Breaking Away: How to Stop Enabling Your Adult Child

Have you been enabling your adult child, and you're ready to make a change? Here are simple steps to take to break the cycle.
spoiled child, enabler

Parenting is a lifelong commitment, and as our children grow into adults, the dynamics of our relationship naturally evolve. From the get-go, we love our children unconditionally and do everything we can to protect them. But one of the challenges we, as parents, face is finding the delicate balance between supporting, protecting, and encouraging our children to become self-reliant people and enabling them.

What is enabling?

Enabling is when someone actively encourages someone else in an unhealthy way. We may act with the best intentions to protect our kids from the fallout of their decisions and the consequences of their actions. Still, in doing so, we can stifle their mental and emotional growth, inhibiting their independence and sense of well-being. Ergo, these adult children don’t develop coping strategies and can’t meet challenges in a healthy way, often feeling powerless in their daily lives.

What’s worse is that, despite this understanding, parents find it extremely difficult to stop enabling their grown kids. Enabling becomes a habit, and the toxic dynamics start to feel “normal.” Sometimes unconditional love – going above and beyond the call of duty – is where the problem lies.

Signs you are an enabler:

Argument, controlling parent
  • You try to control your child and their life.
  • You feel responsible for your child’s failures.
  • You have a hard time saying “no.”
  • You don’t feel respected.
  • You make all their decisions for them.
  • You support them financially and/or loan them money when they are fully capable of working. 
  • You often feel manipulated.
  • You make excuses for their behavior.
  • You complete tasks for them.
  • You step in instead of letting your child work things out on their own.
  • You feel resentful.
  • You walk on eggshells around them.
  • You feel emotionally exhausted and burned out.

What you can do about it

Admit there is a problem.

You aren’t your adult child’s best friend. You’re their parent! And the first step in reclaiming this dynamic is to understand the difference between helping and enabling. “Helping” is when we support someone in a positive and healthy way in doing something they cannot easily do for themselves. Enabling is doing it for them.

Set boundaries.

Boundaries are crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with your child. Establish clear boundaries for financial support, living arrangements, and personal decision-making. While offering support is important, you should also allow your adult children the space to handle their lives without constant involvement. Reassure yourself that setting boundaries doesn’t make you a bad parent. Instead, creating boundaries empowers your child to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes, ultimately leading to personal growth.

Encourage independence.

Son moving out of parent's home

Provide opportunities for your child to take on responsibilities and make their own decisions. Explain your expectations and then follow through. If they are still living with you, it’s time to move out. If you support them financially, it’s time to get a job. You can even lay out a timeline for follow-through. There is no argument. This is what is going to happen. Then, reassure your child that you’re confident they can do it. By allowing adult children to face the consequences of their actions, parents teach them valuable life lessons and foster accountability for their choices. This will help to boost their self-esteem and convey that you trust them to be a successful adult.

Keep communication open.

Avoiding enabling behaviors and nurturing independence in your adult child is a delicate process that requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to adapt as your relationship evolves. Now, here’s the tightrope: setting your boundaries while keeping communication open and honest. This is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Try to create a supportive environment where your adult child feels comfortable discussing their concerns, plans, and goals. Explain why you are pulling back.

Your decision to limit your involvement in your child’s life might be met with pushback. However, active listening and non-judgmental responses will foster trust. Don’t worry; they will ultimately learn to accept the changes.

Promote financial independence.

While it’s natural for parents to want to help their children with money during times of need, it’s essential to avoid creating dependency. While there are exceptions to this “rule” (I.e., college or illness), you can’t keep stepping in financially for your adult child if they are fully able to have a job. Financial independence is an essential milestone in an adult child’s life. Encourage your adult child to find stable employment, manage expenses, and save for the future. Offering guidance on budgeting and financial planning can help, but enabling financial support should have clearly defined limits.

Learn to say no and don’t feel guilty about it.

Holding hands, love, caring

People-pleasing is at the heart of the problem. For one reason or another, you’re afraid or unwilling to turn down your child’s requests for assistance. But it’s something you have to do for the sake of your child – because you love your child.

Not saying “no” is one of the primary characteristics of an enabling parent, and stopping can be a challenge. Some parents feel enormous guilt. But chin up? Step aside and let your child deal with their problems on their own. Explain why you’re saying no in a loving way. Don’t compromise when compromise isn’t needed. Don’t explain yourself if you don’t think an explanation is warranted. Be strong, be clear, and hold firm.

Encourage the pursuit of interests and education.

Everyone has their own passions and interests that contribute to their personal growth and happiness. Encourage your adult child to explore these interests, as it will help them discover their strengths and develop a sense of purpose and meaning. Urge them to pursue further education or professional development opportunities so they can expand their skills and knowledge. By supporting your child’s desire to grow, you support their overall success and independence.

Allow for mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes, and adult children are no exception. Resist the urge to shield your adult child from challenges and failures. Instead, allow them to experience consequences. They will make mistakes, and by stepping back, you’re paving the way for valuable learning opportunities. By trusting your adult child to navigate difficulties on their own, you will empower them to become more confident and independent.

Respect their choices.

Quit hovering and let your adult child make their own decisions! Recognizing your child’s autonomy is vital in preventing enabling behaviors. Parents may not always agree with their children, but respecting their decisions demonstrates trust and confidence in them. You can politely express your concerns, but ultimately, the final decision should rest with them.

Live your life!

Couple playing tennis, active, workout, relationship

Don’t forget you have your own life to live. Spend your time and money on yourself. Try out a new hobby, travel, pamper yourself… And while you’re at it, cut yourself some slack. See yourself as a good parent regardless of your imperfections. Being compassionate toward yourself will make the process much easier. You may slip up along the way, but stand up, dust yourself off, and get back on that horse. As you continue to prioritize your needs, you will become less worried about what your child is doing and more confident in yourself – as a parent and as a person.

Watching your child struggle with anything is challenging. It’s natural. We are parents, and we love our children. So, remember that taking responsibility leads to growth. Failure leads to resilience. Together, these things foster independence, self-confidence, and a healthy relationship between you and your adult child.

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