Nothing is more painful than asking yourself, “Am I enabling or empowering my young adult.” Realizing that you may be enabling the behaviors you want your young adult to stop doing because you believed you were helping can be incredibly overwhelming. But even getting to the point where you are asking, “Am I enabling my child?” is a monumental step forward, and acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step to solving it. While letting your young adult skip a couple of chores during finals is one thing, ignoring blatant disregard for rules and expectations is a sign that you might be enabling. At its simplest, enabling is part of the problem, and empowering is part of the solution.
Signs of Enabling and Its Impact
You Feel Resentful
Resentment indicates poor boundaries, and enabling behaviors always indicate poor boundaries. If you resent your child and feel like they take advantage of you, you are probably enabling them somehow.
They Don’t Show Signs Of Respect
When we enable our kids, it’s because we want them to succeed and avoid discomfort. However, it teaches them that we are their vending machines for their needs and doormats for their wants. Enabling your kids teaches them they are in charge of you and your well-being, money, time, and energy. That’s the ultimate lack of respect.
They Can’t Take “No” For An Answer
If your child has learned that their needs and wants are your highest priority because you’ve enabled them, they’ll react very poorly to a simple, steadfast “no.” They’ll throw an out-of-proportion fit if they get a solid no, and you stick to it.
You Feel Like Your Life Revolves Around Them
When we become parents, our babies literally depend on us to keep them alive. That feeling of responsibility doesn’t go away as they age, but it should have faded somewhat by the time they are young adults. If your life is wrapped up in theirs and you feel like you don’t have a strong sense of self outside of caring for them, you might be enabling them.
Entitlement For Money, Cars, And More
If your young adult grabs your keys from your purse and $50 from your wallet as they walk out the door without asking, you’ve probably got an entitled kid on your hands. Entitlement is bred of enabling. You taught your young adult that your car, home, and money are theirs for the taking. They likely struggled to keep a job to make their own money to buy a car or support themselves, and you saw that struggle and stepped in to help. But your help was probably the beginning of your enabling.
Strategies to Stop Enabling and Start Empowering
While it’s certainly painful to realize that you might be enabling your child, you’ve already done the first step of fixing the problem: acknowledging it is there. No one starts their journey of parenthood thinking, “I’d love to enable my child to the point where they struggle to find autonomy and independence.” But our love for our kids and our desire to reduce their suffering sometimes leads us to enabling.
Enabling starts when our distress tolerance is low for our kids, and we step in to prevent their distress and thus lower our distress. There are steps you can take to stop enabling your young adult and empower them, but these aren’t for the faint of heart. Usually, you’ll see resistance, anger, frustration, and more when you stop enabling your child, but it’s crucial for their development.
Establish And Hold Boundaries
First, you’ve got to decide what your boundaries are. If you’ve told your teen that they can’t drive your car if they have bad grades, you have to hold that boundary even if they are mad. If you tell them no more money, you have to stop giving them money. While it sounds easy in practice, holding your boundaries will likely bring up a lot of challenging emotions for you. Make sure you have support in place through a trusted friend, a therapist, or a professional while you implement these boundaries to maintain your mental health.
Empathize With Them
Just because you set a boundary doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with your young adult. If you’ve set the boundary that you aren’t going to give them money anymore, but they want to buy tickets for a concert, you can say, “Dang, it sucks when you don’t have the money to do what you want. That’s happened to me before.” Don’t use this as an opportunity to lecture or add on, “If you had a job, you could go to the concert.” This is simply an opportunity to build connections and acknowledge their struggle. If you want, you could offer an alternate activity to show even more compassion—“Mom and I were going to go see a movie that night, you could come with us if you don’t end up going to the concert.” This shows you are on their side, but you aren’t going to solve their problem.
Encourage And Celebrate Them
When they do make moves in the right direction, acknowledge and celebrate. This starts on the micro-scale because your young adult isn’t likely to get a job the first time you refuse to give them money. You have to celebrate the mini-victories first to encourage the bigger victories. For example, if you see a job application on the counter, mention something about it without overdoing it. Say something like, “I saw your job application on the counter, I worked at a burger place in college, it’ can be a fun environment!” and then move on. Try to watch for these small victories, then acknowledge and encourage them.
The Importance of Empowering Young Adults
Enabling your young adult comes from a place of love. You want them to be successful and help them on their way to adulthood. But enabling doesn’t serve them, you, or your relationship. This is where empowerment becomes so critical. Remember, enabling is part of the problem, and empowering is part of the solution. If your child refuses to get a job and you’ve enabled that behavior by giving them money, you’ll have to find a way to empower them instead. Once you’ve established the boundary that you aren’t giving them money, and they tell you they need money, empower them to solve that problem by asking questions.
If they say, “I need money for new headphones,” say, “Oh, cool, I’ve heard those are awesome. How much do they cost? How much money do you have? How can you get more money? Are there any discounts you can find? How long will it take you to save up for them? What are you the most excited about with these headphones?”
If they don’t give you answers or their answers are half-hearted, stop asking questions. Move on, do your own activity. They’ll likely seek you out again, probably to ask for money, but just keep asking questions. Eventually, they’ll ask you questions like “How do I write a resume?” or “Could you drive me to work on Thursday?” That’s when you’ll know they’ve been empowered.
Empower Your Young Adult To Thrive
The delicate balance of enabling versus empowering is difficult, especially if you’ve been enabling your young adult for a long time. Not only is finding that balance difficult, but once you do, you might find a lot of resistance and intense emotions from your young adult, only adding to the situation’s complexity. But empowering your young adult to take action on their behalf is crucial for them, you, and your relationship.
When you empower your child, you give them confidence and independence, which will continue to give as they develop into adulthood. If the path to independence for your young adult is hard to find, we’re here to help. We’ve compiled a thorough, thoughtful Road to Independence white paper, perfect for parents who want to empower their young adult child to have a happy, healthy adult life. There is a path to a thriving adult life for your child, and with the right tools and support, they can get there.