of empowerment and encouragement, such as, “I’m sure you’ll figure this out,” or, “Let me know when you’ve got a plan.” These phrases indicate that you have confidence that they can manage their own lives and decisions.
5. Redirect Resentment
If you find yourself feeling resentful of something your adult child requests or expects of you, resentment is likely a sign that they’re crossing a boundary or are acting entitled to something you may not wish to give. By paying attention to the resentment, you can redirect them to handle something that you’ve previously intervened on.
6. Grow Your Own Social Network
Sometimes over-involvement in our children’s lives occurs because we don’t have enough adult social connections within our own. By making a concerted effort to grow your own relationships, you’ll be less likely to seek the validation or approval from your children that can come through enabling them. Put that energy into healthy adult relationships in which both parties are offering camaraderie.
7. Create a Written Timeline For Your Transition Plans
If you’re putting a stop to paying for items for your grown child or to transition specific “adult” items to their responsibility, create a written timeline and share it with your child. Giving them specifics about when they are expected to do what will remove any ambiguity about whose responsibilities are whose. This also models a concrete way of doing business.
8. Self-check Your Own Caretaking Behaviors
Perhaps you’re conflating enabling with caretaking; instead of positioning your children to do tasks for themselves, you do it because it’s how you believe you show care and affection. When our role as caretaker becomes too much about us and less about what the child actually needs, we transition from caretaker to enabler. Do an honest self-evaluation of where you might fall on this spectrum.
9. Learn More About Codependency
Sometimes understanding ourselves better increases our insight, which can lead to behavioral change. Codependency is characterized by an intense focus on caring for others, often at the expense of giving attention to oneself or one’s own needs. Consider whether your focus on your child is merely a distraction from looking at your own issues or needs.
10. Consider Family Therapy
When habits like enabling or helicopter parenting are a part of a family’s culture, family therapy can help all parties recognize and address these patterns. Family therapy is a vehicle through which all parties can begin to take ownership of their behaviors or habits in order to make lasting changes within the entire family system.
11. Turn Your Attention Inward
If you have devoted a very large portion of your life to being a parent, it can be a good idea to focus your energy on the other parts of your identity that are meaningful to you. If you don’t know what those are, now is the time to explore! A skilled therapist can help you explore the parts of yourself, outside of being a parent, that give you meaning and purpose.
Effects of Enabling Children in Adulthood
Enabling children in adulthood can be disempowering, both to the adult child and to the parent. Parents enabling their adult children may find themselves resentful or annoyed with their adult child’s seeming lack of independence, yet they themselves are interfering with the child gaining it.
Adult children who are enabled may lack confidence in their decision-making abilities and may find themselves suffering from learned helplessness in other relationships in addition to their parent/child relationship.
Though parents may think they are being helpful by giving their adult child money or swooping in when they are struggling, this sends the message to the adult child that they lack the ability to have agency in their own lives. In turn, this lack of agency may make the adult child feel that they are unable to succeed in the world on their own, delaying their true adult development.
How Therapy Can Help
If enabling your grown child is something you’re worried about, it can help to consult with a family therapist. In family therapy, a therapist can help the family identify relational patterns that contribute to enabling behaviors and teach the family skills to effectively break the cycle of enabling.
Engaging in therapy together also holds all family members accountable for their behaviors, rather than adopting habits of blaming or scapegoating particular members of the family. When it comes to finding a therapist, an online therapist directory is a great tool to use to find a family-focused professional near you.
It can be hard to change enabling behaviors if they’re part of your relational patterns with your child; however, the sooner you can remove yourself from this dynamic, the sooner both you and your adult child can thrive. Enabling holds captive both the person being enabled and the enabler, and learning how not to enable your adult child will give you both the freedom you deserve.