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One Family’s Story

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

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

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.

Roger’s Story

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.

The Gerbil Wheel

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 are 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.

Something Has to Change

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

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