How To Stop Enabling Grown Children And Why It's Important

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As a parent or caregiver, it may be difficult to accept when your children become adults. When they were first born, you may have dedicated a significant portion of your life to ensuring their safety. It may seem that they grew in the blink of an eye and are suddenly going through adult milestones such as getting married or graduating from college. 

However, some parents may continue to baby their children into adulthood. Learning to stop enabling the unhealthy behaviors of adult children can be challenging, especially when you love and care for your child. One way to cope with this challenge is to understand what enabling looks like and how to stop it. 

Helicopter parents and landing pad kids represent codependency

Why is enabling unhealthy? 

It may seem that supporting your children no matter what is healthy. However, when a parent enables their child into adulthood, they may hold them back or increase their sense of entitlement. It can be expected for a parent to want to make their child's life easier or less stressful, so enabling behavior may not be intentional. However, when a child's needs are met by their parents instead of themselves, they may miss out on essential life skills. 

It can be valuable for parents to understand the difference between supporting and enabling. Below are a few signs you might be enabling an adult child: 

  • They live at home with you, or you pay for their living expenses, such as phone bills, car payments, or medical insurance past age 25. 
  • They constantly come to you for help during "crises" or ask for financial support.
  • They don't have a full-time or part-time job after graduating high school.
  • You are constantly making sacrifices for them to get what they want. 
  • You are overwhelmed by helping your adult child.
  • You are constantly worried about doing something that will hurt or upset your adult child.

Is enabling adult children common? 

Parental enabling is common. In July 2020, 52% of US adults aged 18 to 29 lived at home with their parents, up from 47% a few months prior. While the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted this phenomenon, other factors were involved beforehand. 

It can be normal for a parent to want what's best for their children throughout their lifetime. Some parents are worried about their kids going their own way, wanting to shield them from hardships, regardless of age. It may be challenging to accept that your adult children can make their own life choices and decisions without guidance. You might struggle to stop seeing them as your baby. 

Some parents may struggle knowing their children may inevitably face challenges that can't be controlled. In response, they may enable the child by offering support and care. However, in the process, they may prevent their child from growing into a responsible adult who can be resilient and handle challenges independently. Moving from enabling to empowering your grown children may be more effective. 

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What is enabling?

You may have heard of the spouse of someone with a dependency justifying their usage or providing them with the substances that feed their addiction. An enabler may perform actions that seem helpful at the moment by keeping another person comfortable and reducing the chances of upset. 

However, these actions may not address the core challenge or future behavior, which can lead to patterns of a person seeking support outside of themselves instead of taking steps to better their life. Parents can also partake in similar patterns with their adult children. 

Why is enabling harmful?

When parents enable a child, they may choose to manage the tasks their adult children would otherwise do independently, such as laundry, cleaning, paying bills, or managing finances. In doing this, their adult children may be comfortable relying on their parents. They may stay at home longer or rely on their parents for any challenging event. 

As the adult ages, they're ill-equipped to handle the world around them without help from their parents. Whether 18 or 30, they may eventually be asked to enter adult life. If these adult children have been shielded by their parents from adult tasks, they may struggle to function. If their parents have always done their laundry, cooking, and cleaning, they may not know how to tend to a home. These adults may struggle to set appointments, pay bills, or apply for loans. They may not know how to go grocery shopping or cook a recipe. 

Some parents who enable their children might not focus on teaching life skills but on supporting them through setbacks. When an adult has not learned to be independent, their mental and physical health may worsen, as they might experience anxiety when they are asked to problem-solve independently. 

Children may prosper with the opportunity to try, fail, and try again. With failure can come growth and independence. The ability to take care of oneself is essential for survival. In addition, life is not guaranteed, and an adult child losing a parent after having them always available may struggle significantly to care for themselves after the loss. 

How to change enabling behaviors

To correct enabling behavior with your young adult children, it may be beneficial to understand why the behavior is unhealthy. You may want to provide instant gratification or support to your child. However, step back and think about the long-term impacts. Think about what would happen if you never taught your adult children to do their laundry, cook a meal, or drive. 

Note that changing enabling behaviors may be challenging at first. Your adult child might push back, get upset, or believe you don't love them due to your behavior change. However, remind them that you want to support them by teaching them new skills for adulthood and that you're not doing it out of a desire to be mean or take away their support system. Stick to your plan to foster your adult child's independence, but remain empathetic. 

Note that pulling back to allow independence may not mean pulling back entirely. Your child may still benefit from speaking to you during a challenging life experience, as familial support can be essential to mental health and wellness. 

When you speak to your child about your boundaries, consider discussing the following topics: 

  • Each person's roles and responsibilities as part of a family unit and how these can change over time
  • What you have realized about enabling, and how you want to change your own behaviors as a parent
  • What you would like to teach your young adult child, and why it may be vital for them to learn these skills
Helicopter parents and landing pad kids represent codependency

How to find support as a parent 

Realizing that you may be enabling your adult children may be challenging. If you want support in this journey, reaching out to a therapist for guidance may be beneficial. However, some parents may be too busy for in-person therapy. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be convenient. 

Through an online therapy platform, you can attend sessions at a time that works for you from any location with an internet connection. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions and message your therapist outside of sessions for advice. Some online platforms offer group therapy sessions, webinars, and journaling prompts, as well. 

Online therapy has also been proven effective for various conditions and symptoms. In a randomized controlled trial of 324 university students with symptoms of anxiety and depression, researchers found internet-based interventions effective in building resilience, sustaining healthy coping skills, improving overall psychological well-being, and mitigating symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

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When you start to break the cycle of enabling and see your adult child gain independence in their life, you may experience pride in their accomplishments. The sense of entitlement they once had may fade, and you may see them become independent. They may start a business, buy a house, or have children. These accomplishments can still be celebrated as a family, even if you aren't offering as much support as you used to. 

If you believe a non-biased, trained therapist may be a helpful guide in reworking family dynamics, developing better reinforcement, or encouraging your adult child to become more resilient, consider contacting a therapist online or in your area to get started.

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