10 Signs You Are Enabling Your Adult Child’s Bad Behavior (And How to Stop)
By: Jennifer Maggio
The moment I gave birth to my 9 pound, brown-eyed, overly-chubby, bouncing baby boy, I was in love. Like most moms, the joy of holding his soft hands in my arms and snuggling his sweet face into mine far outweighed the fears and worries that I knew would be part of our journey. As a then single mom, I knew that the mountain we’d climb over the next twenty years or so would probably be harder than I could even imagine, but nonetheless, he was all mine and I couldn’t have loved him more. I don’t know if was my youth (I was only 18), my single motherhood, my lack of a mother in my own life, or my parenting ignorance, or a perhaps a combination of all the above, but over the course of the next many years, I created a habit of enabling my son that took many years to break.
Like other enablers, I didn’t intend for that to be the case. I only wanted what was best for him. But I think my guilt over the lack of his biological father in his life, or maybe just sheer exhaustion, created this ability to me to enable him. Because of my own journey, I can now see with radar lenses the parent who is enabling their child’s bad behavior and how even the smallest of children can be enabled or encouraged, but rarely both.
The following are 10 signs you may be enabling your adult child. Consider each.
- You accept responsibility for his failures. We all fall short of God’s glory and thereby, we all will make mistakes, including our children. However, an enabling parent will internalize every mistake a child makes as somehow “our fault”. We weren’t good enough as a parent. We beat ourselves up that we constantly failed. Now, that’s not to say that we haven’t made some parenting mistakes. Of course, we have. But every failure our adult children have is not directly tied to them.
- You are an endless supply of money for your adult child. When I was 18, I became a mother. I moved out. And I was never permitted to live in my family home again. I bought a $500 car that broke down weekly, seemingly. My dad’s only financial support was buying me a used mattress. There would be some that would say that that was simply awful and how dare my dad treat me in such a way. However, I have a different perspective. My years of scraping pennies and knowing there wasn’t an endless supply of money at the ends of my dad’s wallet taught me much about managing money. It taught me stewardship and responsibility. So, why do we think that we must be the solution for our adult children’s money problems? I have seen parents exhaust savings accounts, forego retirement, and skip vacations to keep their adult children afloat. What’s worse is that it often never ends!
- You are easily manipulated. Do you believe everything your adult child tells you, although he/she hasn’t been honest in the past? Did he/she “lose her wallet again?” Did he get fired, again, from that rude, unyielding boss because he’s so unfair? Sometimes the enablement of our adult children is worsened by our naiveté or ease of manipulation. Be savvy. Be wise. Be prayerful about when your adult child isn’t being honest with you.
- You frequently make excuses for his/her behavior. Is Johnny always late to functions? Does Madison always snap at guests and visitors? Does he/she fail to sympathize with others’ pain or challenges? No, it is not always because your adult child had a bad life. Yes, they may have faced passed hardships, such as an absentee parent, trauma, death, abuse, or loss, but such occurrences aren’t a license to forever treat people poorly, or have you to constantly make excuses for their behavior.
- You complete tasks your adult child should complete. Wow, this list is endless. Some items could include laundry, dishes, cleaning, taxes, school/college projects, or scheduling doctor’s appointments, hair appointments, and the like. While none of these tasks, in and of themselves are life-altering, the trend of constantly taking care of tasks that your adult child should be handling is one that will leave you exhausted and he/she ill-prepared for the real world.
- You are exhausted. Okay, so exhaustion can be spearheaded by countless reasons, included physical ailments, lack of sleep, stress, etc. But the type of exhaustion I’m speaking of is in specific regards to your adult children. Is your task list much longer than it should be because you are handling much of their affairs? Are you emotionally worn out, because you spend time fretting and worrying about your adult child’s decisions and potential future consequences? The constant to and fro of enabling an adult child wears on us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. If you hear your adult child’s name or see their number surface on your phone, do you immediately feel a sense of dread or overwhelm? If so, it is a good indicator that you are enabling your adult child.
- You are controlling his life. I remember standing in the parking lot of my son’s high school chatting with another mother about our sons’ impending graduation. The other mother made a comment, “I guess I’m going to have to go to college with XXX. These extra assignments are killing me!” I smiled and may have even laughed, but as I drove away, I was saddened for her. I had once been there – completing projects and attempting to control every facet of my son’s decision-making. It isn’t worth it. We do our children no favors when we attempt to control their lives, their decision-making, their future selection of spouse, or their friends. You won’t be around forever to control the outcome of every situation for your adult child.
- You allow your adult child to control your life. This is just the opposite of the previous point. Do you struggle with the freedom to enjoy your life, because you are so busy worried about your adult child? Do you forego vacations, because you worry that your adult child may need you while you are gone? Do you spend much of your time worrying about what your adult child is doing or who they are doing it with? The lack of healthy boundaries in an adult-child relationship that integrate control and manipulation are key indicators that enablement is transpiring.
- You have failed to prepare your adult child for the future. You will one day pass away, as will we all. Have you prepared your adult child to make decisions alone? Manage money well? Parent his own children effectively one day? Be the man of the home, leading in a Godly and way (or alternatively prepared your daughter for independence?
- You have failed to let go. I am reminded of Proverbs 22:6’s instruction to train up a child in the way they should go. The operative word here is Go. Go. Go. It is our duty as parents to let them go. Give them the freedom and great opportunity of serving the Lord their God. Allow them to discover life and all its riches and joys. Allow them to fail and grow into better human beings, because of those failures.
So, what do you do when you read this list and the response is, “Yep, that’s me. Check. Check. Check.”? The short story? There’s hope. Confession time: I’m a recovering enabler. I spent far too much time on my child’s school projects. I was too interested in the sporting events and the winning at all costs. I controlled doctor’s appointments and friend choices. And guess what? I became flat-out, utterly, exhausted. I had no time for my ministry, my husband, or me. I had to learn to let it go. As with many difficult decisions, it wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it. I have been parenting since I was 18 years old. I went straight from childhood to parenthood. I had never actually enjoyed my life, as an adult, apart from being a mother. Yes, of course, you are always mom (or dad), but you are not always parenting. Parenting ends with a season. You can love your adult child, offer Godly counsel, when asked, and enjoy their company, but you can let go of the active parenting season, once they reach adulthood.
And guess what happened once I did? It didn’t kill my adult child or me! Our relationship strengthened, because life was no longer all about him. I enjoyed the new-found freedom to go on vacation, pick up new hobbies, or not answer phone calls, when I wasn’t in the mood to talk. Does he know I love him? Yep. Is he better equipped to handle the rest or his life, once I finally let go? Yep. Did he always like the boundaries I implemented? No. Does he still love me? You better believe it!
So, go moms. Be free. Enjoy your life as an empty nester. You’ve earned it.
Jennifer Maggio is author of four books, mother of three, and wife to Jeff. She is a national speaker and founder of the international nonprofit, The Life of a Single Mom Ministries. She is an abuse survivor who is passionate about women finding a life of complete freedom in Christ. For more info, visit www.jennifermaggio.com.