Remember that Sarah Jessica Parker movie Failure to Launch? It’s a romantic comedy about a 30-something-year-old man, Matthew McConaughey, who still lives with his parents. Nothing too crazy about that…but we soon learn that neither he or his parents ever really want to see him leave the nest. This is enabling a grown child. And while it’s natural for parents to want to help their children at every age, sometimes their helping hand can morph into enabling, especially when their kid is a 30-something-year-old dating Sarah Jessica Parker.
But enabling your grown children isn’t always so clear cut. How do you know if this applies to you? Here, we help break down the signs that you’re enabling your grown child and also share helpful tips on how to stop.
“From a technical perspective, enabling happens when a parent removes a naturally occurring negative consequence from a grown child’s life, and the child doesn’t learn from the experience,” explains Dr. Lara Friedrich, a licensed psychologist who works with families. “Said differently, it’s when a parent and child get stuck in a cycle that keeps both dependent on the other in a way that doesn’t allow for the adult child to make mistakes and grow.”
Part of the reason this may happen is because the parent doesn’t want their child to grow up and leave them in the dust, so to speak. “Sometimes parents enable without being aware of it when they are afraid of having a child separate into a full-fledged adult. When that separation is too painful, parents will take unhelpful steps to keep the child close, even if it impedes the child’s personal growth,” Dr. Friedrich says. For example, “writing your child’s cover letter for them every time your child gets anxious keeps them needing you, which may feel good. But it stops the child from stepping out on their own and teaches them that they’ll only accomplish their goals with your help.”
So instead of learning how to become a functioning, independent adult, your child gains a sense of entitlement, learned helplessness and lack of respect.
“They will expect the same enabling treatment from other people in their lives and only engage in relationships where they can be selfish and the center of attention,” says Dr. Racine Henry, a marriage and family therapist based in New York and the founder of Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy. “Also, enabling does not require your child to respect you or consider your feelings. This may limit your ability to be independent and live your life on your terms because you will have to be constantly available and responsible for another adult.”
From everyday tasks like doing the laundry and cleaning for your grown child to bigger issues like making excuses for their drug addiction and criminal activity, enabling can crop up in different ways.
Here are some signs you’re enabling your grown child:
1. You make any and all decisions for your adult child.
Your child depends on you to make decisions for and with them about everything, Dr. Henry says. “It is one thing to offer advice but if your adult child relies on you to decide about jobs, friends, romantic partners, etc. they are codependent in an unhealthy way.”
2. Your adult child doesn’t respect you.
They don’t demonstrate respect for you or observe any boundaries you set. “If you say, ‘don’t call me after 10 p.m. or I won’t allow you to live with me any longer’ and they continue to do these things, you could be enabling this behavior,” Dr. Henry says.
3. Your adult child can’t accept ‘no.’
If your child has an extremely negative and visceral reaction when you say “no” to their requests, Dr. Henry says that this is a sign you are enabling negative behavior.
4. You pay for everything, all the time.
If your grown child lives with you and doesn’t chip in toward household expenses and/or you pay their bills, you’re establishing a bad habit.
5. You ‘baby’ your adult child.
You shouldn’t have to teach your adult child things they should already know how to do, such as laundry.
6. You feel overwhelmed, taken advantage of and burnt out.
“It’s harmful to the parent because it can infringe on their time, money, energy and freedom, and it keeps them involved in the child’s life in a way that’s no longer productive,” Dr. Friedrich explains.
If you think you might be enabling your child, here are some steps you can take to stop:
1. Set boundaries.
“Boundaries are the key to helping your adult child be more independent,” Dr. Henry says. “You can of course provide help and be there to rescue them in case of emergency, but they should attempt solutions on their own. You can start by thinking of what boundaries you are comfortable with. This can apply to space, time, money, availability, etc., then you can decide to either have a conversation with your child about these limits or you can begin enforcing these limits as soon as possible. The key is to be consistent and implement effective boundaries. If your adult child is uncomfortable and/or unhappy with the boundaries, it’s a sign the boundaries are effective.”
Dr. Friedrich agrees, saying that you need to become “clear on how much time, money and energy you are willing to put toward your child’s issues. Tell your child this limit. If the child is constantly asking for money, figure out what works and say, ‘I can give you $50 toward fixing your car this month,’ for example. Or ‘I am giving you $____ to help with having job-appropriate clothes this year.’ If they need résumé help, pick a time limit and stand by it.”
2. Learn to be OK with seeing your child struggle.
“Focus on increasing your own tolerance for witnessing your child struggle,” Dr. Friedrich says. “If it is too hard to watch, or if you find yourself being pulled in again and again, talk with a therapist to get a better understanding of what’s happening. Together, you can create a customized plan to break the cycle.”
3. Tell them to Google it.
“When your adult kids ask you how to do something, suggest that they Google it. It might sound harsh, but they are capable. They will figure it out,” says Rebecca Ogle, clinical social worker and licensed therapist who practices teletherapy in Illinois. Along those same lines, she says to stop doing things for your kids that are their responsibility. “By stopping, you give them the opportunity to: A. Do nothing and suffer the consequences or B. Do what they need to. The choice is up to them.”