SOURCE: Excerpted from a book by Allison Bottke
Assuming Responsibility for Our Choices
Although it’s high time many of our adult children begin to accept the consequences of their choices, the plain truth is that we must first accept the responsibility for our choices—past choices, present choices, and future choices.
Our biggest problem isn’t our adult children’s inability to wake up when their alarm clocks ring, or their inability to keep a schedule, or their inability to hold down jobs or pay their bills. It’s not their drug use or alcohol addictions. It’s not the mess they’re making of their lives. The main problem is the part we’re playing in stepping in to soften the blow of the consequences that come from the choices they make.
The main problem is us.
It’s also the excuses we make to ourselves (and others) for our enabling. Excuses like these:
- “It’s just so hard for kids today.”
- “If I don’t help, who will?”
- “But I’m only trying to help.”
- “No one understands my Larry [or Sally].”
- “He [or she] just needs to find the right treatment program.”
Excuses like these keep us in pain—and further from any real resolution for our children or us. What must stop are the ongoing (and often useless) discussions we continue to have with our adult children, who clearly know how to push our buttons, how to control us and thus control the outcome, be it consciously or subconsciously.
The excuses must end.
And as difficult as it may be to hear, we may be somewhat responsible for whatever part we’ve played—large or small—in the dysfunctions of our adult children. For some of us, the responsibility may be large. We have surely played a part—perhaps unwittingly—in raising disrespectful, irresponsible, ungrateful, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, and debilitatingly lazy adult children. We have played some part in raising excuse-ridden sluggards—“The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4).
Does this sound harsh? It was meant to. I know some of you may be saying, “Allison, please don’t make me feel even more guilty about my parenting choices. I feel bad enough already.”
I totally understand. However, if we really want things to change, it’s time to stop feeling guilty, take the spotlight off our adult children, and focus ownership of the issue on ourselves. The reality of what we’ve done and why we’ve done it may be ugly, but underneath it all is something beautiful: well-meant intentions. And it’s those well-meant intentions that cause us grief today.
For years some of us have focused our attention (and worries) on our adult children. We’ve not only taken on the role of director in the drama of their lives, but the roles of producer, stage manager, dresser, caterer, financier, and scriptwriter as well. We’ve done countless things for them that they are more than capable of doing for themselves. No matter whether it’s a comedy, a tragedy, or a melodrama, it’s time for the curtain to come down on this act.
This show is over.
But a new production is on the horizon!
We must replace our enabling behavior with something else.
Ending Enabling Behavior
From experience I’ve learned four life-saving truths about changing enabling behavior:
- We can pray for the power to change ourselves.
- We can help (not enable) adult children of any age develop wings to fly on their own.
- We can find comfort in knowing we are not alone on this journey.
- We can take back our lives!
In the book of James, we read, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (1:2-3). In place of “perseverance,” the New American Standard Version uses the word endurance. Either way we look at it, the lesson is clear: we are being instructed to hang in there, to stay the course, to persevere and endure.
What are we really made of? It’s been said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I’ve always understood the second part of that quote to mean that when we’re faced with trials, we must proactively do something. We must get going, as in get up off the couch and make some positive changes. It seems others have interpreted this quote as justification to retreat, to run away from the trial, to get going—as in I’m outta here!
Many of our adult children have retreated from the trials and tribulations that not only test their faith but would also stretch them in ways that would develop their character, prove their mettle, and give them a sense of achievement. Consequently, many adult children have no idea what they’re truly capable of accomplishing. They’ve never really tried to move ahead with confidence and be all they can be.
Remember, God knows when to discontinue a trial because its purpose has been fulfilled. And He gives us two great promises concerning our trials: First, His comforting presence:
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
And second, the assurance that He won’t permit more pressure than we can handle:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The apostle Paul wrote from his experience:
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
True, he wasn’t a parent of a dysfunctional child, but these verses apply to any Christian who is “hard pressed on every side” and “struck down.”
And we have certainly been struck down countless times, but like the Energizer Bunny, we keep getting up. Yet we’re so weary of living with the ongoing crisis that we return to the same behaviors and habits—and our adult children have us pegged. They know what to expect from us. They know that eventually we will “help” them yet again.
The bitter truth for many of us is that we haven’t been helping; we’ve been enabling.
So instead of praying to God to stop the pain, remove the difficulty, or change the lives of our adult children, we must rise up and pray for something entirely different. We must pray for the courage to look deep in our own hearts and souls. We must pray for the strength to begin a journey that quite possibly may change our own lives—and pray for the wisdom to make new choices.
Making new choices won’t always be easy. We’ve been repeating the same patterns for years, but now we need to ask ourselves what rewards we’re getting from enabling our adult children. What need is this fulfilling in our lives?
Quite simply, we must identify our own issues.
It took me years to get to the bottom of my own issues, but once I did, things began to change.
I was 16 years old when my son was born, living a nightmare, trying to stay alive. I had run away from home at the age of 15 to marry my prince charming, except he turned out to be anything but. The first year of my son’s life was like any number of Lifetime Movie of the Week scripts in which violently abusive husbands stalk their wives, making their lives a near hell on earth. One horror story after another had me looking over my shoulder for years as I tried to make sense of my world.
As a toddler, I had been brutally beaten and molested by a foster parent, which left me scarred in ways that would take me decades to sort out. I was an emotional mess before I met my first husband, then after what he did to me, I was even worse. I was only 16 years old; I had no business being a mother. I was too young, too immature, and too unstable.
But, oh, how I loved my son.
You may argue that babies have been having babies for centuries. It wasn’t unusual in many cultures for girls to leave their homes as young as age 13 to begin families. However, in most of these instances, the babies were raised in households where extended family resided. Thus, a young woman learned how to become a mother from older women who were far wiser and more experienced.
Not so today. Families are spread out all over the country, and young parents are thrown into the fray with very little preparation.
Plus, the young mothers of yore seldom had the severe emotional baggage young mothers carry today. In my case, I didn’t just carry baggage; I had a truckload of dysfunctions.
- Suzanne Eller is a speaker, parenting columnist, and author of The Mom I Want to Be. Responding to my questionnaire, she wrote,
Poor parenting skills are a contributing factor to the enabling epidemic. I often talk to parents whose intentions are positive, but their methods keep their adult children in a state of limbo. One parent complained that she felt her adult son would never leave home. “Why don’t you tell him it’s time to go?” I asked. She said that he was financially unable to support himself. This son had a nice vehicle, a Jet Ski, and trendy clothing, and he went out to eat or play often. Mom and Dad paid the mortgage, the food bills, and the utilities, and they didn’t have the financial means to “play.” It simply didn’t make sense. This mom had no clue that they were not only teaching their adult son that others would care for him and his “needs” while he spent his money on “wants,” but they were also setting him up for future relationship disasters. One day he will step into marriage, and the chances are, he will expect those he loves to continue the pattern.
It’s time we break the pattern. It’s time we find out what kind of parents we are and do what it takes to become the parents our adult children need.
Self-awareness of the part we play in the enabling dynamic is a major success step. When we become aware of our heart issues, we are one step closer to being healthy. And it’s our own lives we must make healthy, not our adult children’s lives, no matter how much we want to help them.
How they live their lives, the choices they make or don’t make, and what they inevitably choose to do or not do with their future is up to them, not us. It’s amazingly empowering when we begin to define and clarify our own issues as parents.
Pointing the light at ourselves is the powerful first step to changing our lives, and God willing, our adult children’s lives as well.
Forgiving is good. Helping is good. Being there for our adult children is good. However, when living in constant need, crisis, or trouble becomes the rule and not the exception for our adult children, we must step back and take a look at our own lives. We must recognize our own problems with enabling and change our own patterns of behavior.
I know the idea that you may have contributed to your adult child’s poor choices is uncomfortable. Perhaps some of you really haven’t done much to bring about your adult child’s present crisis. You may not be a chronic enabler. But keep reading. There is much for you in these pages.
Whether or not you can identify enabling behavior in your treatment of your adult child, you will still need to set boundaries in your relationship with him or her. In either case, it’s no longer about your adult child; it’s about you.
I know because I’ve been there.
And deep in your heart, you know it too.
 Bottke, A. (2008). Setting boundaries with your adult children: Six steps to hope and healing for struggling parents. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.