Focus on the Family

Establishing Boundaries With Adult Kids

by Allison Bottke

Enabling parents know that we live either smack dab in the middle of crisis or we're simply in between crises, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Every time the phone rings at night, we are catapulted to a place of despair. Will it be our adult child in a drunken stupor, will it be the police, or will it be the morgue?

Let's look at these two ways we live and what we need to do to implement the decision we've made to stop enabling and set boundaries for our adult children.

  1. In between crises. Without a doubt, this is the best time to put our decision into motion. We would be wise to develop our action plan during this time, then present it to our adult children and get out of the way.
  2. In crisis mode. This is a harder time to implement your decision, but it can also show an immediate effect. If, for instance, your adult child has been arrested, do not intervene this time. If your adult child lives at home and is involved in anything related to drugs, alcohol, crime, violence, unacceptable behavior, or any type of illegal activity whatsoever, insist on his immediate departure from your home. Call the authorities if necessary. He can choose to go to rehab or to a friend's home, or anywhere he'd like, including living on the street — whatever he decides — but it is not your responsibility to find somewhere for him to go.

    Remember, if he has broken the law, you may be considered an accessory to his crime. Calling the police will be one of the hardest things you'll ever have to do, but it may be necessary.

If your adult child lives outside the home and is calling for money or a place to live, or is requesting (in many cases, begging) for your signature on a contract or rental agreement, do not give it to him.

There's an old saying, "You can't paddle another man's canoe for him." We've been paddling our adult children's canoes for far too long. It's time they learned how to paddle for themselves.

Knowing that we need to change and taking the steps necessary to make changes are, sadly, often two entirely different things. In the next article, let's look at a very real family dealing with a very real situation. This couple sought my advice when I shared my situation with them and told them about the book I was working on that would help parents establish proper boundaries with their adult children. Names have been changed to protect their privacy; any resemblance to your situation is purely accidental. Their story is typical of many.

One Family's Story

How can parents stop enabling and set boundaries for adult children?

by Allison Bottke

Stan and Sandy have been happily married for almost 30 years. Like many couples, they married in their early 20s, fresh out of college. They've had their ups and downs over the years, but they've weathered every storm. Standing firmly together in their faith in God and in their commitment to their marriage has been a source of strength for them and for their three children — all of whom still live at home.

Both Stan and Sandy are hard-working, church-going, educated adults. They live comfortably in middle-class America — not extravagantly by any means — and they truly want what is best for their children.

Ivy is their late-in-life child, and at 10 she is a precocious yet studious girl. She loves school and talks of being a doctor. She doesn't cause her parents one iota of trouble.

In his last year of high school, Cliff, their 17-year-old son, has a tender and loving heart, with aspirations of being a minister. He says he's keeping his options open for what he wants to do with his life, but lately he's been sending away for school literature and financial-aid forms from Bible colleges around the country.

Their firstborn, however, is another story entirely.

At 25 years old, Roger is still trying to find himself. But finding himself seldom happens on most days until well after noon because he likes to sleep in. After all, he stays up most nights playing video games, watching movies, or surfing the Internet, and he needs a full eight to ten hours of sleep to fully function, or so he says. This week he's working part time at a local pizza parlor, but he changes employment like he changes his socks, which his mother still washes on her day off.

Roger's room, comfortable to the extreme, is in the lower walk-out level of their home, adjacent to the family room. His parents remodeled the home seven years ago when Roger graduated from high school, giving him a somewhat private environment in which to live. He'd like to get his own place one day, but how can he afford it making minimum wage working part time?

An intelligent young man, Roger doesn't do drugs or drink, from what his parents can tell, and he's always home at night. They believe strongly in his potential, knowing for certain that once he finds his niche in life, he will go far.

And so, in search of that nebulous niche, they have funded numerous college courses, technical schools, and art classes when he recently decided he wanted to be an artist. But he quit going to those art classes when they interfered with a weekly reality-TV show he wanted to watch.

With every new endeavor they fund for their son, these loving, well-meaning parents establish guidelines indicating that he will maintain a certain grade-point average, lest no more tuition funds be made available. But Roger has eventually dropped out of every school, program, and course he's started, citing more than one excuse, quick to convincingly explain his more than justifiable reasons for doing so.

Picture a large metal wheel in the cage of life, and Stan and Sandy are the human gerbils running in circles. The guidelines they developed could just as well be shredded and used to line the bottom of their gerbil cage. They never mean what they say, and their son knows it. They epitomize parents who continually cry wolf.

"I know we have a problem," Sandy admits, "but we don't know what to do. The last time Roger quit school, we told him we were finished paying for any more education. If he wanted to take classes anywhere, he'd have to pay for them himself. But Stan gave in, and now we're paying tuition at another college."

Roger is more than willing to sit down and discuss his options and choices with his parents — something they've done with him ad nauseam for years. Endless discussions filled with excuses, justification, and rules with no consequences. But more damaging than these useless discussions is that when Sandy is strong, Stan is weak, and when Stan is firm, Sandy's maternal heart melts for her son's situation.

As we hear their story, it soon becomes obvious that something has to change. And unless Stan and Sandy can get on the same page and stay there — presenting a united front and establishing firm boundaries — their son will be 30 years old and still living at home, "looking to find himself" while his parents continue to support him financially and emotionally.

"What about our life?" Sandy asked. "We've worked hard, Stan is looking at a possible early retirement, and don't we deserve to reap some of the rewards of our years of hard work?"

As they shared their story with me, their pain was clear. Sandy looked to me for validation that what she was feeling was okay, that she wasn't being a horribly selfish parent for thinking this way.

I was honest with her as I said, "I can't tell you what to do, Sandy, but I can tell you this. The spotlight must be taken off Roger and focused instead on you and your husband. You two need to get strong, individually and as a couple, and let this 'boy' take responsibility for his own life. You need to get outside help to find out why both of you continually make choices that are crippling your son — why you are willingly handicapping him."

Judging by the hurt look on Sandy's face, I knew my words had surprised her. I admit it, I'm not very coy when it comes to this issue. I suppose I could have been more gentle in my admonishment, but I've heard this same story repeated so many times. What's it going to take for us parents to get a clue?

It's going to take determination, hard work, and commitment on our part to stop playing our adult children's games. And, of course, it's also going to take a great deal of effort on the part of our adult children to change. But it's up to them to make the choice to change. Either they will do what it takes or they won't. Once again I repeat, the goal is not to try to fix them but instead to fix ourselves.

That is why

Taking Action

What will we do when we stop living our adult children's lives for them?

by Allison Bottke

As might be expected, the actions Stan and Sandy need to make will not be popular with Roger. He will almost certainly accuse them of not loving him or of being selfish themselves, or he will make any other number of untrue assertions designed to get them to resume the game they've all been playing for so long.

One young woman, whom I'll call Sarah, related her anger when her parents established boundaries in her life:

I was pretty ticked off at my parents when they closed my checking account and canceled my credit card. But looking back now, it was the best thing they could have done. I was blowing it, and I think on some level I knew it, but it was kind of like smoking, you know? We know it's bad for us, but it's a hard habit to break. I had to drop out of a few classes and take another part-time job, but all that talk about gaining self-respect and becoming empowered turned out to be true. The more I accomplished on my own, the better I felt.

Change Can Be Freeing — or Frightening

When we make the decision to release our adult children to fend for themselves, it can be both freeing and frightening. For many of us, this sudden freedom to live our own lives will seem like a breath of fresh air. For others, it will bring deep foreboding and fear.

What will we do when we stop living our adult children's lives for them?

We will start living our own.

On my journey to freedom from enabling, I've found the following ten steps helpful:

  1. Memorize the Ten Suggestions for Breaking the Enabling Cycle. You'll need to remind yourself of these often. Having them just a thought away will be very helpful in time of need.
  2. Make becoming healthy a personal goal. Decide from this moment on to become stronger spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, financially, and physically. If you're married, make the commitment to strengthen your union. Get counseling or join an appropriate support group, if necessary.
  3. Decide to live your life and to stop living the life of your adult child. Find a hobby, join a gym, volunteer, or take a dance class. Do something you've always wanted to do.
  4. Take a step back and view the situation with your adult child from an unemotional perspective. Write a bio about your adult child as though you were not his parent but instead were a bystander who has been watching from afar for months. What is your adult child really like?
  5. Develop your action plan. This written document will clearly state the things you plan to change and will include nonnegotiable rules and boundaries, firm but reasonable consequences, and time frames. If you're married, you should do this as a couple. Remember, you and your spouse must agree on all areas of your plan and be prepared to present a united front at all times. If you're a single parent, get help from a support group or from an accountability partner. Detailed guidelines to help you develop an action plan can be found in chapter 12 ("Developing an Action Plan") of Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children.
  6. Prepare yourself for worst-case scenarios. Taking a stand often precipitates a crisis, and the situation may get worse before it gets better. Think of this like an emergency fire drill and carefully plan your course of action in as many scenarios as possible. Role play with your spouse or a close friend. Stand firm!
  7. Commit to being consistent — Do not back down, do not negotiate. It could take days, weeks, months, or years for your adult child to change, if ever. There's no way to tell. He may never change — but you have. Prepare to wait it out.
  8. Stay connected to your support group and ask for help when needed.
  9. Read the Bible along with a Bible study. Do this with a group, if possible.
  10. Pray, and always remember to "let go and let God."

I can hear many of you saying, "That sounds great in theory, Allison, but I don't have time in my life right now to follow a list. Things are falling apart around me, and life is out of control."

Most parents in pain know this feeling. If your present crisis has so incapacitated you that you must make important choices prior to starting your plan — if it is indeed that bad — I strongly suggest you seek the advice of a professional interventionist or a member of a support group right now. You don't want to repeat a response or behavior that hasn't worked before. It's time to do something different.

When Crisis Hits

It's not easy to stay strong when a crisis occurs.

by Allison Bottke

Here are a few circumstances that typically send us into crisis mode:

A few months before the SWAT raid on my son's home, he was in a critical motorcycle accident. It happened on a deserted country road very early in the morning. He was alone, he'd been drinking, and he wasn't wearing a helmet. When his cycle went off the road, it rolled over on him, crushing his right hand, dislocating his shoulder, breaking his leg, and leaving him bruised and battered. He managed to make a call on his cell phone before losing consciousness. Just a few days before, he had moved into a rented single home a few miles from us. His belongings were still in boxes.

My husband, Kevin, and I arrived at the hospital ICU to find him hooked up to multiple machines and being carefully monitored for possible head or spine trauma, of which there ultimately was none.

Surely, God has a plan for you, I once again thought.

Over the course of the next few days, I went into hover mode, forgetting everything I had learned about how not to enable. I rented a room across from the hospital so I didn't have to drive the 75 miles every day, allowing me to remain in his room most of the day. Without medical insurance, he needed to apply for emergency care, and because he couldn't hold a pencil to write, I helped him complete the forms. Now this wouldn't be considered enabling, because he could not in fact hold a writing implement himself. However, I became not only his hands but his mouth as well, and at times his mind, too, as I began making choices for him that he clearly could have made for himself.

With the help of a friend of mine, while my son recuperated in the hospital, we unpacked his belongings and cleaned his home in preparation for his return. I did the legwork to rent a hospital bed, tray table, portable toilet, and walker. My husband and sons built a ramp on his back stairs for wheelchair access to his house. I arranged for a visiting home health-care nurse to look in on him and scheduled physical therapy for him. I shopped for groceries the day he came home from the hospital. I instructed his girlfriend-of-the-moment how to take care of him. I was worried sick that he wouldn't take care of himself. Yet why should he when he had me taking care of him?

Long story short, by the time my son came home from the hospital, he had fallen off the drug-use wagon, becoming once again addicted, this time to Vicodin, oxycodone, and morphine. His friends of questionable character, who never seemed to work, started hanging around, and instead of eating and sleeping right, taking care of himself, and doing what he needed to do to get better, he fell into depression, excessive drug use, and God only knows what else.

He wouldn't answer his phone, the curtains were always pulled, the home was dark and smoke-filled, and the floor was littered with trash and beer bottles whenever I stopped by.

I stopped stopping by.

After weeks of beseeching him to get help, to take care of himself, and to stop his downward spiral, I once again had to step out of the picture, handing him over to the Lord for safekeeping — something I should have done the day I walked into the ICU at the hospital.

Oh, I prayed — a lot. I called my pastor, and he visited my son in the hospital and prayed over him. My dear friends were praying for him en masse. Perhaps they should have been praying for me. I had once again fallen into the pattern of being my son's enabler. I should not have become so overly involved in trying to take care of him. He had been driving a motorcycle under the influence of alcohol — without wearing a helmet. He was blessed to be alive, blessed that he didn't kill himself or someone else. In truth, the thing he needed most, after medical care, was to accept the consequences of those actions on his own.

It's not easy to stay strong when a crisis occurs. I wasn't prepared. Today I would do it differently. If it ever happens again, God forbid, I'll behave differently. I only wish now, in that retrospective wisdom we all know and love, that I had known the value of role-playing different crisis scenarios before this happened.

I talk in Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children about role playing and how important it is to go over every conceivable consequence to your actions as you develop your action plan and begin to change your behavior to stop your enabling.

But for right now, in order to get smart and take action, you must be ready to declare the following:

As of today, I will no longer be...

I can hear you asking, "But what will happen if I stop doing all these things I've done all these years to 'help'?"

I don't know, but let me ask you a question: Has what you've been doing all this time been helping — really?

Al-Anon members learn that no individual is responsible for another person's disease or recovery from it. The simple answer as to what to do about the alcoholic holds true for what to do about the adult child we've been enabling: "let go and let God."

So we must get smart and take action.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional information on how to set boundaries with your adult children

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