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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

How to Stop Enabling Your Young Adult

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2010 7 Sep
How to Stop Enabling Your Young Adult

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"I can't keep supporting my son," Henry told me during a counseling session, referring to his adult son who has continued living at home. "My wife and I hope he get fed up with our rules and move out."

"Necessity is the mother of invention," I told him.

"Yeah, my grandmother used to tell me that one," he said.

"Mine too," I replied.

"We just can't seem to get up the nerve to kick him out," he continued. "We picture him living under a bridge somewhere."

"Really?" I questioned. "Is that what you really think would happen to him if you asked him to leave?"

"We don't know," he said. "Ryan has one problem after another. He loses jobs, can't seem to save any money, and we just don't see how he will make it on his own. You'd think by twenty-seven he'd figure it out, but he hasn't. And he makes our lives impossible."

"How does he do that?" I asked.

"He has a horrible temper," he said. "He bangs things around when he's mad. He calls us filthy names and has even destroyed some of our property during fits of anger."

"Do you call the authorities?" I asked.

"No," he said. "We don't want our son to have a record. We're just waiting for him to have some kind of breakdown experience so he'll want to move out."

Henry looked dejected as he continued to tell the story of his ‘boomerang son' who couldn't seem to make his way in the world. Interestingly, he kept referring to a hope he and his wife had that his son would reach some kind of breakdown, leading to him moving out of the home.

As I watched Henry, it occurred to me that what he was waiting for might not happen for a long, long time. He hoped his son would become uncomfortable enough to move out, when in fact his son was quite comfortable living with his parents. The breakdown he waited for might not happen, unless it happened to him and his wife.

"I wonder if you're waiting for your son to breakdown, when in fact you are the ones that need to reach a breaking point," I said.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You're waiting for Ryan to reach a point of wanting to leave," I said. "But, in fact he's quite comfortable. You're providing a lot of things for him, stopping him from having to face the world and make it on his own. He may stick around a long time. Are you and your wife reaching a breaking point? Are you getting sick and tired of supporting him?"

"Of course we are," he stated. "But, we just can't seem to kick him out. How do you kick your own son onto the streets?"

Henry's question caused me to think about the ‘boomerang phenomenon' occurring across the country. Many parents continue to support their adult children, and in some cases even participate in raising their grandchildren. For things to change, everyone must breakdown. What do I mean by this?

First, we must be very careful not to enable dysfunctional behavior. It's one thing to support an adult child who cannot fully care for themselves. It's quite another to support an adult child who is capable of caring for themselves, but have discovered a way to maintain dependency on parents.

Second, be honest with yourself about the difference. Often parents buy in to the notion that the adult child cannot make it on their own, and that telling them to leave is tantamount to forcing them to sleep under a bridge. This rarely is the truth. Most often forcing an adult child to fend for themselves creates an opportunity for them to grow up.

Third, parents must reach a point of breakdown. It is not necessarily the child that needs to break down, but the parents. Parents must reach a point of exhaustion, frustration and perhaps even anger. They must come to the end of being taken advantage of, leading to a decision to have the adult child leave the home.

Fourth, stopping enabling dysfunctional behavior is an act of love. While putting an end of financial support of an adult child may seem cruel, it ultimately helps that child learn to function as an adult. "Tough love" can be a very loving thing to do.

Fifth, ending the enabling will involve stages of grieving. You will go through phases of feeling like a ‘bad parent,' wondering if you're doing the right thing. Your child may, and probably will, play on your emotions. They may guilt-trip you and cause you to doubt your decision. Expect this and know that these stages are normal.

Sixth, get support. Talk to others going through similar struggles. There is little quite as encouraging as talking to others who have similar experiences. Ask how they have handled their ‘boomerang child.' 

Finally, forgive yourself and your child.  They are not trying to be the way they are, and you are doing the best you can. Acknowledge how difficult it is to render "tough love." Acknowledge that sometimes the most loving thing you can do causes pain to another. However, recognize that ultimate the pain is the result of their decisions.

Practice some of these tools and let me know how they work for you.

September 7, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.