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When Helping Hurts: Are You an Enabling Parent?

  • Allison Bottke Author, Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children
  • Updated Oct 30, 2013
When Helping Hurts: Are You an Enabling Parent?


Let's face it, not all adult children are dysfunctional, any more than all parents are enablers. Many adult children have been raised to have deep respect for their parents and themselves. For these children, the thought of taking advantage of anyone, let alone the parents who raised them, is abhorrent. Let's call these children functioning adult children.

However, for many of us, that term does not describe our adult children. Instead, we "parents in pain" dream about seeing our adult children live as independent, functioning adults instead of the dependent, dysfunctional adult children they have become. And no doubt many enabling parents would argue that their adult children are incapable of taking care of themselves. That may be true. However, is this because of a real physical handicap, a viable developmental disability, or have years of enabling crippled your adult child? And if crippled, is this disability temporary or permanent? If temporary, what can we parents do to help reverse the disability and see our adult children take responsibility for themselves?

The first step is for us to accept any part we may have played in making our adult children whom—and what—they've become. We also need a better understanding of the difference between helping and enabling, and the wisdom and willingness to make the necessary changes in our own lives when at last we truly recognize the difference.

What Is the Difference Between Helping and Enabling?

Helping is doing something for someone that he is not capable of doing himself.

Enabling is doing for someone things that he could and should be doing himself.

An enabler is a person who recognizes that a negative circumstance is occurring on a regular basis and yet continues to enable the person with the problem to persist with his detrimental behaviors. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which our adult children can comfortably continue their unacceptable behavior.

When we continue to allow these behaviors to occur, we are setting a pattern of behavior in our children that will be hard to change. We are enabling their repeated inappropriate behavior. Then we repeat the enabling pattern with the result of instilling bad habits and accepting what should be unacceptable behavior for so many years that it eventually becomes as natural to many of us as breathing. Yet all the while, a nagging feeling deep in our heart and soul tells us something is very wrong.

Are You an Enabling Parent?

Here are a few questions that might help you determine if you are an enabling parent.

1. Have you loaned him money repeatedly, seldom (if ever) being repaid?  

2. Have you paid for education and/or job training in more than one field?

3. Have you finished a job or project that he failed to complete himself because it was easier than arguing with him?  

4. Have you paid bills he was supposed to have paid himself?

5. Have you accepted part of the blame for his addictions or behavior?

6. Have you avoided talking about negative issues because you feared his response?

7. Have you bailed him out of jail or paid for his legal fees?

8. Have you given him "one more chance" and then another and another?

9. Have you ever returned home at lunchtime (or called) and found him still in bed sleeping?

10. Have you wondered how he gets money to buy cigarettes, video games, new clothes, and such but can't afford to pay his own bills?

11. Have you ever "called in sick" for your child, lying about his symptoms to his boss?

12. Have you threatened to throw him out and didn't?

13. Have you begun to feel that you've reached the end of your rope?

14. Have you begun to hate both your child and yourself for the state in which you live?

15. Have you begun to worry that the financial burden is more than you can bear?

16. Have you begun to feel that your marriage is in jeopardy because of this situation?

17. Have you noticed growing resentment in other family members regarding this issue?

18. Have you noticed that others are uncomfortable around you when this issue arises?

19. Have you noticed an increase in profanity, violence, and/or other unacceptable behavior?

20. Have you noticed that things are missing from your home, including money, valuables, and other personal property?

If you answered yes to several of these questions, chances are at some point in time you have enabled your adult child to avoid his own responsibilities—to escape the consequences of his actions. Rather than help your child grow into a productive and responsible adult, you have made it easier for him to get worse.

To put it simply, your helping is hurting—and it's time to stop. But trust me when I say that it won't be easy. Although it's high time many of our adult children begin to accept the consequences of their choices, the plain truth is we must first accept the responsibility for our own choices—past, present, and future.

Our biggest problem isn't about our adult child's inability to wake up when his alarm clock rings, or her inability to keep a schedule, hold down a job, or pay the bills. It's not about drug use or alcohol addictions. It's not about the mess these adult children are making of their life. The main problem is about the part we're playing in stepping in to soften the blow of the consequences that come from the choices they make.

The main problem is us.

Ending Enabling Behavior

From my experience, I've come to learn four life-saving truths about changing enabling behavior.

  • We can pray for the power to change ourselves.
  • We can help (not enable) adult children of any age develop wings to fly on their own.
  • We can find comfort in knowing we are not alone on this journey.
  • We can take back our life!

But it's going to take time—and support from others.


If you're a hurting parent who dearly loves your adult child but longs to see him at last take responsibility for his life, please take a moment to watch the video "When Helping Hurts" on the audio/video page of our web site. It could save your sanity—and maybe even your adult child's life. Video clip at:

Adapted from Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children, Six Steps to Hope and Healing by Allison Bottke © 2008. Harvest House Publishers. All rights reserved. Visit