Parenting Your Troubled Grown-Up Child

Monica faces a dilemma. Her 21-year-old daughter, Emily, is failing out of college. She is abusing alcohol. Though things are worse now than ever,  she’s had one kind of trouble or another since 5th grade. She’s been diagnosed with ADD. She refuses to get any help. Monica is afraid that something terrible will happen to her child.

All too many parents of young-adult kids are facing these kinds of problems. Just when these parents thought they would be able to reclaim their lives, their kids are not only staying at home, but proving to be a burden.

Emily is over 18. Legally, she does not have to do anything Monica says. This leaves Monica with an unenviable dilemma. Either she rescues her child yet again knowing this will only perpetuate this destructive cycle, or she will let her fall, which could have dire consequences. Monica feels despair and sees no way out. What should she do?

Expect a long road, but have hope.

Though the solution to these kinds of problems rarely occur easily, there is great reason to hope. If kids like Emily can be reached, they can have wonderful, fulfilling lives. Being patient and understanding is probably the most difficult thing to do at this point, but once your child begins to get the right kind of help and move in a positive direction, it will be easier to accept that this will take some time.

Given that the answer is complex, I’m going to break it down into easy-to-understand steps.


Part 1

Understand your child’s condition.

It is often very painful to face the reality that you have a child who’s brain and body doesn’t work like the typical person’s. When you are angry or frustrated because your child is stealing your money, failing out of school, and spending the day in bed, it is natural to fall into the judgments that your child is bad, lazy, or stupid. This isn’t necessarily the case.

Recent research about the brain has increased what we know about problems of focus, organization, good decision making, feeling good about yourself, handling your emotions, and interacting well with others.  Problems like these are often based in the development of our nervous system, which is impacted over time by many factors. Your child’s behaviors are likely a result of a combination of genetic limitations, the effects of experiences growing up, and bad habits learned to cope with real disabilities. They don’t act the ways they do because they are bad.

One reason why parents often deny and avoid their child’s condition is because of their fear that they are at fault. They are afraid of therapy because they worry that the therapist will blame them for what is going on. Yes, you are a participant in why your child behaves as he or she does, and you do bear a certain responsibility for things getting to this point. Understanding what your contribution has been is an invaluable part of the solution, but that is different than blame. Just as there are multiple reasons your child acts as he or she does, so, too, there are many reasons why you have handled things as you have. Finding compassion and acceptance for yourself is just as important as being understanding with your child.

It is essential that you come to understand and resolve these kinds of feelings which may keep you from fully grasping your child’s condition. Freeing yourself of these blocks is your first, and most important, job. This is best done through psychotherapy. As much as you would like to avoid facing your own feelings and issues and simply focus on your child’s problems, a commitment on your part to a therapeutic process could be the best thing you can do for your child.

One benefit of looking at the problem squarely is that it will make it possible for you to educate yourself in every way possible about what your child is going through. By reading, speaking with others, and getting expert professional guidance, you can know best how to help yourself and your child.

Getting an accurate understanding of your child’s condition can be painful, but it can also be empowering. It will help you in three ways. First, instead of getting angry because you perceive your child’s behavior to be willful, you will be more compassionate about where this behavior comes from. As a result, you won’t spend as much time in  power struggles. Second, you will understand better what to do and what not to do. Instead of making the situation worse because of a lack of awareness, you can improve the likelihood of a positive outcome. Knowledge is power. Three, the more your child feels understood, the more likely it is that he or she will be receptive to offers of help.

It is important to mention that what you might discover is that your child has a psychological condition. They might be depressed. If that is the case, anti-depressant medications along with psychotherapy may be the best treatment. In rare instances, they might have a significant mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Though these illnesses are serious, they are treatable. It is certainly best to get an accurate diagnosis from a trained clinician. In the case of a mental illness like schizophrenia, medication is a necessary part of the treatment. Though many of the principles in this article can be applied to children with mental conditions that range from mild depression to severe illness, this article is not specifically geared toward individuals with these kinds of issues.


Part 2

In Part One we learned that to help your troubled adult-child, you need to accept that the road will be long, but there is good reason to hope. The first step is to understand your child’s condition.

Once you begin to open yourself to learning and acceptance, what next?

Get your child an outside mentor.

Considering the pain you feel your child has caused you, it might be hard to believe that he or she loves you and wants nothing more than to please you. In all likelihood, their deepest source of self-loathing comes from disappointing you. How can this be, when by all appearances the last person in the world they would listen to is you? Their unwillingness to do what you say is understandable. It would be too much of an admission that they are in trouble and that they are wrong and you are right.  To admit such a thing would bring up intolerable feelings of shame.

The solution to this difficulty is to help them find some other adult they can, and will, reveal themselves to. This person is part mentor, part coach, part cheerleader, part teacher. You can often find this person in the right psychotherapist. This relationship can make all the difference in the direction your child’s life follows.

This outside mentor has many advantages over a parent. He or she has none of the history with the grown-up child that you have, and so has no built up resentments or judgments that any parent carries who has been through many hurtful disappointments. This person can see the youngster fresh. This mentor/coach/therapist is neither parent nor friend, and so can say and hear things no one else can.

To be effective, the therapist/mentor first needs to gain the young adult’s trust in order to form a connection with them. This begins with the mentor recognizing what is truly amazing about the kid. Usually these troubled young people have endless good qualities, oftentimes, even extraordinary ones. These terrific attributes are, unfortunately, often buried under a number of self-protective, obnoxious, behaviors. With a little encouragement, and by asking the right questions, the gold can easily be found.

Once the mentor unearths these great traits and reflects them back to the adult child, the young person begins to see them in him or herself. Thus begins the long, slow process of building self-love.

Next, the mentor helps their client to get in touch with their caring. When the young adult first walks in, they may pretend not to care about anything, especially themselves.  This is their way of protecting themselves against the pain of failure. The mentor operates from the assumption that no one is truly disaffected about life, and once a person can get in touch with their passion for living anything is possible, because that is where we find the motivation to grow and change.

The therapist helps the youngster move toward caring by finding out what they want. Parents often try to motivate by telling their kids to want what they want, rather than finding out what motivates the kid. For example, the parent may tell the child that if they want to graduate college, they better do their homework. The child may not be the least interested, at least at this point, in a college degree. On the other hand, the kid may want to be able to get a girlfriend. The therapist uses this desire to motivate a change in behavior.

The shrink may say something like, “Great. You really care about girl x. Do you want to learn what you need to do to get her to be your girlfriend?” If they answer yes, the therapist then says, “You have to change. Are you willing to do that if that’s what you need to do to get a girlfriend?” Usually, the young person will say, “Yes!”

The combination of seeing their unique qualities and understanding what they care about leads the young person, sometimes for the first time in their life, to feeling seen. This connects them to the mentor, and they become receptive to the more difficult messages they will soon have to hear.


Part 3

Own Your Part

In Part One we learned the importance of accepting and learning about your child’s condition. In Part Two we learned about the necessity of finding your child a great mentor. In Part Three we will learn how for your child needs your involvement to find their way to health and happiness.

You probably feel like you have been too involved in your child’s life. You might be hearing that you need to learn how to detach and disentangle yourself from rescuing your child. You may find it confusing to hear that in order for your child to find their way to health, functioning, and happiness, they need you to be involved.

The kind of involvement that I am talking about is probably different from the ways you have been involved. In all likelihood, you have been giving your child advice and your child probably hasn’t been taking it. You’ve been completing their college or job applications, getting their charges dropped when they get busted for pot or graffiti, doing their laundry,  or giving them money to bail them out of foolish decisions. This is not the kind of help I’m talking about.

Once a therapist/mentor gains the trust of your child (see Part 2), and your youngster really feels they have an advocate, the therapist will encourage the child to bring their family into the therapy room. If the parents are willing to come in, under the rules of the therapist, the child will feel loved and supported instead of criticized and judged. The rules for the therapy are that the parents are not there to dispense advice or to blame the child. The goals are for the parents to listen to their child, and take responsibility for their own participation in their child’s difficulties.

There is no greater fear for a parent than that they have damaged or hurt their child. Since we are all imperfect, and parenting is such an impossible job, it is a given that we have all screwed up our kids, more or less. When you have a child who is deeply troubled, there is the possibility that their behavior has been significantly shaped by the ways that you, as a parent, have raised them. This is one of the most difficult realities for parents to face. If this feels impossible for you, or brings up intolerable feelings, it is best for you to work this out in your own therapy before coming in for family work.

Your willingness to own your part is an intrinsic part of the cure. Though you cannot return to the past, your child’s actions provide you with an opportunity for your own learning and growth in the present, and actions in the future.

On the other side of taking responsibility for your part, it is also important to know that there are many aspects of your child’s behaviors that you have no control over, and are not the result of any thing you did, or didn’t, do. How many parents can tell the story of having raised multiple children and one of them turned out to be troubled while the others are fine? Even when raised by the same parents, sometimes due to circumstance, one child gets to have a significantly different experience growing up than the other children in the family and this can impact why one child turns out so problematic. Just as often, the differences in upbringing aren’t great enough to justify the kinds of behavior that we see in these children. Sometimes we may feel that we did the best job possible under difficult circumstances. There is likely truth in that. Some parents have had the painful experience of divorce from an unsuitable partner. That can also impact a child’s behavior.

Why a person turns out one way or another is a great mystery. Every parent will tell you that each child has a personality of their own that they were aware of from birth. A personality and the development of character emerges from complex influences including genetics, upbringing, environment, social circumstance, education, disease, trauma, accidents, and a host of other inscrutable factors. All of this is to say that you should take responsibility for your contribution, and have compassion for yourself and your child for the great mystery that is a human being.

It is essential for the eventual success of the treatment for the kid to be able to speak their emotional truths. Usually, at bottom, the child feels a great deal of shame. But very often, on top of this, the child feels anger toward the parents. The therapist’s job is to make it possible for the child to express this anger in constructive ways, to help the parents hear these feelings, and to make sure that the child hears it when the parents take responsibility for their part.

Being able to admit your part in the present situation is a very hard thing to do, but will go far in healing your child. You want your child to take responsibility for his behavior, and the best thing you can do to help him do that is to take responsibility for your own. This will shift the dynamic between the two of you; no longer will your child be able to blame you, claiming that you won’t admit to the wrongs you have done.

When this happens, the child’s first reaction is often disbelief and rejection because it goes against everything they have come to believe. When their parents actually listen to them and own their part of the problems, this removes one of the kid’s favorite excuses for bad behavior which is that their parents are jerks who don’t understand them.

Though the child’s first reaction may be disbelief, after a while, the kid has to admit that it feels good that their parents are open to listening and changing themselves. Once the child begins to trust this, then they are far more ready to admit their own bad feelings and bad behaviors.


Part 4

In this series I explain the steps families need to follow in order to best help their troubled adult-child. To review the previous steps, here is what you need to do in order to best help your adult-child in trouble.

1. You need to understand your child’s condition.

2. You need to help your child find a terrific mentor/therapist who is not part of the family and can engage the child in a process of self-discovery.

3. You need to take responsibility for your part.

4. You need to become involved in the treatment as a family. The purpose of this is not to fix your child, but to learn how to listen to your son or daughter.

5. You need to recognize that the best thing you can do for your child is heal yourself.


The Four Stages of Change

Once the family is involved in treatment and the youngster starts feeling good about the new way that their parents are engaged, we come to the next stage. In this part, we will learn how to create an action plan with your grown-child. In order to do this, first we must understand how change happens. That will be the focus of this section.

There are basically four stages in a change process.

In the first stage, we don’t think we have a problem. The problem is usually someone else. (If they’d just leave me alone everything would be fine!) Some people call this stage “pre-contemplation.” We don’t see any reason to even think about change.

Another name for this phase is “unconscious incompetence.” We have no idea how dumb we really are. We don’t know that we don’t know. In this phase, for example, an untrained piano player may think he’s playing well while not recognizing his bad habits that limit him as a musician.

In the second stage, usually after we get in trouble the same way over and over again, we begin to consider the possibility of change. This is called the “contemplation” phase. We shift back and forth, one minute recognizing the need for change, and the next denying it. We begin to admit the problems we are having in life, and start to open to the possibility we may be the one who needs to do something about it.

This phase can also be called “conscious incompetence.” We know that we’re acting dumb. In this phase, the piano player recognizes he has bad habits that make his playing bad, but he does it anyway because changing feels too hard. He tells himself he should get some lessons, but then procrastinates.

In the third stage, we decide to change. This is called the “action” phase. Trying to learn new habits of life is hard. We may fail many times. The struggle can be invigorating and disheartening by turns.

This phase can also be called “conscious competence.” In this phase, the piano player goes to the teacher who corrects his technique. He has to return to basic exercises. This feels awkward. In trying to unlearn bad, old habits and learn good, new ones, he has to think about what he is doing. The new behaviors do not feel natural yet.

Finally, we get to what is known as the “new-self” phase. This can also be called “unconscious competence.” The piano player has practiced the new habits enough to establish “muscle memory.” He doesn’t have to think about what he is doing anymore and the new way of playing is natural. The addict doesn’t drink and this now feels like “them.” The new way of being becomes real.

In the next steps in this series I will show you how a competent therapist can help move someone through the stages of change.


Part 5

Defining the Dilemma

In all likelihood, your child is in phase one. They are not yet willing to admit to themselves that they have a problem. The movement from stage one to stage two is the most difficult, but once the child has that breakthrough, the rest is far easier.

A good therapist or mentor will help your child achieve this burgeoning awareness utilizing a specific process. Here is how it works. Let’s say one of the problems the child faces is that they spend every weekend binge drinking. It is important at the beginning not to challenge their actions. First, I will ask what is good about the behavior. The person might say that it’s fun, it’s what all their peers do, it gets their minds off their problems.

Then, I validate the child’s experience. I might say something like, “That makes a lot of sense to me. Sure, getting blitzed can be a lot of fun. And it is a way of connecting to your friends. Life can be hard and it’s great to get a release from that on the weekends.”

Almost inevitably, if you validate an experience rather than challenging its obvious illogic, the person will do so themselves. We all have at least two voices arguing in our heads, and we don’t need someone else to have the argument for us. Given the opportunity, we will do it ourselves.

So at this point, the child may say, “Yeah. But I end up losing Monday, feeling like crap. And I’m not really getting my shit together. All my friends are idiots. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Once my client says something like this, we are clearly moving into phase two. Then I say, “Oh. So even though it can be  really fun, on the other side you see how your binge drinking is really holding you back. And you know the same thing is going on with your bone-headed friends. That’s to say nothing of the fact that you pay a pretty bad price on Monday for what you do all weekend.”

Then the adult-child says, “Yeah.”

Now I say, “That’s quite a dilemma. On one side there is fun and friends, and on the other side is your life, which kind of sucks right now.”

In Gestalt therapy, we call this ‘bringing the client to their impasse.’ Now a life dilemma has been defined. In order to lead to the intended effect, it is imperative that I leave the choice in their hands.

Over time, the client will eventually say, “I really need to stop this and get my act together.”

Having defined what it is they want in life, and having helped them unearth their caring, I can then say, “So you get it that in order to achieve what you want to in life, (have that wonderful boyfriend, do work to change the world, travel, make money, etc.) you’re going to need to change and stop your self-destructive behavior.”

If they say yes, then I might say, “That’s wonderful that you have come to that realization.” It is important to offer praise when the person is brave enough to admit they have a problem and acknowledge they need to do something about it, even if they stay in this phase for a protracted period of time and take minimal action.

Then I’ll ask, “Are you willing to do what you have to do to make those changes?”

If they say yes, they are then ready for the next important message.


Part 6

Finding Your Higher Self Through Other People

Acknowledging you have a problem is followed by accepting the help that you need. One of the basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has great success in helping addicts, and the families of addicts through its sister program, Al-Anon, is that we are powerless to overcome our problems without the intercession of a higher power. Each individual is encouraged to define this higher power in a way that suits them. One simple way of defining “higher power” is to mean other people. Even if you believe that this higher power means God, we can say that God works through people. It is the love of other people – and their generous willingness to help – that can bring us the salvation we seek.

There are innumerable examples of how the help of others is the cornerstone of our children’s success.

One example of how our kids need other people to succeed is the typical scenario where a student starts out strong at the beginning of a semester and ends up failing by the end. What usually happens is that the student, over the course of time, falls behind in their work. They miss a class or two, they neglect to pick up some assignments, and then they skip their homework. When they go back to class they don’t understand what is going on.

Now the student is lost. The time for the midterm project comes, and they avoid beginning their paper. At the last minute they try to start, but become overwhelmed. The deadline passes and they don’t hand the work in on time.

The student falls further and further behind. With each infraction, the grade goes down and down. No one knows there is a problem until the kid comes home with a failing grade.

This problem of failing because of falling behind could be managed if the child reached out for help early in the cycle. When they miss a class and start to get lost, they could go to their teacher and tell them they don’t understand something and need help. They could ask a fellow student to help with homework. They can confess to their parents that they are not getting things done. If they are truly having trouble with the content of a class they can request extra help including tutoring.

The child usually doesn’t ask because they feel shame. Out of their bad feelings about themselves, they imagine they will either be ignored or chastised. But we know that in most cases, the teacher would be pleased if the kid reached out for help. The parent would feel relief, and be happy to give support, if their child only asked for it. Unfortunately, out of their shame, they fear asking, and this is what leads to failure.

As parents and teachers, we must make sure that we do not shame our students. We must let them know that it is OK to admit to having a problem. Once we can say we have a problem, we can ask for help. Once we can ask for help, we can find a solution.

The same solution of turning to others also works with addiction problems. When the young person is in a network such as AA, and they feel the craving to use, instead of picking up the bottle, or taking the drug, they can contact another AA member. This “sponsor” then serves as the better voice within them. They help the person at risk make the decision not to use in that moment and the craving passes. It is when a young person becomes willing to reach out and accept that kind of help that they can find the road to growth and health.

The next important message these kids need to learn is that the reason they have troubled lives is because they are living out of harmony with nature.


Part 7

Natural Consequences

One of the most difficult things for any of us to accept is that we cannot avoid the rules of the universe. This is especially hard for individuals who struggle with what is commonly called, “executive function.” This is the ability to weigh the consequences of our decisions.

A person whose part of the brain that manages executive function doesn’t work optimally might say, “I never got caught doing graffiti before, so why would I get caught now?”

A person who understands how the universe works would say, instead, “I haven’t gotten caught yet, but I’m sure to get caught sooner or later if I keep doing that.”

We see how a denial of natural law is pervasive throughout our society, where even the most successful politicians and business people cut corners, cheat, lie, steal, hurt others or avoid dealing with problems, all the time. Many people would rather deny that we are contributing to global warming by pumping massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere than deal with what we would have to do to save ourselves from potentially catastrophic consequences. For years, the tobacco companies said there was no proof that smoking caused cancer, so people continued to smoke, instead of making a decision based on common sense that if you breathe in carbon monoxide it will probably hurt you one day.

So our kids are not alone in making dumb decisions. We all do it! The problem for kids who have difficulty with executive functioning is that, like Oscar Wilde said, the only thing they learn from experience is that they never learn from experience.

For most of us, if we touch a hot stove once, a permanent circuit is burned into the memory circuits of our brain, so that when we approach a hot stove, a very loud alarm system goes off which stops us from going closer. We learn the rules of the universe from natural consequences. If we touch a hot stove we get burned and we don’t do it again.

If you have more than average trouble with executive functioning, your brain does not ‘learn’ from experience effectively enough. You may have to touch that hot stove 25 times before you automatically avoid it.

We now understand that the average person’s brain continues to mature and develop into at least our 20’s. For youngsters who have been diagnosed with conditions like ADD, their brains may take a far longer time to fully mature. When the parts of the brain that learns from mistakes is under-developed, it makes it hard to grasp  nature’s laws and so these people have difficulty weighing consequences when making decisions.

How can we help a person learn the reality of nature’s laws? We do this in two basic ways.

One, we use every opportunity of experience to amplify learning about natural consequence. This is like what happens in the story of Pinocchio. Pinocchio keeps getting convinced by others to do the ‘easier thing.’ Instead of doing his homework, he goes to the ‘land of play.’ Once he gets there, he gets turned into a donkey.

Once I have established a connection with my young client, then I can say the hard things that he won’t hear from anyone else. When our young charge makes some dumb choice and gets in trouble, I point out that this is how the universe works. I make it clear that this another example of the truth that whenever they try to avoid these laws, sooner or later they will suffer the natural consequences. He might not like it, but I explain this actually for the good.

I might say, “When you cheat, you will always get in trouble, and until you stop cheating, you will never be able to get what you want in life. You cheat because you feel bad about yourself, and then when you cheat you feel worse about yourself, which only makes it more likely that you will cheat again out of that self-hatred. When you don’t cheat, you will start to feel better about yourself, which will make it more likely that you won’t cheat next time. There are natural consequences outside, like getting thrown out of school for cheating, and natural consequences inside, like when you do the wrong thing you feel worse about yourself.”

I emphasize this point each time they get “turned into a donkey,” until they get it.

In order to teach children how to anticipate outcomes, and make better choices, I might have the child run a good and bad movie through their head showing that the choices of today lead to the outcomes of tomorrow. When they do this, they start to make the connection that there are always consequences to choices.

Even more important than emphasizing the natural order of things when the bad choice is made, is to reinforce the positive when the good choice is taken.

Best of all, if the child is willing to experiment with doing the right, harder, thing, they will get to experience the good feelings that go along with that. Then we will be able to refer to, and remember, that when the choice comes around next time. They can learn that the good choice actually feels better than the bad, easy, fun choice.


Part 8

Standing In for Nature

It is one thing to explain natural consequence, but what is essential for this to be effective is that we must let the young person feel the pain when they go against nature’s laws.

The fear for the parent is usually that the natural consequence will be terrible. The worst fears may be that their child their child will end up in jail, commit suicide, or die. These can be real possibilities, and on rare occasions do come true. But if the child is determined to bring about these kinds of outcomes, there is little anyone can do under any circumstance. Nevertheless, we do want to do all we can to prevent such outcomes.

In order to preclude these worst possibilities, and, in fact, all bad outcomes, is to be, as much as we can, a stand-in for nature, and create painful consequences that the child will suffer if they do not follow rules that we set. We want to create safe, but impactful, situations that can help children learn this principle.

Being a stand in for nature is what parental discipline is all about. If your kids don’t wash the dishes, they don’t get to watch TV. If they do their homework, they get to hang out with their friends. What we are trying to teach is, if you do the hard thing first, or the right thing, you’ll feel good about yourself so you can truly enjoy yourself.

However, many parents screw up being a stand in for nature, and this is one of the main things that can go wrong on a child’s path to goodness. How does this happen?


Part 9

Co-Dependence and Enabling

The main reason parents fail at disciplining their children effectively is because of an interaction dynamic we call co-dependence.

Co-dependence is when we live in reaction to our children, gear our behaviors in order to get something out of them, and focus more on changing them than on ourselves.

There are two poles of co-dependence. One is compliance and the other is control. One side comes out as neediness and the other as anger. In the first case, the parent capitulates to the child and let’s them get away with murder. In the second case, there is endless, fruitless conflict between parent and child. Very often, the parent oscillates between the two. First the parent does not set clear and healthy limits with their children, then they get taken advantage of more and more, and finally they explode in anger. Understanding, working on, and changing these patterns is essential for your child’s growth, and your own well-being.

One aspect of co-depedency is enabling. Enabling is when we protect our children from the pain of natural consequences. We enable our children for understandable reasons. It is counter-intuitive to allow our children to suffer pain. Though we may be driven by a desire to protect our children, it might be just as, or more, true that we are actually making our choices to minimize our own suffering.

In order for the plan I am laying out to work, parents need to deal with their difficult feelings of fear, responsibility, and shame that may drive them to enable their children.

No addict operates in a vacuum, but rather in a matrix of relationships. The addict is what we call the ‘identified patient.’ What this means is that we blame the addict, when in fact the problem is with the entire family system. Unless the parents can change their co-dependent and enabling behaviors, the likelihood of growth is minimal. This systemic dysfunction can work in insidious ways. In extreme cases, a child may be trying not to drink, and the parent buys a bottle of wine and asks their child if they want any.

In order to deal with their difficult feelings, it can helpful for parents to go to Al-Anon meetings. In these meetings, the family members, and relationships partners, of addicts come together to share a heritage of common wisdom, and provide support to others, in order to replace enabling with self-care.

No one can tell you, as a parent, as well as you might understand these ideas, whether, and in what ways, you should provide help to your children. Your bond to them is profound, and it goes against every fiber of your being to see them, or let them, suffer. No parent can feel anything but agony when they see their child hanging from a cliff with one hand. No outside person, whether from Al-Anon or a therapist, can make the decision for you to let them fall. In the same way that our children are imperfect and deserve our compassion, we are each imperfect and struggle with many motivations, and are also deserving of understanding and compassion. Though I may speak about these principles as inviolable, I know that these are ideals that are rarely, if ever, fully achieved. Dealing with these kinds of issues are an ongoing struggle for all of us. Sometimes you will save your child, even if you know this may hurt in the long run. That is OK.

With self-examination, you can become aware of all the ways that you enable your children, that  is, protect them from natural consequences. Maybe you pay their rent when they can’t, or plead with the principal not to hold them back, or hire a good lawyer to get the charges dropped when they get caught with pot. In each case, your decision made sense at the time, and may have even felt like you had no choice, even though they prevented your kids from learning valuable life lessons.

So how can you change this pattern between you and your children?


Part 10

Know Your Own Needs

One of the most brilliant understandings of the AA and Al-Anon movement is the recognition of what we can change and what we cannot change. Once your child turns 18, though it is difficult to admit, we are, for all intents and purposes, powerless to change them. This insight is expressed in Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. The serenity prayer goes like this: “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.” The answer is pretty simple. That which I can change is myself. That which I cannot change is everything, and everyone, else. So what can you do when someone else has a problem? You can change yourself.

The beginning of transforming the co-dependent, or enabling, relationship that you have with your child is to begin to identify your own needs. When you were the parent of a small child, it was essential for you to make many sacrifices for your child. This is the nature of the job. We sacrifice time, money, and our own interests in order to give them the upbringing they deserve. But as the child moves toward adulthood, this balance shifts. It may no longer be a habit to think about what is good for you, but that is the key to ensuring that you do not hurt your child in the name of giving.

How does this work?

When a parent allows their child to move back in the house and gives them money, which makes it possible for them not to work and to spend the money on pot, the question the parents need to ask is not if this is good for the child or not. The adult-child is now old enough to make decisions about what to do with their money for themselves. But what does matter is what it does to the parents.

Though it may make it easier for the kid, the choice to let your child take drugs in your house has the likelihood of contributing to a great deal of suffering for mom and dad. The answer to the question of whether to let your kids move back in the house is based on what is good for you.

This may lead the parents to say to the child, “We cannot support you staying in the house with us, where you spend your days smoking pot and having sex with random people, because it is too painful for us.”

In this way you are not trying to change the child, manipulate them, or incentivize them to change. You are making decisions based on what is good for you.

This is not easy, especially if you have a habit of living your life taking care of the needs of others. It can be confusing to determine when you are doing the right thing for you and when you are putting your child at greater risk. This is something that is best not done alone. That is where a good family therapist, or the people at Al-Anon can really help.


Part 11

Consistency and Clarity

Once you, as parents, gain clarity about what is good for you, you need to be able to state this to your child without rancor, and hold to your boundaries with consistency. If you say that you will only give them money to pay for school, and that they are responsible for all expenses beyond this, you need to be certain that when they come to you in financial trouble that you will stick to your rule. If you know you are not going to follow through, don’t set the rule!

Very often children and parents will collude in avoiding making things clear, which perpetuates dysfunctional patterns. For example, the parents might ask their child for a budget, which they will never provide, and the parents then just dole out the cash as needed.


Part 12

Structure and Support

How can we set successful boundaries with our adult-children? I use a system that I call “structure and support.”

It is important to be clear with your child about what your expectations are from them. For example, a parent may say, “If I am going to pay for your college, I am going to expect that you achieve a certain grade point average, as proof that you are putting in an ample amount of work on your schooling.” That might be a reasonable expectation, and we’ll call that a ‘structure.’

On the other side, it is unreasonable to expect something from someone if they do not have the necessary skills to succeed at achieving what is expected of them. If, for example, the child has a learning disability, despite their best efforts, they might have difficulty maintaining that GPA. It would be unreasonable to assume that they will be able to do so without additional help. So parents need to be willing to build in the necessary supports, based on a collaborative process done with the adult-child, so they can achieve their goals. In this case, the child might need tutoring, or create a plan with their school, so they can achieve their goals. This is what I call ‘support.’ The ‘structure’ is: you have to do your school work. The ‘support’ is: we’ll get you a tutor.

Here is another example of what I mean. A child may want to return to college after failing out because of a drinking problem.

The parents might ask, “What evidence will you be able to provide that you are not going to fail out again, so that we aren’t wasting our money?”

The child might say, “I promise I’ll be good this time!”

This shouldn’t be good enough for the parents. This will enable the child, and allow them to avoid the natural consequences of their behavior.

Asking the child for a better plan, maybe they will say, “I won’t drink anymore.”

Such promises are nice, but are rarely kept. I encourage parents to operate from the philosophy of, “Trust in the lord, but tie up your camel.”

“OK,” the parents might say, “how can you guarantee that will happen?”

This dialogue can go on for a while. Perhaps the solution at the end, which both parents and child agree to, is that the child needs to go to AA three times a week, therapy once a week, and be sober for six months. During this time the kid will work at Starbucks. If the kid can do that, they can go to a local college for a semester. If they do well, and maintain their sobriety, they will support them returning to the school of their choice. That is the ‘structure.’

Then, together, they need to define the necessary support. This might include payment for therapy, giving the child room and board, and regular check-ins to monitor compliance. The support is based on a sober assessment of what the child needs, beyond what they can provide themselves, in order to achieve the goal.

For an additional support, I would put a natural consequence into the plan. I would encourage the parents to say something like this, if they can really mean it: “If you maintain your sobriety, we will help you in any way that we can. But if you are using, we cannot support you in any way.” Using the principle of healthy boundaries, the parents need to do this because it is what is best for them.

At the same time, it is fair to acknowledge that if there is any leverage that a parent has when their child is a grown-up, it is that the child needs the relationship with their parent. The fear of losing that connection might be a motivator for the child to straighten out their act, by, at least, accepting the help that they need.


Part 13

Optimizing Outcome

By making expectations clear;

by allowing natural consequences to have their effect;

by working on our own issues which negatively impact our children;

and by being willing to offer the necessary supports so that our child can succeed in the face of whatever obstacles they face, both internal and external;

we maximize the likelihood that our children will find a path to a joyful, happy, successful, fulfilling life.

With kids who struggle with focus, esteem, executive function, or emotional regulation issues, the path is rarely straight. There are gains, and there are setbacks. The road can be rocky. But what we discover when we really get to know these kids is that they are very often extraordinary. They often have the deepest souls and the most sensitive natures. They often have depths of goodness and compassion that come from a deep perceptiveness of others, and the ability to identify with suffering based on their own experience. Over the course of time, with the sure and guiding hand of the best possible help, these kids can live unique, productive, fulfilling, and most importantly, good lives.

If you begin, as parents, by getting the help you need, and working on yourself, if you face the truth of your child’s condition and the part you play in it, if you understand what you have control over and that which you don’t, and you provide your adult child with consistent structure and appropriate supports, you will not only help your child, but you will immeasurably improve your own life.LOOK FOR THE JULY 1 RELEASE OF “NEVER SAY NO TO A ROCK STAR: IN THE STUDIO WITH DYLAN, JAGGER, SINATRA AND MORE” ON SHAFFNER PRESS. PRE-ORDER NOW!

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  1. Much of what you wrote in this article really hit home for me. I have a 24 year old daughter who has gone through so much in the past 7 or 8 years. She has been in therapy for about four months now and is beginning to show slow signs of improvement. It has been frustrating for me, though, because sometimes the old problems still resurface. Your article was very helpful to me to understand that therapy and improvement is a long slow process. And helping me come to terms with my failure as a parent.

  2. I am a single parent of a nineteen year old son, who has used marijuana and alcohol the past couple of years. His focus is not on getting an education or job to support himself. He just wants to hang around with a group who has no job, drink, smoke. and gamble with their lives. I have learned from your article that I am handling this situation the wrong way. I have been making decisions and actions out of anger. I am now getting a local minister to be his mentor and get some structure in my home. I can’t allow shame to control my parenting of my adult son. We both need help. I thank you for the article and we are going forward with prayer and hope that we can get through this as a family.

  3. Oh how I needed this article! In the middle of our 24 year old daughter making all the wrong choices. Praying to God for wisdom and I really believe he led me to you. Helping me to go to the root of my her many issues…not a job, financial responsibilities, less pot smoking, and nicer boyfriends will change her. She is ADHD and premature menopause… and etc!!! Thought the military was the answer…nope! She is back today. Maybe tomorrow too. Monday looking for a therapist. Not bringing up old bad patterns an not making hundreds of rules. She knows them all! Going through part 1 and praying for a part 2 and transportation!!