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.

16 Comments

  1. Ed Varon

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

    Reply
    1. Erica (Post author)

      You can try going to the website http://www.bily.org for the location of meetings of support groups throughout the U.S.

      Reply
  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,

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
    2. Nicole

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

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
  4. suzy

    I tried tough love and I gently kept pushing my 22 year old son to get a job. He lived at our house and wasn’t really doing much of anything. So, I made a work chart , encouraged sending applications daily and making him wake up at the same hour every day. he used to be a very sweet person but as I proceeded with my expectation he got more and more angry. One night I came home and he was very intoxicated… he laid into me and suddenly violently attacked causing a lot of injury and shattering my phone. He went to jail and now has a one hundred thousand dollar bail. he has never been in trouble…. tough love didn’t work so great for me. I’m not sure how long he will spend in jail but this is horrible. He had everything and everything to look forward to and beyond. Now I have a incarcerated son; now what?? just so other readers can see sometime tough love is not so cut and dry.

    Reply
    1. Erica (Post author)

      As you say, tough love isn’t always cut and dry. Every situation is different and it can be very distressing when nothing you do seems to work. Do other readers have any suggestions?

      Reply
      1. Laura Dowd

        He caused himself to go to jail not you. I had the same thing happen with my son. He will blame you but it is actually their actions that caused this. I am still struggling with my son as I felt that I should help and be supportive of the hard times he was going through. It hasn’t helped all I was doing was enabling him to continue this behavior. I am not sure what is going to help. I pray a lot.

        Reply
    2. Hal

      A difficult situation indeed. I am a retired law enforcement officer. Time in jail might be what it takes to rattle his cage and see just how easy he had it at home. If your son still faces an upcoming trial it may still be possible for you to approach the district attorney handling the case and it being (he has never been in trouble) and discuss the situation and your desire to find a healthy outcome for each of you. Pray cooler heads will prevail, that your son will regret his actions and straighten up. Also, once back home things have changed! That you expect him to find a job ( even part time) in a reasonable time frame that you set. For him to contribute to the household ( chores, rent, etc.) otherwise it’s time that he found another roof to live under!! That’s what my dad did for me. Yes it helped me grow up quickly. Looking back I’m so grateful that he loved me enough to risk our relationship which required showing me tough love.

      Reply
  5. Susan

    I am a single mom who recently went through a tough divorce from an alcoholic. This has left scars on my 18 year old son, he tried college but came home after all the Covid issues. His mental health is very fragile. He is currently looking for a job. I pay all the bills and feel disrespected because I am constantly cleaning up after him. He will clean up, but only after being reminded. He is too old for this kind of behavior, I know.
    I don’t know what consequences to give him. I can’t really take away things like I did when he was younger. I am at the point of telling him if he wants to live with me, he must change his habits or find somewhere else to live. But, I am nervous because he is only 18 and needs guidance. Any suggestions?
    I do not have any support from my ex. I know I need to develop a stronger backbone to manage him on my own.

    Reply
    1. Hal

      Repeat your last sentence to yourself over and over until it sinks in.
      Be honest and frank with him. That you need his help, you can’t do it on your own. It’s time he found a part time job to help you out. Set some simple rules at first. Write them down and place them where he will see them (refrigerator door). Let him wash his own clothes, do the dishes, simple things at first. At his age it’s time to step up to the plate and help mom out! Remind him gently how difficult it will be one day soon he will realize what it’s like to pay the rent, buy the food, has his own house and car to maintain.

      Reply
  6. Tracy Musto

    I have a son who was originally a foster child who came to me at age 6. He is now 22. I am a single parent to him. I now also have custody of his 3 year old son. My son doesn’t want to work, he doesn’t clean up after himself, refuses to help me in the home saying he is not my maid, he uses me financially, shouts and swears at me, etc. He came from an abusive and neglected background and has fetal alcohol syndrome. We live in a very small town where there is no support for him or for me. His son is starting now with tempers as well. I can’t kick my son out because he has nowhere else and no one else. He is also not really able to hold down a job but he doesn’t even try. We also have a 50% unemployment rate here. My stress levels are through the roof and I dont know what else to do. I know he loves me, everyone knows that, but it’s like he has no control and also suffering with depression. Help!!!

    Reply
  7. Lily

    Hi Erica,

    I desperately need some advise. My daughter is 22 years old and a student. She lives with me (it’s always only been the two of us, her dad and I divorced when she just got out of diapers). We’ve always had a great relationship. There’s plenty of love in the house and we get along fantastic. Until she met her boyfriend.

    My daughter is kind, respectful, honest and hardworking. We’ve been through some pretty tough times but always got through these together. She has been with this boyfriend for four years now. His upbringing is exactly the opposite from hers. He has no self respect or respect for others. He is loud, dirty and obnoxious – she is quiet and shy. He only works hard when he does something he likes. He never has money – she uses every sent of her allowance and money she makes with her small side-line business on him. He’s lazy. He will let her carry heavy bags while watching. She even cleans his apartment. He will order pizza for them, but when the delivery arrives, he expects her to pay. His dad is exactly the same. He didn’t grow up in a loving environment (but wants 6 children).

    I pay my daughter’s studies, she lives with me (when not with the boyfriend), I pay her medical, her clothes and everything else. She never asks for anything – I do this out of my own, and I really want to support her while she’s studying so she can make a success of her life. And she can never say thank you enough for this. I’m struggling to get ahead financially.

    Unfortunately the boyfriend is riding this gravy train too. The more she tries to contribute financially, the more he drains her from every sent. He obviously wants them to move in together and get married, but she is still a bit reluctant. I can, however, see a change in her personality and she’s starting to “adapt” to his lack of ambition. He makes sure she gets to spend as little time with me as possible. He also doesn’t go anywhere without her. She’s even going to a bachelor party with him at the end of the month!

    About two years ago, things got so bad between the boyfriend and I, that my daughter tried to take her own life. Today, she’s depressed, anxious and has little self confidence. He literally drained all the happiness and her love for life right out of her. I stopped telling her how I feel about him and I stopped warning her. It got a little better, but only because the conflict was less. She always took his side in every argument anyway, so I had not much of a choice.

    Last night I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t stop thinking of my wonderful child in the hands of this monster. I kept thinking over and over that cutting her off financially might help. So that she can stand up to him too, since things will be much more difficult than handing her everything on a platter.

    I’m losing my beautiful child. Please help.

    Reply
  8. Peder Strand

    Finding this at a time when I need it. We have an adult son with some medicated mental issues. He has held down jobs, had been in a several year relationship, and has lived with us for the last three years, so that we could help him get his feet on the ground. His pattern has been, with his jobs and relationship, to find excuses to work less and less, and have his partner, or currently, us, his parents, to support him as he contributes less and less to the situation. He broke a key ground rule several months ago by drinking (former drug and alcohol abuse). We told him if it happens again, “We’re done.” Well, it happened again. As his parents, we both stuck to our guns. Mom wanted him out NOW, I, as a step dad, said 2 months. Sometimes love is tough!

    Reply

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