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 it was my youth (I was only 18), my single motherhood, the 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 a biological father in his life, or maybe just sheer exhaustion, led me into this habit of enabling him. Because of my own journey, I can now recognize with sharp focus 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.
Consider the following 10 signs you may be enabling your adult child.
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1. 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 of our adult children is not directly tied to their parents.
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2. 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, it seemed. My dad’s only financial support was buying me a used mattress. Some might say ‘that was simply awful’ and ‘how dare my dad treat me in such a way.’ However, my years of scraping pennies and knowing there wasn’t an endless supply of money at the end 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!
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3. You are easily manipulated.
Do you believe everything your adult child tells you, although he or she has not 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.
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4. You frequently make excuses for his or her behavior.
Is Johnny always late to functions? Does Madison always snap at guests and visitors? Does he or she fail to sympathize with others’ pain or challenges? No, it is not always because your adult child has had a bad life. Yes, they may have faced hardships in the past such as an absentee parent, trauma, death, abuse, or loss, but such occurrences aren’t a license to forever treat people poorly, or leave it to you to constantly make excuses for their behavior.
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5. You complete tasks your adult child should complete.
Wow, this list is endless. Some items could include laundry, dishes, cleaning, taxes, school and 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 your child ill-prepared for the real world.
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6. You are exhausted.
Okay, so exhaustion can result from countless reasons, included physical ailments, lack of sleep, stress, etc. But the type of exhaustion I speak of is specifically in regard to your adult children. Is your task list much longer than it should be because you are handling so 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.
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7. 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 _____. 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.
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8. 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 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 a parent-child relationship that give way to control and manipulation are key indicators that enablement is taking place.
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9. You have failed to prepare your adult child for the future.
You will one day pass away, as we all will. 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 way? Have you prepared your daughter for independence?
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10. 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 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.
Is This You?
So, what do you do when you read this list and the response is, “Yep, that’s me. Check. Check. Check.”?
The short story is, 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 winning at all costs. I controlled doctors' appointments and friend choices. And guess what? I became utterly, flat-out, 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 of 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 the 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.
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Originally published Friday, 05 July 2019.