As a parent, it is natural to have a strong instinct and desire to help your children, no matter what their age. The pain we feel watching our children flounder, or even worse, suffer, is heart-wrenching. It is completely understandable to have the urge to step in and help your adult child when they are in a precarious situation. Perhaps they have lost their job and they need financial help. Maybe they are struggling with their mental health or addiction and you are scared not to help because you have seen how bad things can get for them. Providing help is often a healthy way to express support, love and a sense of acceptance to our adult child. However, sometimes stepping in can inadvertently cascade down a slippery slope and cross over the boundary from helping to enabling. It is not uncommon for these boundaries to be elusive, and they are often crossed by parents with very good intentions. However, crossing the boundary between supporting and enabling can have negative, unintended consequences for your relationship with your child AND your adult child’s sense of independence and confidence.

Compelling reasons to help your adult child

  • You see them struggling and they just can’t seem to catch a break
  • You have grandchildren and don’t want them to suffer due to your child struggling
  • You have the time and/or financial resources, so why not?
  • You feel responsible for how your child is doing or that their troubles reflect on your parenting
  • You are afraid if you don’t help, your child will be upset,  stop talking to you or keep your grandchildren away from you

Helping when it’s a win-win situation

  • Your adult child is responsible and independent and never/rarely asks you for help, but something happened, or maybe a mistake was made, and he or she needs help temporarily
  • Your adult child has needed help in the past and you provided it, and your child took responsibility to work towards regaining independence as soon as they could
  • The assistance your adult child is asking for is within your comfort zone and something you can provide without undue financial or emotional stress to you or people close to you

Danger Zone: Unhealthy helping enables bad behavior

  • You have helped your adult child many times in the past, and there is now an expectation that you will help no matter what. You may feel taken advantage of, resentful, or that you’re being manipulated in some way
  • Your adult child has not made progress towards less reliance on you, and appears to be too comfortable with the arrangement. They are not doing everything they are capable of to change their situation
  • Your child makes comments such as, “If you loved me, you would help me.”
  • You are depleted financially, emotionally or physically from helping, or your helping is impacting your relationships with others (such as your spouse or your other children)
  • It seems that you are more invested in finding a solution to your adult child’s problems than they are

Choosing New Behaviors & Setting New Expectations

Changing unhealthy helping behaviors is hard. It may be difficult to let go of helping even when doing so is in the best interest of everyone involved. Here are a few steps you can take if you think you need to back off from helping your adult child:

  • First, how are you benefiting from helping? Does it make you feel like you have some control over something scary? Does it feel nice to be needed? Examine your motivation and seek healthier ways to get your needs met or manage your anxiety about the situation.
  • Have a conversation with your adult child that involves setting limits and boundaries for your help. You may say something like, “I am here for you, let’s come up with a plan so that you can get a handle on this problem on your own. I have no doubt you can succeed with this.”
  • Ask yourself, “What is my child capable of doing on their own?” Start collaborating with them instead of taking on so much of the responsibility for their problem. Come up with a plan together of how you will gradually reduce the help you are providing, and then, here’s the kicker, stick to it!
  • Provide emotional support to your adult child and let them know you believe in them. Validate their feelings about the problem without stepping in and trying to fix it or changing how they feel.
  • Prepare yourself for seeing your child upset and learn to tolerate witnessing the discomfort of others. This is hard to do! You may want the support of a therapist for this one.
  • Remind yourself that setting boundaries will allow your adult child to gain independence and, in turn, improve their well-being. You don’t want to accidentally send the message that you don’t think your child is capable.
  • Have something prepared to say if your adult child asks for help when you aren’t expecting it. You could say something like, “Wow, sorry this is happening. I will need some time to think about my role in helping with this.” Then decide if providing help is in everyone’s best interest.
  • Know that you are not alone. Parenting is hard, even when they aren’t babies or teens anymore!


Bottke, Alison. (2008). Setting Boundaries with your adult children: Six steps to hope and healing for struggling parents. Harvest House Publishers.

Burn, Shawn Megan. (2016). Healthy helping: A psychological guide to overcoming co-dependence, enabling, and other dysfunctional giving.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Goodman, Whitney (Producer). (2021). How to support someone who is struggling with their mental health [Paid Webinar].  Eventbrite.

About the Author

Suzanne Linkroum is a Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Director for Waypoint Wellness Center. Although she has clinical training and experience working with individuals across the lifespan, she currently works primarily with adults, older adults, and couples. She works from a cognitive behavioral framework, and strives to help individuals find balance and peace in the way they think about themselves, those they care about, the world, their present, and their future.

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