Tough love for adult children

love tough

From the time our children go to kindergarten, we begin the process of letting go as we surrender them to the influence of others.  We let go of them a little more as each year passes. When they leave home it’s a big step and it takes both parents and children time to adjust and to work out new ways of relating.

Move forward a few years and a couple of possible scenarios exist – your children have become so independent that they no longer have much time for you; you have managed to achieve a fine balance in the relationship where they are completely independent but you have a respectful, loving relationship with them; or they are still overly dependent on you. In the third case, you may have to practice some tough love.

A cycle of enabling

When an adult child is overly dependent on you as a parent, it’s not good for him or you. Tough love is scary – you do not want to alienate your adult child so you give in to demands.  You love your child fiercely and that fear of what would happen if you withdrew your support can keep you trapped in a vicious cycle of enabling.

Where do you draw the line?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your adult child feel entitled to demand money?
  • Do you feel you live from one crisis to the next?
  • How much do you have to sacrifice to meet your adult child’s needs?
  • Do you feel resentful, stressed, used and burnt out by the constant demands?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, you have a problem. You are enabling dysfunctional behavior and you need to draw the line. I know this is easier said than done but you need to find a way to be supportive and understanding but firm at the same time.

What does tough love really mean?

I think there is some misunderstanding over the concept of tough love. When I was suffering from an auto-immune illness, I felt that people were giving me tough love and I did not like it one bit. All I wanted was some compassion and instead I was constantly being encouraged not to give in to the illness as though it was all in my head. In retrospect I realize that what was offered was not tough love at all but came from a lack of understanding. The word tough often has a negative connotation – people forget about the love part. Practicing tough love does not mean being controlling or lacking in understanding and compassion – it often hurts the giver more than the receiver.

Children have to develop accountability for their actions or they go through life with an attitude of entitlement, thinking that nothing is their fault. This is where tough love comes in – to help develop that accountability.  It takes a lot of strength and resolve from parents – sometimes it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to face. When we don’t allow them to bear the consequences of their actions, we take away their ability to learn from their mistakes.

Be honest

You need to be honest with yourself and honest with your children. Realize how your behavior may be preventing them from becoming responsible adults. The truth is that when you draw the line, the initial reaction will probably be shock and you may feel like a ‘bad’ parent for a while. However, it usually leads to a better relationship in the long run. They must understand that you care for them deeply but that you cannot be manipulated.

Respect your differences

Tough love has nothing to do with forcing your kids to live according to your standards. They will always make decisions you don’t agree with and you need to know when to keep your mouth shut. If they ask for your opinion, share your thoughts without being critical. If they don’t want your opinion, keep quiet even if you feel the decisions they are making are wrong.

Show your love

This is harder when they no longer live with you and you don’t have any control over their actions. You may not  agree with their choices or their lifestyle. Keep showing your love,  even if you hate their behavior. If you’re tough on them and that essential ingredient of love is missing, you can destroy the relationship.

Detach from their problems

Realize that their problems are not your problems no matter how much you feel that they are. You do not have to take responsibility when their decisions and actions get them into trouble. This is not easy – you will naturally want to rush in and ‘save’ them.

Focus on yourself and your marriage

You spend years sacrificing for your children. Your focus is on raising them as best as you can. After they leave, your focus has to change. They should no longer need you in the way they did before. If they find it hard to let go, you will have to be the one who insists that they learn to stand on their own two feet. If you’re married, now’s the time to focus on reigniting the spark that may have gone out of your relationship and enjoying life together rather than worrying all the time about your grown children.

Financial help – how much is too much?

One problematic area is that of finances. When parents help their children too much financially, they usually do so because they want to protect them. They forget how much they learned from their own financial struggles.

Helping adult children financially can drain parents of finances at a time when they need to start thinking about retirement. Parents should not help out if they can’t afford to do so – especially if they have to dip in to retirement savings.  Of course, there are some exceptions. My brother became very ill in his twenties and was unable to work – my parents took him in for a few years and I would do exactly the same for my children.

As a parent it makes sense to help with costs that contribute to a child’s independence if you can. Perhaps you could help a child with a down payment on a car or a deposit for an apartment near to a place of work. You may want to give them money as a gift or assist them with a loan. If you loan money, it’s important to decide on a realistic repayment schedule and make sure they keep to it.

Don’t ever just dish out money. Have a conversation first where you find out why they are battling financially, what changes they are willing to make and whether they have thought about how they will avoid such problems in the future.

The current economic situation does mean that adult children move back in with their parents more often than in the past. This comes with its own set of challenges but it can work if the boundaries are clearly defined.

Love tough

Tough love is harder to give than to receive. It can break your heart when you see your adult children experiencing the consequences of their actions and you have to force yourself not to rush in and rescue them. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the words ‘tough’ and ‘love’ – what does love have to do with being tough? Ask the parents of an addict. If they keep giving in to manipulative behavior, it might just have dire consequences. Sometimes you have to get tough in challenging negative behavior and say ‘enough is enough’. On the other hand,  sometimes parents may justify their attempts to continue controlling their adult children in the name of ‘tough love’.

We owe it to our children to be tough on them at times for the very reason that  we love them so much. Maybe a better way of expressing it is ‘love tough’ – put the love first because that is the all-powerful ingredient and the only way kids will ever really benefit when you are hard on them for their own sake.


  1. Ed Varon

    I s there some sort of support group I could attend to help me through this painful life.

    1. Erica (Post author)

      You can try going to the website for the location of meetings of support groups throughout the U.S.

  2. Lee Morey

    Hi Erica,
    I have a 32 year old daughter who not only is an addict, but has mental health problems. I have been trying to help her for years, but as I am learning in the wrong way. She refuses to get help, is very untrustworthy and uses people. Most difficult and heartbreaking is that she has two boys. I tried to help with responsibilities when it concerned the boys, but I am beginning to see that I cannot do this anymore. She pretty much expects me to save her when any issue arrives. I finally made a decision not to help her anymore even at the expense of the children’s welfare and it is killing. I told her I would no longer help her in any way. So my “punishment” is no longer seeing the children. How can a parent of a dysfunctional child with children be supportive without enabling the adult child? Thank you,

    1. Erica (Post author)

      Hi Lee,
      What a heartbreaking situation! It must be so difficult for you to be cut off from your grandchildren. I think you have made the right decision not to enable your daughter but this must have been incredibly hard. My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry but I don’t know how to answer your question about how to be supportive without enabling -perhaps it would help to join a support group for parents of addicts. They might have some practical suggestions for you.

    2. Nicole

      Erica, this sounds like my situation. Were you able to find help? A support group?

  3. Lyn

    Sounds also like my situation, I have daughter (single no children) in the aviation industry. With corona she is now obviously not working and to add insult to injury the airline she works for Comair in South Africa has gone into business rescue. She received one salary and one unemployment fund payment. I found her a job as a caregiver and she hated it, so it only lasted one month. I have taken on the payment of her car and insurance during this time, as the car is in my name. She has become so depressed and I do not know what to say to her. I am an accountant and facing retirement in a year. Already my investments are dreary with Covid and I do not want to give her more money. She witnessed her father’s murder (we were already divorced at the time) and has a very fragile emotional framework (don’t quite know how to word it). I am so very very sorry for her. She has spent so much time in wellness centres for depression and I fear she may do something to herself out of sheer desperation. She absolutely wears me out emotionally and I am so down myself.

    1. Erica (Post author)

      That sounds really tough Lynn. It is terrible when you fear for your children, especially when nothing you do seems to help. All you can really do is to keep offering her love. Ultimately, she is responsible for her own decisions.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *