Relatives Undermining Parents’ Attempts at Tough Love

What's the best way to deal with "enabling" relatives? Our adult child has made some very poor choices, and as a result he's struggling to make it on his own. He's become extremely manipulative, and we've had to establish firm boundaries with him. Unfortunately, members of our extended family aren't helping – in fact, some of them have actually undermined our efforts by rushing to our son's rescue on several occasions. What should we do about this?

If you’ve established appropriate boundaries with your child, and if you’re taking steps to ensure that you aren’t doing anything to enable his self-centered, irresponsible way of life, then your main concern is to stay the course. You can’t control your relatives’ actions or tell them what to do. But you can set a good example for them by standing firm and sticking to your guns.

Are you familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer?” “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” In a situation like yours it’s vital to go before the Lord with a petition like this on your lips at least once a day. You have to be able to tell the difference between the things you can control and those you can’t. This is one of the most important keys to peace of mind and sound mental health. If you can’t keep that distinction straight, you’ll drive yourself to distraction. You’ll also end up filled with frustration, anger, resentment, bitterness, and despair – everything that stands in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit as Paul describes it in Galatians 5:22 and 23.

What happens if the relatives try to drag you into the mix? What if they come to you shaking their heads and wagging their fingers and saying, “That kid of yours is about to break us with his demands for money and other kinds of help! Why don’t you do something about it? Why aren’t you carrying your fair share of the load?” In that case, there are probably three things you’ll want to tell them.

  1. First of all, own up to any responsibility you may bear for creating the current situation. If you’ve been at fault, don’t be afraid to admit it. You can say something like, “Yes, we know that ____ has become good at leeching off other people. We realize that he can be pretty persuasive. We’re also keenly aware that there have been times in the past when we’ve been a soft touch and given in to his demands when we shouldn’t have. To the extent that we’re to blame for making him what he is today, we’re genuinely sorry.”
  2. Second, explain what you’ve done to correct the situation and change your own behavior. Describe the boundaries you’ve established and the steps you’ve taken to keep them in place. If an opportunity presents itself, and if it seems appropriate, encourage your relatives to adopt a similar plan. Remember, it’s all about relationships. The more you and your extended family get inside the relationships you share with your son, the better you’ll understand the inner dynamics of those connections. And the better you understand those connections, the more effectively you’ll be able to handle difficult challenges when they arise.
  3. Third and last, empathize with your relatives. Offer to pray with them. Let them know that you understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of your adult child’s manipulations. Make it clear that you’re available to join them in taking a stand. State clearly that nothing would please you better than to see the entire family presenting a united front against your son’s unacceptable behavior.

If you’d like to discuss these ideas at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children


Peacemaking for Families

Successfully Managing Family Conflict 


Establishing Boundaries With Adult Kids

In-Law Relationships

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