I’ve recently been reflecting on many of the couples I’ve seen in my practice who’ve struggled with adult children.
Each couple loved their kids and wanted the best for them, but struggled with codependency and enmeshment—causing confusion between help and sabotage. The questions below are based on a composite of many people, made up to illustrate common themes.
Q: Both of our adult sons are living at home with no end in sight—the 28-year-old was recently laid off and is in the process of divorce, while the 22-year-old has never left home, and has no direction or plan to move out anytime soon. We want the best for them, but we’re afraid they won’t make it in the world without us. What should we do?
Bob: If your oldest son is currently unable to support himself and is actively looking for employment, your support may be helpful, if temporary. Continuing to allow your youngest son to live in your home with no clear direction will do more harm than good. By giving him free room and board you’re protecting him from life’s natural consequences, thus removing his need/motivation to become an adult. The best thing you can do for your youngest is to give him an eviction notice.
Q: Our adult son recently lost his license after getting arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. I’ve had to arrange my work schedule to drive him to and from work every day, but my boss is becoming irritated with the frequency of my schedule changes. How can I help my son without putting my own job in jeopardy?
Bob: When you’re young, experiencing natural consequences is important for developing maturity and learning life lessons. These early consequences are generally not nearly as painful or costly as the ones that can come later. Your son needs to experience the full weight of his DUI so that it’s hopefully his last. Going out of your way to make sure he gets to work may not only put your own job in jeopardy, but it partially shields him from a critical life-or-death lesson.
Q: Our daughter frequently complains to us how miserable she is in her marriage. We want to support her, so we’re considering suggesting she move back home until they figure things out. Is there another way we can help?
Bob: Unless she’s in an abusive relationship, the best thing you can do to support your daughter is to stand back. Although it may initially be cathartic for her to share her marriage frustrations with you, it’s inappropriate and usually does more harm than good. When married children vent about marital problems to their parents, loyalties get confused and advice that’s intended to protect them tends to confuse and sabotage the marriage. My best advice is to encourage her to start marriage counseling and send her back to her husband to work things out. You may, however, choose to offer financial help if they can’t afford counseling on their own.