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How to Stop Enabling Your Grown Child

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Ways to Stop Enabling Your Grown Child

As children enter adulthood it can be a challenge for some parents to understand the line between enabling and nurturing. From the news we hear about parents who have tipped over the line to enabling and they’ve been given names such as “helicopter” and “snowplow” parents. It can be scary to think that your help can actually be unwittingly hurting your child. So, how do you know where the line is between nurturing and enabling?  In this article, I give you three clues to help you find, and stay on the right side of that line.

Is Your Adult Child Thriving?

While we want to see our children achieve the best and have all the opportunities possible, if we manage every aspect of their lives as they enter adulthood we run the risk of undermining their independence. Helping out adult children can soon become making them too dependent on us, a risk that has become even more prevalent given the rising trend of adult children returning home after college. But an adult child living at home is not in and of itself enabling them. So, how do you know if you are helping or hurting. The key is in how your adult child is doing. Are they actively seeking employment or working? Or are they repeatedly dragging their feet on the job search. Do they have a healthy social life?  Or are they playing video games in their room most days? Do they have a specific plan on when they will move out? Or do they become irritated when you as them their plan? An adult child thriving at home and an adult child hiding in his room all day are very different. If your child is the latter then your heping is actually hurting and it’s time to pull back. 

Does Your Adult Child Have a Healthy Self-Esteem?

A second risk of staying in control of your adult child’s life is that it can negatively impact self-esteem. While occasionally helping a child can ease them over a hurdle that fuels their growth and development, helping too much can actually have the opposite effect. It can lead to children who don’t believe in their capabilities, or think you don’t,  or that you aren’t interested in their ideas. How do you spot the difference?  

The key here is to not immediately take action.  If a child asks you for help, before you jump in with assistance, stop and ask her first what she thinks. Instead of securing employment for her ask her plan on getting a job. If her response is a wide eyed “I have no idea” then you know she needs assistance.  But the assistance should be in the form of working through the steps with her so she has this template to take with her into the world. The template is more valuable than handing her a job. If she is able to lay out a reasonable plan than all she needs is an “atta girl!” You can’t know specifically where they are in their abilities and thus give the most appropriate level of help, unless you ask questions.  It is essential to respect the fact that our adult children are their own people on their own journeys, finding out their thoughts and plans will better let you know where and how to step in and help in way that is not robbing them of pivotal hardships and challenges they need for development of self-esteem.

Are You Happy?

Beyond the impact that refusing to let go can have on your adult children, there are also possible negative consequences for you. You need to manage your own life, whether that’s maintaining your marriage, cultivating a career, caring for elderly parents, or planning for your own retirement. There are some parents who become over-involved in helping their children to avoid a problem of their own. For instance you may not want to face the  grief that they no longer need you. In another of my recent articles, I introduced the need to get to the other side of grief as parents grapple with letting go of their adult children. Just as we need to grieve the loss of an essential person or aspect of our lives, parents also need to be able to grieve the transition of their relationships with their adult children from the role of the nurturing caregiver to the pulled-back parent who still loves their child but recognizes the need to let them identify and follow their own path. Other problems parents avoid by getting overinvolved with their children are failing marriages, financial problems and physical ailments. 

You also may be giving too much as a way to avoid that you aren’t capable of helping the child with their particular problem. These type of problems include mental health or physical problems, financial problems and career problems.  There are experts for these and chances are you aren’t’ an expert on how to best solve these problems for someone else. 

The clues that you are giving to the point of hurting yourself include loss of energy, resentment, and new onset mood swings. Others are, new dynamics such as arguing between you and your spouse, missing deadlines at work or avoiding your social life. These changes in you will all negatively impact your mental health and thus hurt your relationship with your adult child. If you think you’re enabling a child as a way to “cure” something in you, taking a step back or eliciting support for your child from another source can create a positive change in your relationship with your adult children. 

In sum, does this mean you can never help your adult child? No. But the problem with snowplow parents is they are helping their adult children despite the residual harm the “help” is causing. There is no right or wrong “help.” The key is is to step back and look at the bigger picture.  If your child is thriving – making good decisions and taking the reigns in his life- then you have helped. If the child is not thriving- stagnating or regressing- then your help has been hurtful. While this essentially is a simple concept, the stepping in and back dance involved in parenting isn’t easy and is what we in mental health refer to as the “work” in a relationship.

Another way to understand this is, your “child” can not relate to you as adult “peer” or “friend” until they have fully developed their adult identity. Developing into an adult can be frought with difficult obstacles which no one can do without help. The new adult phase is one in which your adult children can make their own choices and develop their self-identity as they build connections with others alongside their professional career. It is also a phase in which you can invest in yourself and your own happiness, knowing that you can grown along with your children as you enter this exciting new phase. Understanding that the is no right/wrong or bad/good but only what is working and what is not for your adult child AND you is the only guide you need.

To your emotional health,

Dr. Laura Dabney

If this article speaks to you and you’d like additional personal guidance please call 757-340-8800 to make an appointment with Dr. Laura Dabney now.

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