Enabling Adult Children

Ivy says:

This steps out of the Home Ec category a bit, but I thought it was important enough to put here. And, it does have to do with personal finances, so there is that. Recently a dear friend of mine emailed me about watching her mom work two jobs to help finance her adult sister’s lifestyle. She wrote about the dilemma of wanting to help mom and sister without continuing to enable her sister.

This is something I completely understand, having watched my grandfather spend away all his and my grandmother’s money to “help” my uncle. All he was really doing was enabling my uncle to continue to be a child, even though my uncle was well into adulthood.

My uncle, Tommy, would quit working, lose his apartment, move back into my grandparents’ home with promises of working and quitting drinking once and for all. Then he’d lay up in bed all day and drink all night. My grandma would get tired of it and throw him out, and my grandfather would give him money to get an apartment and the cycle would begin again.

By the time my grandfather died, Tommy was well into his 40s and the rest of us were wise to his ways and refused to help him anymore. See, by continuing to enable him, they were continuing the cycle of alcoholism and by the time my grandfather wasn’t around anymore to help him, it was too late. We all hoped that he would be able to finally hit rock bottom, get the help he needed, and get out of the cycle.

Well, it didn’t end well. We finally all moved out of state, he (fortunately) stayed, and I get sent news articles from time to time from one of my other uncles about my uncle’s crazy antics. Last I heard, he was stabbed by his ex-wife and was going to jail for his part in that domestic assault.

The truth is, this cycle could have been stopped a long, long time ago, had my grandfather not enabled my uncle back when he was in his 20s, his 30s, even. But you can’t make another person do what you want them to do. I couldn’t stop my grandfather from enabling my uncle, and my friend can’t make her mother stop enabling her sister. (Who, I might mention, is not apparently like my uncle with an alcohol problem, it just appears she’s not great with finances and isn’t big on work.)

So what can we responsible siblings do when we watch our parents enable our adult siblings? How can we sit back and watch while mom eats tuna sandwiches and sis is buying her cats organic cat food*?

I have a few ideas, but keep in mind that you cannot make anyone do anything they do not want to do. First, I’d consider sending mom to Financial Peace University. I recently took this through my church and it was immensely eye opening. Sending the sister would be a good idea too, but from my experience with my own class, it may be money wasted. There was a lady in our class who was enabling her adult child. She tried to get the daughter to come, but she made one class, complained the entire time, and never came back. Still, if you think your sister is willing, it might be good to send her, too.

Secondly, help out when you can with items, not cash. We even still send my uncle a care package at Christmas and another sometime in the summer. See, it’s not that we don’t love him and it’s not even that we have completely given up on him. But we cannot continue to support him financially, so we help out in other ways. When I get good coupons for toiletries and personal care items, I set them aside to send in those care packages. Same with other items he might need- he’s mostly homeless, so I try to keep the stuff factor down and send things he can use and can store in a backpack. We also try to send him a new backpack every couple of years.

Finally, send messages of love and encouragement, and try to keep talking to mom about not continuing to enable your sister. Encourage mom to watch shows like “Intervention”- those are usually awesome examples of families enabling their adult children. It might open her eyes.

The hardest part is, mom is thinking she’s doing the best for her daughter. I know with the lady in my FPU class, she kept talking about how much she loved her daughter and wanted the best for her. I finally told her that the best way to love her daughter was to cut her loose and let her fend for herself. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I know the best thing my parents ever did for me was to tell me I had to fend for myself. I crashed a few times, and then I flew and haven’t looked back.

And you know, it’s funny, but I do think having these kind of family difficulties are good for some family members. Watching my uncle throw his entire life away has kept me (mostly) on the straight and narrow. We all have our family skeletons, but they do make for good life lessons.

*Note: If you’re going to have pets, please do feed them the best food you can possibly afford. It’s better for the pets. But if you’re living on someone else’s dime, don’t get pets you can’t afford, seriously. And y’all KNOW I’m a huge animal lover, but having pets you truly cannot afford is cruel to the pets.


  1. caryn verell on October 16, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    if the adult child who has returned home is turning into a “mooch” then you need to look at your paycheck and look at the name on the deed to your house. is that your name on the check? is that your name on the deed? if so, the power is in your hands to turn the mooching situation around. the only thing lacking is the desire to do so- but then, maybe the moocher has not mooched enough yet.

  2. Keter on September 9, 2008 at 12:28 am

    One caveat from my own history. Parents, don’t automatically assume that when a child comes to you for help, they are just being a mooch and they need “tough love.” Find out for sure what is going on and don’t make assumptions. Sure, in this day and age, kids that want to stay kids into their 40s are all too common, and it’s really easy to cite other examples when you say ‘no.’ Ask yourself if you are evading responsibility, being selfish, or seizing an opportunity for retribution. Ask yourself if you played a part (including if that part was absence) in the situation your child is facing.

    Either way you decide – to help or to use “tough love” – make the decision from the evidence, even if you don’t like what you see, don’t just listen to the media, Dr. Phil, your church group, etc. You are the one who will have to live with your conscience, karma, or alienation from that person if you arbitrarily withhold needed help from a loved one.

  3. mom, again on September 5, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    your granddad cutting off his son sooner might well have resulted in the son growing up. Or, it might have resulted in him becoming a homeless drunk sooner. I’ve seen both results in our family. It’s a hard situation, either way.

  4. Mom of three on September 4, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    If only my mother enabled family members, she enables any mooch that comes down the pike. Thing is she equals spending her money as love. They equal it with not working. She currently has her “cousins” living with her. THey are distantly related through my dad, and are in no way related to her. She likes that she can play martyr to their taking advantage. Personally I washed my hands of the whole thing long ago. The only thing that burns me is how hard dad worked his entire life to finance the who issue.
    There will never be tough love because as Dr. Phil states you get something out of it or you don’t do it. These “parents” get to be “long suffering”, “understanding”… As mom tells how hard it is on her to keep tending to these so called adults, her friends cluck, cluck and tell her “what a wonderful person she is.” She’s not wonderful, she likes people feeling sorry for her and how bad she has it that she has to take care of other people so much. I don’t play the game. I tell her like it is, that they are losers and she just wants people’s pity. Needless to say, she prefers them over me.

  5. Marsha on September 4, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    What a great post. One of my good friends is going through this with her daughter. It’s a VERY difficult situation.

  6. TennZen on September 4, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    A-MEN, Sistah!

    We’re going through this right now. An adult daughter has come to live with us… so we’re charging her for room and board. If she doesn’t pay, then she’s out. We even made her sign a lease agreement up front.

    Tough love. Say what you will, but it works.

  7. Stephanie on September 4, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    When I was 19 and in college, my parents cut me off financially because I was being very foolish. I hated them for that, but it really was what I needed.

    My husband and I have watched a similar situation in his family. Thankfully the enabling has stopped and the adult child is growing up. It was painful for everyone involved.

    We all have to grow up sometime, the sooner the better.

  8. ZenOfJazz on September 4, 2008 at 11:45 am

    You are so right… and FPU is a wonderful wedding present, too!

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