They’re adults. They don’t even live with you anymore. In fact, they have their own kids now. Is it even possible to spoil adult children? (They can spoil themselves—and eat all the candy they want now—for crying out loud.) As it turns out, though, there’s a fine line between spoiling and supporting, and as our kids grow up and leave the nest (or don’t), it can be surprisingly difficult to discern what’s healthy encouragement and what’s overdoing it. Here’s how to spot enabling, why it happens and why it’s important to nip it in the bud.
5 Subtle Ways You Might Be Spoiling Your Adult Children
For many parents, it’s damn near impossible to identify the delicate boundary between spoiling and supporting. But here are some subtle examples that you might be guilty of.
1. You let them borrow your belongings without consequences
Whether your adult child lives in your house or has a home of their own, have you noticed them taking your things—the lawn mower or a bottle of balsamic vinegar—without asking? This implies that they feel entitled to everything in your world and shows in an inherent lack of respect. Maybe you’re totally fine with them borrowing your stuff, but if they don’t ask first, it could be a sign you’re spoiling them, allowing them to act without consequences.
2. You’re their personal alarm clock
You wake up a 6 a.m. so that you can call your 23-year-old son to remind him to get his butt to that doctor’s appointment. You put a reminder in your phone to text your 30-year-old daughter that her license expires this month. You’re constantly emailing your 26-year-old son job opportunities. Hmm. Sounds like you’re doing less parenting and more personal assisting.
3. You drop everything for non-emergency “emergencies”
Of course you would drop anything for a true emergency for your child. But every time your adult kid loses their car keys, needs someone home to sign for a package or forgets the dry cleaners closes early on Fridays, you’re there to pick up the slack, clearing away obstacles purely for the sake of helping your child avoid experiencing discomfort, says psychotherapist and leadership coach Sarah Greenberg. While running to your adult child’s aid is certainly helpful, it teaches them that they always have a backup plan: you.
4. You’ve conveyed the expectation that their partner or spouse should be doing more than their fair share
If you’re used to spoiling your kid then you might expect their future partner to do the same, thereby carrying on toxic patterns, which is why Greenberg includes this in her list of common-but-subtle spoiling tactics.
5. Vocally blaming others for your child’s difficulties
Greenberg shares an example: “Let’s say your ‘child’ loses three jobs in a row, and the parent tells the child (and everyone else) that it’s the fault of their ‘incompetent managers.’” This means you’re essentially creating a false reality where your kid never has to change or improve to survive in the real world.
How can you spot the different between spoiling and supporting?
“Life is hard. We’re not meant to go through it alone,” says Greenberg. “Supporting gives a helping hand while also saying, ‘you can do this!’ Spoiling may lift obstacles out of the way but does nothing to elevate a person’s character or capacity. Instead it says, ‘I can do this for you!’” explains Greenberg. In short, the underlying, unintentional message of spoiling is: “You can’t hack it.” When you remove obstacles and take on the weight of the world for your adult children, whether that’s the accumulation of minor errands or financing their home, you’re spoiling them.
So how do we stop spoiling adult children?
If you’re enabling adult children, it probably means you’ve doing it for a long time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change. Once you acknowledge there’s an issue, Greenberg suggests trying to understand why. Is it the urge to protect? Does it stem from guilt that you worked a lot when your kids were young? Is it the discomfort of seeing your child struggle? The reasons can be varied and complicated and requires some deep thought or even talking with a professional. From there, if relevant, get on the same page as your partner, co-parent or other influence and reinforce ways you can support your adult children instead. Take Greenberg’s experience: “I’ve learned a lot about how not to spoil from my own kids’ Montessori school. Maria Montessori said, ‘Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.’ In this approach, teachers’ help the children to help themselves. It’s amazing to witness the independence this fosters.”