How To Stop Enabling Your Grown Child And Nurture Their Independence

How far would you have gone when your kids were small to prevent them from experiencing any harm?

To the ends of the earth, right?

This in-built parental instinct to nurture, protect, and help them is hard-wired into our psyche for good reason.  

Trouble is, when we become so focused on our role of safeguarding and helping our children to succeed in life, it can be hard to let go.

In the age of helicopter parenting, when every aspect of a child’s life, from toddler to teen, is micro-managed to the n-th degree, it’s harder than ever to cut the cord and let them become truly independent once they step over the threshold into adulthood.

And yet you can’t stop the clock. Suddenly they’re graduating from college, starting careers, and even getting married.

Accepting that they’ve become grown-ups after all those years of protecting them, providing for them, micro-managing their calendar, and optimizing their opportunities can be a tough adjustment to make.

It’s not like one day they’re your responsibility and the next day you wash your hands of them, leaving them to stand firmly on their own two feet.

Instead, it’s a gradual process of letting go while still providing a safety net when needed.

But it’s all too easy for this continued help to actually become a hindrance, stopping them from becoming truly independent adults.

That’s despite it being given with the best possible, loving intention.

This is the tipping point into enabling.

So what is enabling and how does it differ from helping?

Why is it harmful?

How do you stop?

Read on to find the answers…

What’s the difference between helping and enabling?

Enabling is solving problems for others in a way that interferes with their development of adult responsibilities.

If, for example, your adult child buys a huge new TV which leaves him short to pay his rent, the consequence should be the loss of the apartment.

But an enabler swoops in and pays the rent, removes the consequence, and no valuable lesson is learned.

The line between helping and enabling may seem like a gray area, but there are some clear signs to look out for that indicate you’re enabling your adult child:

– They stumble from crisis to crisis and they turn to you each time for help.

– They’re still living at home or you’re covering their living expenses elsewhere.

– You feel overwhelmed by the continuing need to help your grown child.

– You find yourself making sacrifices to provide for them.

– You’re constantly worried about doing something that will hurt or upset them.

Every parent wants only the best for their children, whether they’re in kindergarten, college, or have flown the nest.

Smoothing the way for them is the most natural instinct. But once they’re an adult, it’s hard to accept that they should now make their own decisions and life choices.

When they encounter the inevitable bumps in the road, the old instinct kicks in and you parachute in with the solution.

In reality, though, they need to be left to their own devices or they’ll fail to grow into responsible, independent individuals.

In truth, they don’t need enabling, they need empowering instead.

If you can make a few changes, mostly by teaching them vital life skills, you can set them on a better route to independence.

This will free you of the burden you’re currently carrying and make them feel a whole lot better about themselves. 

Why is enabling harmful?

The thought of letting offspring that we’ve nurtured so tenderly step out into the real world, with all its perils and pitfalls, can be difficult to accept.

As a result, many overly protective parents fall into the trap of continuing to take care of tasks like laundry, paying bills, cleaning, etc.

Life at home becomes the safe, easy, not to mention cheap, option and the adult child is less and less likely to want to launch into the cold, harsh reality of independent living.

Such sheltered individuals are left without the necessary life skills to handle the world around them when they do eventually leave the cozy nest, be they 18 or in their 30s.

They’re unable to budget or to cope with day-to-day household management because they’ve never learned these essential skills.

Some parents seem to find enabling easier than coaching their offspring. They forget that one of their most important parenting roles is as teacher, not enabler.

This may be because we all like to feel needed. But ultimately this isn’t about the parent’s needs; it’s about the child’s future and giving them the skills to thrive without parental help.

Let’s face it, if you’re willing to continue to offer help, your adult children are unlikely to reject it and may even feel entitled to it.

Not only is this damaging to the child, there’s often a negative effect on such parents.

Indeed, a recent study reported poorer life satisfaction amongst parents who perceived their adult children as needing too much support.

Looking back at the list above will remind you of the reasons why this might be.

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Helping yourself to stop.

The dawning realization that you’re enabling someone isn’t easy to accept.

It’s challenging to reset your automatic response and even more so when you truly believe that you are helping.

To understand that your well-intentioned actions are actually having the opposite effect on your grown child and to change your own behavior isn’t easy to do.

You’ll find the support of your family and friends invaluable, but you may also find the listening ear of a neutral person such as a therapist beneficial too.

How to correct enabling behavior.

Before trying to correct this pattern of behavior, it’s important to understand what it is.

When the habit of constantly providing instant gratification for your child is so engrained, it’s easy to lose sight of its long-term effects.

Take a moment to consider the results of failing to teach your child to cook a meal, do their laundry, or drive a car. They’d be completely lost without you and find it hard to function.

Wanting to feel needed and useful is a natural human emotion. But you have to appreciate that this isn’t about you; it’s about your child’s future ability to thrive without depending on you.

You won’t always be there, after all.

For sure, it will be difficult at first, but it certainly is possible.

However, the behavior you’ve allowed and implicitly condoned for so long isn’t going to change without effort.

For your child’s sake, it’s vital to stick to your goals and encourage him/her to become fully independent.

Although they won’t see it at the time, they’ll eventually come to appreciate the freedom this gives them and the boost to their own self-esteem.

To start the ball rolling, it may be helpful to hold a family meeting. You could discuss matters such as:

– What you’ve learned about enabling.

– How you’d like to encourage your adult child’s independence.

– Each family member’s responsibilities and roles within the home.

– Why you feel the family dynamic needs to be reassessed.

Encouraging your adult child to be independent and self-reliant.

Once a child truly enters the adult world, it’s clear that they should strive to become self-sufficient.

While a loving parent is hardly going to throw them out onto the street to fend for themselves, the child does need to have plans in place with financial and practical independence being the goal.

Inevitably, crises may occur which bring them home: a relationship break-up, employment problems, or poor health, for example.

That’s fine as long as there’s a game plan for the child to re-launch and become independent once more.

Being confrontational is not the best way to encourage your child to be more independent. What they need from you is support and understanding.

Be firm, be calm, and try not to be overly controlling as you establish your expectations.

These have only your child’s best interests at heart and will motivate them to embrace independence:

1. Don’t give money indiscriminately. Any money you do give should be balanced against the child’s own efforts to become independent.

2. If they’re still living at home, agree a limit on how long this can continue.

3. Encourage them to contribute to their room and board while they are still at home.

4. Offer to help with rent on an apartment for the first few months if you can afford to do this, with an agreed gradual decrease until they’re able to cover it themselves.

5. Encourage them to come up with their own solutions rather than jumping in with your own ideas.

6. Remember that you won’t be popular when you don’t roll over and give what’s asked for. Be prepared for rejection in the knowledge that they’ll come round sooner or later (and maybe even thank you for it).

7. Protect yourself by developing a response to an unexpected request for help.

Don’t give an instant answer and hold back for a day or so. Buy yourself this thinking time by saying, “I’ll have to discuss it with your father/mother” or, “We’ll have to give this some thought.”

That way you’re presenting a united front and won’t be bounced into giving in to the request without due consideration.

8. Never forget that you can always say, “I’ve changed my mind” about a promise previously made.

Helping your adult child through the change.

Your child may resist at first, and that won’t be easy for you.

You’ll need to stay strong in the knowledge that your perspective as a parent is to take the long view.

Upsetting the apple cart now is a necessary means to an end. However, hearing their anguished questions like, “Why are you being so mean to me?” and, “Don’t you love me anymore?” can be very painful.

When they see the support they’ve become accustomed to being taken away, it’s only natural that they will struggle.

You’ll need to be compassionate, understanding, and very strong – strong enough to stand up against their arguments and claims that they don’t love you anymore.

Forced change is always uncomfortable and breaking a cycle of behavior is a challenge.

The fact is, though, that people will only change when they are in an uncomfortable position and they have no choice but to comply.

If you find you have difficulty coping with your child’s hurt and angry response – and what caring parent wouldn’t? – this may also be where a trained therapist can help.

Having them join you in a therapy session could be a good way of getting them to see the cycle of enabling behavior and how it will do them no favors in the long run.

Or arranging for them to have their own therapy may help get them through the transition.

The benefits of breaking the enabling cycle.

When you have stopped yourself from enabling your grown child, not only will you feel a weight of responsibility lifted from your shoulders, you’ll also feel very proud of them.

All your efforts will prove worthwhile as you see your child making the life choices and decisions that you would make yourself.

You’ll be surprised to see what they’re capable of with the right guidance.

Making the change from enabling them to empowering them will give them the freedom to be themselves.

Is there a more precious gift?

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About Author

Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.