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6 Steps to Stop Yourself from Enabling Grown Children

6 Steps to Stop Yourself from Enabling Grown Children

Your daughter calls and says unless she comes up with $500, her only car—that she drives to work—will be repossessed. What she really means is that you need to come up with the money.

Your son needs to stop drinking, but you know if you don’t go get the kids tonight, he’ll fall into a drunken stupor and the little ones will have to fend for themselves. You know you need to stop giving your children money and volunteering free babysitting, but how can you stand to watch them—or your grandkids—suffer?

And how in the world did you get into this mess?

The Difference between Helping and Enabling

The first priority is to recognize the difference between helping and enabling your grown child. When an adult child is usually able to make good decisions and handle crises on their own, a call for help reflects a need for exactly that—help.

But when an adult child rarely makes wise choices, or becomes mired in an addiction, they will want you to bail them out of every tight spot. Repeating the same basic scenario over and over means you are enabling them to continue dysfunctional behaviors.

Perpetual enabling is called co-dependency. Wikipedia defines it as “a behavioral condition in a relationship where one person enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.” The parent in this type of relationship feels a need to “fix” the child, even when they clearly aren’t taking any advice.

The parent may also be afraid to be truthful about the situation for fear of hurting the child’s feelings or driving them away.

In the beginning, during their teen years or early twenties, when they called with an urgent situation, it appeared the best option was for you to take care of it. But over time, you realize that they don’t seem to know how—or even desire—to take responsibility for their own choices and the consequences they bring.

Codependent behaviors begin long before a teen becomes an adult, and they won’t end overnight. But as parents, we need to begin the process as soon as we recognize there is a problem. The good news is, there is help for recovery and change. Let's take a look at six ways you can stop enabling your grown child.

1. Be Honest with Yourself and Acknowledge the Role You Play

As painful as this step is, nothing will change until you admit your own need. Yes, you want your child to love you. Yes, you’re afraid she’ll cut you off if you refuse to pay her debts. And yes, you have always come to the rescue, thereby relieving her of any need to take responsibility.

There are many reasons the enabling pattern emerges. Psychologists would say it arises out of a parent’s need for affirmation. Maybe there was a past divorce after which your ex cast you in a negative light. One way you tried to fix that is by being the “helpful” parent. It’s possible your actions relieve a sense of guilt over difficulties in your marriage, even if you’re still wed.

Some parents begin the “helicopter” parenting style when their child is a toddler, and by the time little Jeffy grows up, enabling is all they know how to do.

Whatever the causes, now you know the best way forward is to stop bailing her out of every scrape she creates. After all, you won’t always be there.

No parent desires to see their child suffer. None of us would choose to perpetuate dysfunctional behavior on purpose. But sometimes it happens. We realize a pattern has taken root that must be broken—and this is the first step.

The Bible is full of stories of dysfunctional family relationships within the homes of godly parents. These problems are not the result of conscious sin. Most of the time, biblical parents failed to recognize their roles and often great pain resulted. But we have the advantage of reading about them and learning from their mistakes.

In Genesis, Isaac and Rebekah pampered Jacob and Rebekah covered for—and even helped concoct—his deception to steal the family blessing. Jacob ran for his life after his brother threatened to kill him, and eventually got in hot water with his father-in-law for deceptive business practices.

Later, Jacob favored his son Joseph over all his brothers. This created such hatred, they conspired to kill Joseph. Joseph’s brother Judah raised a couple of incorrigible sons.

In 1 Samuel, Sampson gets his parents to do whatever he wants, including making a deal for a pagan bride against Jewish law. And even King David faced an attempted coup by one of his sons.

We are given no indication that those biblical parents saw trouble coming, and few modern-day parents see it looming either. But once it develops, parents need to confess the part we play and ask God to help. The compulsion to fix our kids is really a form of control. Therefore, we need to ask God to forgive our rushing ahead without seeking his guidance. We can take comfort in the words of 1 John 1:9 where we learn that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us.

But without concrete action, nothing will change, even if you have acknowledged your role and asked God to forgive you. You must take the next steps.

2. Pray for Wisdom and Then Set Boundaries with Your Child

Codependency at its core is a lack of boundaries—both emotional and physical. This means that you may let your emotions sway your actions. If you feel rejection from your child-rearing its head, you’ll do what you perceive she needs in order to push it back down.

Her emotions have become more important than your own. Your actions confirm this truth when you bail her out time and time again.

The Bible tells us in Ephesians 5:15 to choose to live wisely, and in James 1:5 we find out that we can ask God to give us the wisdom we need. So we can pray with confidence that the Lord will help us know the right things to do and say. This help may come in the form of advice from a pastor or counselor, Scripture, or trusted godly friend—but it will come.

It will not be easy, and will probably create an emotional scene, but it is necessary to draw a line in the sand, so to speak. Be specific about what you will and won’t do. Try to approach the situation without casting blame at your child. They may feel guilt and say you’re blaming them. But remember the truth—you are setting them up for future success. This begins with accepting personal responsibility for choices.

If addiction is the problem, you may have to do the hardest thing of all—let a crisis develop and refuse to intervene, or even call the authorities. Your child may lose custody of his children. But this may be the very thing that drives him to get clean. I have a friend who found herself in this kind of situation.

Today her son has been drug-free for fifteen years and he tells anyone who will listen that losing his kids was the motivation he needed.  It’s unfortunate, but often people need to hit rock bottom before they begin the upward climb. 

Remember, too, that there may not be a happy ending for your child—at least that you can see in your lifetime. However, as an adult, it is his life. Not yours. You are not responsible for the consequences of his choices. That’s God’s job. You are only responsible for your actions—and this is why you want to stop enabling.

Here again, we can take comfort from Scripture. In Isaiah 49:4, the prophet said that the future Servant King, Jesus Christ, would not understand why people refused to accept and believe him. Jesus was familiar with discouragement and frustration.

We know that he suffered all the same things we do, but I think we usually take this to mean temptations. How wonderful to realize he also understands our emotions. He understands wayward children too. After all, he said in Matthew 23:37—referring to his people the Israelites—that he wanted to gather them like a hen gathers her chicks under its wings, but they were not willing.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/VitezslavVylicil 

3. Enlist Prayer Support from Your Church Group

Whether it’s your small group, your pastor, or a specific support group, Matthew 18:20 assures us there is real power when we gather together in prayer. Meeting at least weekly will give you the boost you need to follow through with the decisions you have made.

Ask a close friend in your prayer group to be available for a phone call whenever the need arises. Just knowing there is one person who understands and will pray you off the ledge when you’re about to cave in makes all the difference. Tapping into God’s power will get you through.

4. Enforce Your Boundaries as Needed

You will suffer real emotional distress caused by your refusal to run to the rescue. Your child will not be the only one who feels it. You’ll be forced to watch the consequences of their choices and decisions unfold from the sidelines. It will be tempting to throw in the towel and go back to life as usual.

Again, we can learn from Jesus. Isaiah 50:7 tells us how our Lord set his face like a flint to his mission, which was not for himself, but for us—his children. That kind of sheer determination is what it takes to change an ingrained family dynamic. However, remember the reason you’re doing it.

The best thing for your child, grandchildren, and even yourself is to work toward a healthier relationship.

5. Pray Daily for Your Family

Pray for everyone in your family who is affected by your decision for change. The Lord awakens you every morning and if you ask, he’ll expand your understanding and help you (Isaiah 50:4). I like to search out prayers in the Bible that seem to apply to my situation. For example, praying the prayer the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:18-19 is one of my favorites. I recommend choosing a Bible prayer for each of our family members.

When you decide on a prayer for your child, print it out and post it where you can see it often. Consider making a separate copy to place in your Bible or journal. Pray it when you rise in the morning and as you’re falling asleep at night. If your situation whirls in your mind and keeps you awake, verbally handing it over to Jesus when you crawl into bed is better than any sleeping pill.

6. Refuse to Feel Guilty

Guilt may assault you the moment you realize something needs to change. Satan wants you to feel sorry for yourself and take all the blame. There is no magic bullet for ending a behavior pattern years in the making. Because of the challenges involved in keeping your boundaries intact, your emotions may fluctuate and cause your guilt-o-meter to spike.

Your child may blame you for his new issues—ones that really stem from the consequences of his own actions.

Stop Satan in his tracks by reminding him that you confessed whatever unwitting part you played, and God forgave you. That forgiveness is complete and means God chooses not to remember your sin. Read Psalm 103:12 for confirmation of this truth. It’s over—even if it doesn’t feel like it.

If you struggle with the ability to stop enabling your child, you are not alone. Nothing is more painful than a rift in your relationship with a child, and it is only natural to want to preserve positive feelings. Now, however, you see the wisdom of ending the pattern, and the steps you can take toward a healthier bond.

The real power will come as you rely on the Holy Spirit to help you. If you will be transparent with your child about your motivation—her ultimate good—and honest about your dependence on God for help, then true healing can begin.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages

Kathryn Graves, author of Woven: Discovering Your Beautiful Tapestry of Confidence, Rest, and Focus, and Fashioned by God, holds a BA in Psychology, is a pastor’s wife and Bible teacher, and spent 15 years in the fashion industry. Kathryn is Mimi to five grandsons, and loves to play with color—including interior design, clothing, and painting with pastels. In addition to her website, find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.