Help! I Don’t Know How to Say No to My Adult Children

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

First, let me say I don’t think I’m a great parent, but I do try to be one. I know the way I parent is different than how a lot of people are with their kids. I just don’t know if that’s good or bad.

My kids are grown up. My son is 24 and lives with his girlfriend in an apartment a few miles away. My daughter is 25, lives halfway across the country, and recently graduated from college with a degree in anthropology. Neither is employed. I am retired and financially comfortable, so I am able to help them. And by help, I mean fully support them.

I know a lot of parents would cut the cord completely and let their kids fend for themselves. I just don’t feel good about that. My kids had a rough childhood with their dad, who was an alcoholic (he killed himself in 2006). He was really hard on them. They didn’t deserve that.

When my kids ask for money or other assistance, I can’t bring myself to say no. They heard “no” too much as kids. On the flip side, I acknowledge this might mean they are becoming dependent on me. My friend tells me they are taking advantage of me and are less motivated to find work because I help them. She’s probably right, but I still can’t bring myself to say no to them. I love them very much, and I am able to help them, so what’s the harm?

I guess I am asking whether you think I’m wrong. It’s one thing to hear it from a friend; it’s another to hear it from a therapist. —Yes Ma’am

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Dear Yes Ma’am,

There is no “right” way to parent your children, even when they are grown. You, and only you, get to decide how you want to show up for them.

That said, I’m hearing a good bit of guilt behind some of your actions, and that may not be the healthiest framework for decision-making. Your kids may not have had the childhood you would have chosen for them, but that does not mean you owe them more because of it. No parent is ever able to meet all of their children’s needs—we do the best we can given our circumstances and abilities. I imagine you did the best you could with what you had available. For the record, hearing “no” as a child can sometimes be the best thing for us.

Often, when I work with new parents, I ask them what they want most for their kids. Almost every time, they answer, “I just want my kids to be happy.” I subsequently disappoint them when I suggest happiness is not the primary goal of parenting. Equipping our children to cope with the world, to manage their lives, and to develop resiliency are better goals. It is less outcome focused and more skills focused, and helps our children develop the tools they need to be able to experience happiness—competence, purpose, and confidence they can weather any storm. That means letting them struggle while being a soft place for them to land when they fall.

Often, when I work with new parents, I ask them what they want most for their kids. Almost every time, they answer, “I just want my kids to be happy.” I subsequently disappoint them when I suggest happiness is not the primary goal of parenting.

This does not mean you should yank your support in order to force your children to be resilient. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You may want to decide for yourself what you are willing to offer, and then have conversations with each of them as to what form that support might take. You might set a timeline and a budget that works for you—enough to help them until they get established, but not so much they can abdicate responsibility for their own lives. I’ve seen parents who decided they were willing to pay for car insurance, or half the rent, or a set amount each month. If you ask your kids what form of support would be most helpful, you can engage with them as the adults they are becoming while holding to limits that feel reasonable to you.

You may also want to talk with a therapist about any lingering feelings of guilt. There may be some emotional healing you and your kids need, but financial support has never been an adequate substitute for emotional support. It can even create barriers when the relationship becomes one of obligation and entitlement.

By setting a limit with your children, you would be letting them know you want to support and help them while also communicating you have confidence in their abilities to create their own lives.

Best of luck,

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC, is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
  • 4 comments
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  • Polly

    May 20th, 2017 at 5:54 AM

    I work for someone who too still supports both of his grown children.
    I feel bad for him because at this rate they are taking away his own ability to sock money away and save for retirement.

  • carole

    May 22nd, 2017 at 9:44 AM

    You would have to hope that over time they would mature enough to where they wouldn’t even ask for that kind of help anymore. I would be embarrassed as an adult child to still be pretty much mooching off of my mom and dad.

  • Glen

    May 25th, 2017 at 10:28 AM

    Sadly I don’t have a great relationship with any of my children because I have had to cut all of them off from the years of financial support that I have given to them. I think that in many ways they resent that, and I know that it has to be hard for them, but I had to work hard to get to the place where I am and so I think that they should probably have to work a little hard too in their lives.
    I know that I have the means to help them but how will they ever learn if I am always willing to step in and save them automatically before I even let them try to do it on their own?

  • Jack

    May 28th, 2017 at 12:48 PM

    They are only doing this to you because they know that they can and that you will continue to let them do it.

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