|Are You Enabling Your Adult Children?|
Before I discuss parents enabling adult children, I want to stress that, of course, most parents want the best for their children and would never do anything intentionally that was harmful to them.
At the same time, good intentions can sometimes lead to bad outcomes. With regard to enabling adult children, this often means that these children don't learn the necessary skills to develop and grow psychologically.
What Does "Enabling" Mean?
Let's start by providing the negative definition of "enabling," which is how I'm using it in this article.
Basically, the concept of enabling developed in the recovery community to describe spouses, family members and others who intend to "help" someone with an addiction but who make the problems worse with their "help."
Common examples of enabling in this sense is the wife (or husband) who calls the spouse's employer to make an excuse for an absence when, in fact, the spouse is too drunk to go to work.
In this case, the intention is for the spouse with the drinking problem to keep his job. However, the unintended consequence is that the spouse with the drinking problem learns that he can continue to drink and his spouse will make sure that everything is taken care of with the boss.
Anyone with an ounce of compassion for the wife in this situation can understand why she's doing this. If her husband loses his job, she and the children will also suffer terrible consequences. But, at the same time, she is unknowingly and unintentionally making the situation worse because there are no consequences for the husband at home or at work--at least for a while.
Presumably, these excuses can't go on forever. In the meantime, since alcohol problems tend to be progressive, without help, the husband's drinking problem will get worse and can lead to serious health problems or death.
The same scenario often occurs when parents make excuses for their adult children to shield them from experiencing negative consequences.
Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario to understand these consequences better:
Sandy and Ann:
Sandy's daughter, Ann, moved out with roommates when she was 25.
Initially, when Ann moved out, she wasn't making much money, so Sandy paid most of Ann's portion of the rent and helped to pay for Ann's phone.
As time went on, Ann got a promotion to a managerial position at her bank, and she was doing well enough so that she could afford her own apartment in Brooklyn. But she asked Sandy to continue to pay her rent for the next six months until she was settled in.
Sandy was happy to help her and continued to pay Ann's rent for the next six months--even though it came at a financial sacrifice. Sandy cancelled a vacation she planned to take. She also became a lot more careful about other everyday expenses so that she could continue to help Ann financially.
A few months later Ann approached Sandy for more money because she maxed out her credit cards and the balances were so high that she could no longer make minimum payments.
When Ann told Sandy what happened, Ann was shocked. She had no idea that Ann was running up her credit cards. She told Ann that she would pay off her credit cards, but she needed to be more careful in the future about how she spent money.
|Are You Enabling Your Adult Children|
Ann agreed to be more responsible, but this pattern continued for the next few years with Ann living above her means to have whatever she wanted and Sandy cutting back more and more on her own expenses to bail out Ann.
By the time Ann turned 30, she had a high paying executive position at her bank, but she continued to get deeper and deeper in debt.
As a single parent of an only child, Sandy was getting increasingly concerned about Ann's financial problems.
On some level, she knew that she had enabled this problem by constantly bailing Ann out, but she felt too guilty to refuse to help her.
Sandy offered to pay for Ann to see a financial advisor to help Ann develop better financial skills, but Ann wasn't interested.
Then, one day, Sandy came to visit Ann and told her that she had run up a new credit card and she couldn't pay it. When Ann told Sandy that the balance owed was $25,000, Sandy was shocked. At first, Sandy refused to help her.
At that point, Ann got enraged and said in a desperate tone, "What am I going to do!?! If the credit card company contacts my employer, I'll be so embarrassed! I'll lose my job! You have to help me."
Sandy wasn't sure what to do. She agonized about it for days. Then, she confided in her best friend, Meg, who was already familiar with this dynamic between Sandy and Ann.
Meg listened patiently, as she always did, and then she told Sandy that Ann was in deep trouble with her overspending habit. Then, she took a deep breath and told Sandy that Sandy was also in trouble for enabling Ann.
Sandy knew that Meg was right, but she felt too guilty and afraid not to help her daughter, so she took money from her savings account, gave it to Ann and told her that it was a loan and she had to pay her back.
Ann was taken aback when Sandy told her that she had to pay the money back, but she was feeling desperate, so she agreed to pay Ann back within the next two years.
After Sandy gave Ann the money, they each felt momentarily relieved and didn't talk about it again for a while. But as time went on and Ann didn't give Sandy any money to pay back the loan, Sandy got concerned.
Whenever Sandy brought up the loan, Ann got annoyed and reminded Ann that she had agreed to pay her back. Ann didn't like being "badgered" for the money and she said she would start paying back Sandy soon--as soon as she had the extra cash.
But time went on and Ann never brought up the loan and never gave Sandy any money. Instead, she got herself deep into debt again.
When Ann approached Sandy for more money, Sandy had run out of all options and, even though she felt very guilty, she told Ann that she would have to deal with this new debt on her own because she couldn't help her.
Ann panicked and approached her close friends for loans, but she had already borrowed money from all of them and still owed them so they told her they couldn't lend her any more money. Having no money to pay, Ann had to file for bankruptcy, which ruined her credit and caused her to lose her position with her bank.
Ann had no choice but to give up her apartment and move back home, which she resented. Then, instead of looking for another job, she spent all day sleeping in her former childhood room. She refused to speak to Sandy because she was unable to help her.
Faced with this increasingly difficult situation, Sandy began therapy because the situation was overwhelming to her.
In therapy, Sandy learned about the concept of enabling and how she had unwittingly contributed to her daughter's problems by constantly bailing her out.
Sandy knew that she had to make changes, but it was extremely difficult for her to say "no" to her daughter. But she took responsibility for her part in Ann's problems, and she began to deal with the underlying reasons that caused her to enable her daughter.
Sandy discussed in therapy that she had always felt guilty about separating from Ann's father, who was a gambler who gambled away their savings when Ann was a child.
After they separated, Ann's father disappeared from Ann's life and Ann blamed Sandy for this. As a child, Ann was too young to understand her father's gambling problems and Sandy never explained it to Ann--even when Ann became an adult. In fact, they never discussed it.
Ann realized in therapy that, due to her guilty feelings about the marital separation and Ann's father's abandoning Ann, Sandy felt she could never say "no" to Ann.
Ann had to work through her guilt in therapy before she could accept that she did what was best for herself and Ann when she left Ann's father, and it was time for her to stop trying to overcompensate for it by constantly bailing out Ann.
She also knew that she needed to speak with Ann about it and set limits with her, including how long she could continue to live with her and expect that Sandy would support her.
It was one of the most difficult conversations that Sandy had ever had in her life, but by the end of their conversation, Sandy explained why she separated from Ann's father. She also gave Ann six months to find a job or she would have to move out.
It took a few days before Ann came back to Sandy and apologized for her behavior.
She told Ann that after her father left, she blamed Sandy, but she also blamed herself. She felt that she must have been unlovable and that the only thing that made her feel good about herself was spending money (see my article: Learn to Stop Overspending as a Way to Avoid Uncomfortable Feelings).
She understood now that she had placed herself in an untenable situation and it was always headed for disaster, but she couldn't face it until now.
Ann began attending Debtor's Anonymous 12 Step meetings to deal with her overspending habit and she started putting her life together again.
Although it was very hard for Sandy to set limits with her daughter, she realized that neither she nor her daughter would have made any changes if she had not confronted her own underlying reasons for enabling Sandy. This, in turn, led to Ann facing her own problems.
Confronting your enabling behavior toward an adult child can be one of the most difficult things you do in your life.
You can find many rationalizations and excuses for your behavior, but until you face it and make a commitment to overcome it, neither you nor your child will be able to change this dysfunctional behavior.
In the scenario above, the enabling behavior was about giving an adult child money, but it can be about anything--enabling substance abuse, enabling overeating, enabling workaholism, and so on.
Getting Help in Therapy
Parents often find it increasingly difficult to stop enabling their children on their own.
It's easy to continue to bargain with yourself, "I'll just do it this one time and then I'll stop," in much the same way that your adult child can bargain with him or herself to continue to engage in dysfunctional behavior.
Getting help in therapy can provide you with the tools you need to take yourself out of the cycle of ongoing enabling.
Parents are often surprised that once they take a stand and stop enabling their adult children's dysfunctional behavior, their children will have no choice but to confront their own behavior and make changes.
The first step, picking up the phone and setting up an appointment with a therapist for a consultation, can be the hardest step, but it's often the first step to making positive changes.
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.
I have helped many clients to overcome negative enabling behavior so they could lead more fulfilling lives.
To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.
To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.