As you were raising your children you emphasized the importance of treating each other with respect, making wise choices and doing the right thing. So, why do your adult children make poor decisions?

Seriously, let’s be honest. As a parent, it’s sometimes hard not to experience anger, perhaps some guilt and even resentment toward your grown children when you watch them repeatedly treat you or others disrespectfully, make poor decisions with money or their career, or make poor choices in general.

You may even question where you went wrong as a parent…“How could this child have grown up in our home and be making life-altering decisions that are affecting them AND the lives of their loved ones and friends?” you ask yourself over and over again.

☆ While you might be initially tempted to swoop in and rescue, take a deep breath and keep reading.

Before you beat yourself up and allow guilt to invade your mind, stop. It’s highly likely you did everything you could to help prepare your child for adulthood. Questioning every decision you made as a parent isn’t helpful for anyone. 

Here are some ways you can still be a guide for your grown child and give yourself peace of mind.

Communicate.

If you have a voice at all in your child’s life, now would be a good time to ask to have a conversation with them. As the parent of an adult child, how you approach this conversation can make the difference in whether or not you’ll be afforded the opportunity to continue to speak into their life. BEFORE you have this conversation, process through your own emotions in order to be as unemotional as possible while you’re talking with them. Also, think about what really needs to be said.

This should not be a lecture or interrogation. Ask them about what they’re trying to accomplish. Express your concern for what you see them doing or how you see them behaving. You might be able to offer wisdom, suggest other people for them to talk with, or resources to assist them in getting back on track. Avoid fixing it for them

Set boundaries.

Regardless of whether you’re able to have a conversation with your child, if you’ve not already set very clear boundaries for them, now is the time. Sometimes parents feel like they’re being unloving when they do this. In reality, the exact opposite is true. This is one of the most loving things you can do to help them move forward in a healthy way. Consider boundaries such as: 

  • You’ll not tolerate being treated disrespectfully, so if they can’t be respectful, they can’t be in your home. 
  • If they’re dealing with addictive behavior, you’re willing to help them get the help they need, but you won’t support their habit. 
  • They won’t be able to access your money, even if something were to happen to you.
  • Giving them money to bail them out of financial mistakes will not be possible.  
  • Taking responsibility for their behavior in any way won’t happen.
  • Moving back home is not an option. OR if moving back home could be an option, it wouldn’t happen without a contract in place about what will happen while they are at home and a move-out date set. A warning: if you choose to let them move back home, even with a contract in place, it could be very difficult to get them out.

Avoid enabling.

No matter how old your child is, your role as parent never stops, but it does change. When they’re adults, you’re more the coach or advisor on the sidelines, not their manager. It is incredibly painful to watch your children make poor decisions and not swoop in to fix it. Unless you want your 30, 45, 50-year-old child expecting you to continue to make everything alright for them, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT enable them by taking responsibility for their actions. Don’t confuse enabling with loving your adult child

Don’t cave.

This may require you to pull together a group of trusted friends to support you and help you stay strong. We love our children. Following through on our commitments to keep the boundaries that are in place and not rescue them can feel so unloving. It just goes against everything in us as parents. Yet, standing strong and following through with what you said you would do is actually the most helpful thing you can do for your child to encourage movement in a healthy direction.

Manage your emotions.

Parenting adult children who make poor decisions can be like a roller coaster ride. One minute you think you are making progress and the next day you are in the pit again. It’s tempting to let them have it, but don’t. You do need to be able to process your emotions, but don’t do it with your child. Talk with a trusted wise friend or seek out counseling. Let the tears flow, put words to the disappointment, anger and resentment you feel, grieve what you thought would be that is not, and make a plan for how you will continue to live as fully as possible even in the midst of your adult child living in turmoil. This is vital.

Don’t let their behavior put a damper on your love for them.

Sometimes it’s hard not to take your adult child’s behavior personally as though they are doing it just to get back at you. While that is possible, it isn’t necessarily true. They still need to know there is nothing they could do to make you love them more or love them less. Your love for them isn’t conditional.

Live your life.

When people ask you how are, in your heart of hearts, you feel like you are only doing as well as your children are doing. At some point, we have to separate our adult child’s behavior from ourselves and choose not to let them rob us of all of our joy in life. I’m not saying we don’t grieve. What I am saying is, we don’t allow it to consume us.

It’s funny—as our children move from one stage to the next, we think to ourselves, “Wow, I’m glad we are past that.” believing the next stage will be easier only to find out the current stage has its own set of unique challenges. When we finally believe we’ve arrived at a place where our adult children can function on their own, we find even this season of parenting has its own set of challenges, especially because they can do so much damage that is completely out of our control, but we can be impacted immensely by it. 

Being the parent of adult children who make poor decisions or behave badly is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and tenacity to do what you know is in their and your best interest. Stand strong. Love powerfully. And, in those moments when you are weak and deviate from the plan, give yourself some grace, get back up and keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Image from Unsplash.com

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  1. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Really very sad to see you advising parents to not let their adult children move back in with them (or only allowing it with a contract and a move out date.) Often, moving back in may be the very best thing. I see no shame at all in sharing a home with parents.

    Reply
    • Mitchell Qualls
      Mitchell Qualls says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. We greatly appreciate the feedback. This piece was specifically written for those who are dealing with adult children making poor decisions which put them in precarious circumstances. There are certainly seasons where it would make sense for an adult child to move back home – recently graduated and looking for a job, selling a home and saving for a larger one, trying to decrease debt, and caring for an adult parent in need. However, for an adult child who consistently makes poor choices and uses their parents as the fallback, that is not healthy for the adult child or the parents. Enabling them to continue the cycle of poor decision making does not help them gain stability and become healthy.
      I hope that helps clarify the intent behind this piece.

      Reply
      • Michele laws
        Michele laws says:

        I completely agree. I’ve watched several people continue the abuse cycle by falling back on their parents. I’ve also seen people who didn’t have that option go threw the same cycle but not for long because the missing link was the fall back so there for they didn’t have a choice but to be better and make better choices. They did just that.

        Reply
      • Stella
        Stella says:

        I think reading your advice I have made a poor decision in enabling my 37 year old son to move back with his 7 year old son to pay nothing and expect me to look after his son. My other son is upset about the situation as the continued taking attitude is messing up my life. Therefore you are right in some ways though I felt I had to give help.

        Reply
    • Jennifer Parker
      Jennifer Parker says:

      Obviously you have never had an adult child who is making poor choices move back home. My son has moved back home twice and each time is was a very trying time. He was very disrespectful of me and my other younger children. Did not respect my house rules that my younger children followed. Didn’t help around the house. Slept all the time. Wouldn’t go to work. Would help with bills. Expected me and others to do everything for him. He was rude and hateful. Couldn’t talk to him about anything without him blowing up. He is currently living with my Adult daughter who is now dealing with the the same issues. He just lost his job because he wouldn’t follow the rules, very argumentative and disrespectful to authority. Been arrested for drug paraphernalia. He doesn’t understand why everyone is so upset! This article actually had really good information and I think can help many parents who struggling with what to do. Tough love is hard. That’s why it is called tough love. I love my son more than he can imagine, but it’s time he gets his life together and I refuse to baby him. I saw what happened to my cousin and how he’s turned out at 50 and he still can’t get his life on track. My aunt made excuses for him all his life and tried fixing everything for him instead of forcing him to be accountable for his choices and facing the consequences to his poor choices! I refuse to fail my child that way. He deserves better then that.

      Reply
      • Brandy
        Brandy says:

        I agree!! It’s one of most difficult choices, but it’s the only choice when they don’t follow rules at home nor in society.

        Reply
      • Belinda Morielli
        Belinda Morielli says:

        Jennifer, I couldn’t agree with you more! I’ve been through the same thing with my son and it’s so hard. I had to stop all contact with him because of his behavior and it’s killing me. I just don’t know what to do anymore. We are moving to another state and I hate to leave without speaking to him.
        I’m working on setting health boundaries. Best of luck !

        Reply
  2. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    This article gave me strength when I felt like I was falling apart. Trying to deal with an adult child with addictive behaviors is so painful but your advice gave me guidance and support.

    Reply
  3. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    I am very grateful to be affirmed in my decisions to deal with my feelings about my adult daughter. I have been advised by friends of very long -standing to ‘step back’ and accept she must be responsible for her life choices. It is hard for me to maintain my own principles and identity because I felt guilty in withdrawing help, especially financially. I had to acknowledge that it was not helpful in the long run and would be counterproductive if I got into financial difficulty too. Bit by bit I have clawed back giving my time, money, loaning my car and providing food. I can still do these things but when it suits me. I feel better about myself, setting boundaries. You are spot on.

    Reply
  4. Becky
    Becky says:

    Thank you so much for your advice. As adoptive parents of a 12 year old who is now 34, we have done everything you mentioned here. In our family’s case, helping has never helped. He’s just got to figure it out. I believe we are also dealing with some childhood baggage he brought in from parental abandonment & foster care. Our faith and family have sustained my husband and me, yet there are still times we want to just run away and hide under a rock. BUT GOD brought this child into our life and He will continue to give wisdom to us as we guide our son.

    Reply
  5. ELVA Gaytan
    ELVA Gaytan says:

    Thank you for this article. It has helped my husband and myself. We have 30 year old adult son, Daughter 19 yr old and an 11yr son. Our daughter is the one making so many mistakes. Our son never did a quarter of what she has done in our home and to us.
    If you have never experienced an adult child making poor choices. You do not know how it feels.

    Thanks
    EG

    Reply