This article is the second in a two-part series on parents enabling young adults. For more information, read Part 1—What Is Enabling? A Therapist For Young Adults Explains.
As a parent, are you wondering how to encourage your child to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, and pursue their own goals? Are you worried you may be helping your child too much? This article is for you!
Last week we provided examples of parental enabling and explained how enabling young adults can negatively impact their development. This week we offer advice for parents who want to help their children succeed in life without enabling them.
A seven-step process to help you avoid parental enablement
The following steps will help you begin the process of empowering your child. As you read through them, remember that it sometimes takes trial and error to identify the line between helping vs. enabling young adults. So, it’s okay if you don’t get it right the first time.
You should also keep in mind that every child has unique obstacles, strengths, and goals. A therapist for young adults can help you tweak this process as needed to suit your situation:
1. Pick one or two achievable goals
What behavior would you like to discourage or encourage in your child? What are your child’s goals, and what will it take to achieve them? Identify a major goal, then choose one or two easily achievable subgoals to work on first. Starting small will give your child opportunities to succeed and prevent them from getting overwhelmed.
For example, let’s pretend that a major goal for your teenage child is to find a summer job. The subgoals that support this major goal would be to work on their resume, write a cover letter, start applying, and work on their interviewing skills. Rather than tackling these all at once, you might see better results by addressing them one at a time.
2. Set consequences (and communicate them)
If you want to stop enabling your teenager/emerging adult, you may need to establish new boundaries and realistic consequences for crossing them. The objective isn’t to punish your child but to teach them that their actions have consequences.
For example, perhaps your child repeatedly refuses to wash the dinner dishes despite being asked. So you tell your child that even though you enjoy cooking for them, you don’t have time to cook nice family dinners and clean up afterward. If they want to enjoy these meals with you, they will need to contribute by helping with cleanup. Otherwise, they will suffer the consequences.
What consequences should you set? Having your child go entirely without food would probably be overly harsh. A more realistic consequence might be that they have to come up with their own dinner plan if they would like to eat. It may sadden you to eat a hot meal while your child eats cold cereal, but this will help your child understand the work involved with feeding themselves.
When you communicate new boundaries and consequences with your child, keep in mind that you’re not trying to change your child, you’re trying to change their behaviors. Even if you hate your child’s actions right now, you still love them. Mentally separating the two will make it easier to hold firm on your boundaries while still treating your child with love and compassion.
3. Provide tools
Young adults often encounter legitimate obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. These obstacles may not be immediately apparent, so it’s important to talk with your child about their concerns and frustrations. If you’re in a position to provide tools that your young adult can use to progress, we encourage you to do so.
For instance, let’s revisit the scenario of your child refusing to clean up after dinner. When you ask them why they haven’t been doing it, they tell you that submerging their hands in dishwater every night is causing them to get painfully chapped. You could provide waterproof gloves or buy dish soap designed for sensitive skin to remove this obstacle.
4. Share information
Imagine that your son or daughter—who lives at home—struggles with angry outbursts. One day, they punch a hole through their bedroom wall. You already have a handyman in mind, and your in-laws are coming next week. So, you’re tempted to handle it yourself.
Enabling young adults in this way only encourages more destructive behavior in the future. Instead, we recommend you share information with your child to empower them to take responsibility for the damage. For example, you could explain what to look for in a contractor and show them various websites where they can compare reviews and request quotes.
To prevent this behavior from happening again in the future, we recommend you connect your child with a therapist who can teach them emotional regulation skills. Which leads us to our next tip. . .
5. Teach new skills
There’s wisdom in the saying: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” It will initially take longer to teach your child something than to do it yourself. They almost certainly won’t do it as well as you could have. But this is the only way to help your child become more independent.
Here’s an example of how to put this into practice: If your child complains their college professor is grading them too harshly, don’t call the professor demanding they change your child’s grade. Instead, teach your child time management, organization, and other essential skills. If you aren’t sure how, enlist the help of a tutor, coach, or therapist for young adults.
6. Allow consequences to occur
If you’ve followed the above steps and your child still isn’t putting in the effort, it’s time to let them reap what they sow. This is the hard part since it often means standing by and watching your child suffer, embarrass themselves, and/or sabotage their future. As counterintuitive as it may seem at first, allowing realistic consequences to occur is typically the best way to support your child without enabling.
In some cases, you will have already established consequences to deal with problematic behaviors at home (see Step 2). Other times, unexpected problems will occur out in the real world, and you can take advantage of the consequences that will naturally occur. Here’s an example of how to allow natural consequences to happen without shielding your child from them:
Your 16-year-old recently lost their driver’s license for reckless driving. They’re asking you to drive them halfway across the state for a much-anticipated soccer tournament. Instead of bailing them out, you let them know that if they want to go to the match, they will need to find their own ride there (and clear it with you).
If your child accuses you of being unfair or mean, remind them that they are the ones who created the problem through their actions. You love them, and you would be sad if they missed their tournament. But it’s not your fault, nor is it your job to fix the problem.
7. Adjust your support as needed
Sometimes your child won’t make much progress toward a goal despite their best efforts. If this happens, the first thing to do is ask yourself whether there are still tools you could provide, skills you could teach, or information you could share that would empower them.
If you’ve done all you can and your child is still not progressing, they may just have bad luck. They might need more time, or the bar may need to be set lower. What matters most is that your child is putting in the effort since it’s impossible to enable a child already trying their best. This is essential to keep in mind as you learn how to help your child without enabling.
For example, perhaps you initially set a boundary that if your adult child did not get a job within six months, they would need to move out and couch surf with friends for a while. Despite working dutifully on their resume, networking, and sending out dozens of applications, they are still unemployed at the four-month mark. To acknowledge their efforts, you may decide to extend the deadline, during which time you can help troubleshoot their efforts.
It’s also possible that the goal your child is pursuing is not realistic. For example, your child may not be suited to full-time work if they have a serious mental health issue. A part-time job or volunteer position might be a better fit while they address those issues, ideally with the help of a therapist for young adults.
Get professional support
If you find yourself still struggling with how to help your child successfully transition to full-fledged adulthood, we can help. With the support of a “failure to launch” specialist, you’ll learn how to support your emerging adult without enabling them. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with one of our specialists: Dr. Lee, Dr. Abbene, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.