Am I Helping or Enabling my Young Adult Child?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

Am I Helping or Enabling my Young Adult Child?

Episode 027 · Duration: 00:18:07

Am I Helping or Enabling my Young Adult Child?

Are you providing support to your young adult child and wonder if you’re doing the right thing? Today we’re answering a question from Rachel of Culver City, California. Rachel writes:

Our son is 19 years-old and is living at home with us. He started at the community college, but wasn’t serious and dropped out. He says he wants to work in the film industry and he was very involved in film production in high school, but wasn’t studious and got poor grades. He says he has lots of leads on production crews and he sometimes goes out on small jobs, but then there is lots of time between jobs. The problem is that his lifestyle is that he sleeps in until late, stays out late and when he’s home, he’s mostly in his room on his computer playing games. I’m not sure how much marijuana he smokes, but I know he uses it. We know it takes time to break into this career, but we aren’t sure what we should be expecting from him. Chores? Rent? He doesn’t have much money. We don’t like him sleeping in so late, but he’s too old for us to keep on him. When we try to talk to him, he just gets defensive. What’s the right thing to do here?

Rachel, I’m so glad you asked this question because I’ve been seeing lots of parents with their young adult children in counseling lately. The issues you are raising are common to many parents. There are a lot of young adults living at home with their parents these days for several reasons. One is that housing is very expensive in many parts of the country, and in the L.A. area specifically, rents are very high. With minimum wage jobs or even career entry-level jobs, young adults have trouble affording housing.

Young Adulthood

Let’s take a look at that stage of development that we’re calling young adulthood. I’m calling young adulthood the period of time when kids graduate from high school to about age 24. These are amazing years in human development! It’s often the first time kids have lived away from their families, and whether they are home or away, their lives are no longer prescribed and they are making a lot of decisions independently for the first time. They’re deciding how they spend their time and who they spend it with. It’s important to remember, that puberty extends to about age 22 or 23 for young women, and 23 or 24 for young men. Neurological development is continuing during this period of time, and so we can think of this time as extended or late adolescence. Let’s call it young adulthood and just remember that development is still taking place, and these young adults are not full adults yet. Also, they often will need continued parental support. Often this support means financial support, as well as emotional support and guidance as they move gradually away from the nest and find their place in the world.

Generally speaking, if adolescence has gone well for our kids, then they are ready for young adulthood and even though that is a very dynamic stage of life, they are prepared to go through it relatively well. If our kids have struggled with their adolescence, and don’t have reasonable goals, habits, and self-esteem, then young adulthood can be fraught with problems and miscues. Some kids who may have seemed to do well in adolescence by being compliant, but haven’t done enough of their own decision-making or grown socially and emotionally, can struggle in young adulthood as well. Substance abuse, legal problems, financial problems, mental health issues can all result. In fact, 15–24 year-olds account for about 40 percent of all arrests in the US, even though they comprise only about 14 percent of the population.

15–24 year-olds account for about 40 percent of all arrests in the US.Click To Tweet

As our kids enter this developmental stage, we as parents need to ask ourselves and be certain that the support we are providing our kids, is helping them as they grow and move forward. And this is the question Rachel is struggling with. In other words is the help helping them grow towards their goals, or is our help enabling them to stall and not move forward in a productive way; and the term for that is enabling.

How You Can Help

This is the essential question and yet the answer might be different for each kid and their particular circumstances. For instance what if the kid has a significant learning difference, or ADHD, or a psychiatric condition? What if the job market is extremely tight, limiting their opportunities?

Here are a few basic principles to keep in mind when deciding how much help and under what circumstances to offer it:

  • The issues and problems that your young adult has belongs to them, not to us. Our job is to support them in accomplishing their goals. If they aren’t working to accomplish their goals, or if their efforts on their own behalf are weak and inadequate, our help is helping them stay stuck, or is enabling.
  • If they are living at home with you, then they need to be positive and productive members of the household. True, they are legal adults and shouldn’t be micromanaged by their parents. On the other hand, they need to bring a positive young adult attitude to their parents and the situation. That can include lots of things including keeping reasonable hours, letting their parents know when they are spending the night away, participating in chores, taking care of their space and, in some cases, paying some amount of rent.
  • A third principle to know if helping is positive or enabling is the quality of the communication with your YA kid. If you can talk about issues openly without things turning into an argument, then as issues and problems arise, they can be effectively dealt with. If parents can’t talk with their YA kids and resolve issues together, that signals a control battle and, most likely, parental enabling behavior.
The issues and problems that your young adult has belongs to them.Click To Tweet

Stop the Enabling Behavior

Let’s look at Rachel’s situation with her son. Her son is not doing everything he can do to grow and improve his situation. He’s sleeping in, playing endless video games, and that is not productive use of his time. It doesn’t sound like he’s being a very productive member of the household either. In fact, it doesn’t seem that much has changed since high school where her son did what he enjoyed doing, namely his video work, and did not manage his other responsibilities very well. Now as a young adult he’s doing the same thing. He didn’t manage his responsibilities at community college, and only wants to do what he enjoys doing.

So while it’s great that he has a strong interest, which is important since it can be motivating, he doesn’t have the maturity to develop his production skills. Being hired at a low level to help with short production pieces isn’t going to get him very far. I don’t know what went on when he was in high school, but I’m guessing both Rachel and his father struggled to get him to be responsible, and he kept falling short. In other words, there was a control battle and his development flat lined. Now, the same control battle is in place, with the same result: little to no progress. Just so you know what I’m talking about, in Rachel’s question, she says that when she tries to talk with him, he gets defensive, and she then backs off. So as long as that goes on, she can’t talk about issues and problems, therefore no progress is going to take place. I’m also quite sure that his marijuana use is and has been a significant contributing factor in his underachievement (which is one way to name what is going on with him).

Rachel and his Dad are going to need to shift out of enablement and create a much healthier and more productive relationship with their son. He has a lot of maturing to do, so this may not be easy. If Rachel follows a solid and positive plan, things will start to move in the right direction! To start, Rachel and her husband need to resolve to stop enabling and agree to only support their son in healthy movement forward.

  • He’s going to need to keep reasonable hours
  • He’s going to need some education and a realistic plan for his career
  • He’s going to need a job
  • He’s going to need to participate in home responsibilities
  • He’s going to have to look at his substance abuse issues
  • It seems to me that therapy and a substance abuse assessment is going to need to be an important part of changing the family pattern and getting your son the help he needs

Rachel, here is how you can get things started. I’m going to call your son Frank for this example. First, let Frank know that you need to have an important conversation. Cell phones off. TV off. You, his father and Frank: un-distracted.

When you’re sitting down, maybe with a cup of coffee or a cold drink. Keep in mind that the conversation and your attitude is going to be completely positive. Of course, Frank will get defensive but you will not get drawn in or back off.

Start with what you know to be Frank’s good qualities, for instance, “we want you to know that we love you and believe in you, and we want to support you. We know you are smart and capable and can do most anything you put your mind to.” Then acknowledge any other attributes, for instance, good with people, a good friend, generous, athletic, knowledgeable about many things, musical, a good writer, artistic—whatever are the true and positive characteristics you appreciate about Frank.

The conversation could go on like this:

We’re concerned that that you aren’t moving forward in a healthy way. Things haven’t been great for a long time. In high school, you did what you enjoyed, but you didn’t develop the discipline to accept responsibility for those things you didn’t enjoy. We didn’t hold you to a high enough standard and things are continuing that way; with you doing the things you enjoy, but not challenging yourself to do the things that are important, but that you don’t enjoy.
Plus your Marijuana use has been going on a long time and is no doubt part of what is holding you back.

Going forward, things will need to be different and there will need to be some new understandings to get things out of their rut:

  • Frank you are going to have to be more responsible in general.
  • We will expect you to develop come career goals and some specific plans and steps to take to accomplishing those goals, not just waiting around for some small temporary jobs. Education is no doubt an important part of that and you’re going to need to take some steps in that direction as well.
  • You will need to get a regular job.
  • You will need to make some contributions around the house as well, not just specific chores, which we can talk in more detail about. You need to have an attitude that you are an important member of the household and are happy to help out and do things that you see need to be done and, of course, that includes doing a much better job of cleaning up after yourself. We need you to think of yourself as a young adult and to stop expecting us to take care of you as if you are a child.
  • Sleeping away half the day and staying out late every night is NOT a formula for success and neither is playing endless video games. We’re going to need you to be up every day and either going to work, a class, or looking for work.
  • Also, you’re going to have to take a hard look at your pot use. We’re very concerned that you’ve been smoking for a long time now and it’s a big part of what’s holding you back.
  • For starters, we are all going to see a therapist together and talk over these issues and get some help making a plan. Part of the counseling will need to be you getting an evaluation on your substance abuse issues.
  • We all need a new start. You need strong steps in a positive direction for yourself, and we need strong steps in healthy parenting of a young adult. We’ve all got our work to do.

How does all this sound Rachel? I’m guessing a little overwhelming, but think about all this a little bit and then make a plan. I do think starting with all three of you together, going to see a seasoned family therapist would be a great start. If you just send him to therapy on his own, the therapist will only hear what he’s tell them. They won’t get the bigger picture and it won’t do much to help you out of your enabling pattern.

A Challenge For Everyone

Readers, let’s remember that young adulthood is an important and often challenging developmental stage for many young people and their parents. Stay positive and make sure that your efforts at helping and supporting are doing just that, and your support isn’t enabling or undermining your young adult’s development.

Young adulthood is an important and often challenging developmental stage.Click To Tweet

Here’s my challenge to all of us: Are we asking enough of our kids? Are we seeing and inviting them to use and develop their potential? Of course we need to love and support our kids, but part of loving and supporting them is expecting their best. So let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves, are my standards high enough to help my son or daughter discover how capable they truly are?

Please if you haven’t already done so, grab a copy of my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. Many readers have told me it is the least expensive and best counseling session they ever had. And if you’re enjoying my podcast, I’d love it if you’d go to my iTunes site at Healthy Family Connections, and leave a review there.

Take care of yourselves. You need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.

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  1. So here’s a weird situation. I am concerned about my young adult neice, who is in a similarly underachieving situation as Rachel’s son described above. However, her parents are absent/unable/unwilling to provide the type of support that she needs at this critical age. Furthermore, she lives far away from her parents but close to me and some of our other relatives. I would like to help her grow, become more responsible and in general, get her shit together without being an enabler. So far as I can see, there are two extra challenges for me that a parent would not have a) I’m not her parent and b) I’m in my late twenties and she considers me to be more of a sister than an aunt. She has dropped out of community college, has terrible eating habits which are making her sick, smokes too much pot and struggles with managing her money. She has however, expressed an interest in returning to community college. I am considering trying to work with her to 1) develop a budgeting system 2) begin planning meals 3) provide encouragement/a sense of urgency to get back into college. But I want to do all of this in a way that empowers her to do these things for herself rather than in a way that says “someone will always swoop in and save you”. Any suggestions for an aunt who wants to help a YA?

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