Adult Children—When to Help and When to Let Them Learn
Knowing When to Help Adult Children
We have a standing joke in our home: When I was working toward a doctoral degree, my sons occasionally started spending money in their heads. In other words, they liked to plan what they were going to do with the money I was going to make. I always tell them that I am leaving all my money to the dolphins, so they will have to make their own ways in the world.
On some level, like all jokes, there is some truth to what I say. I expect them to have jobs, work hard, and support themselves in life. The phrase "tough love" comes to mind, but I as a college psychology professor, family counselor, and former personal loan writer, I have met many parents who spent their life savings bailing their children out of predicaments. This article is for those parents.
The first thing to do is figure out the difference between help that will actually help and help that will only hurt your kids. Below, you'll find sections that answer these main questions:
- What can you do when your grown kids are making bad decisions and end up in trouble—romantically, financially, emotionally, or with the law?
- How can you help your adult child become financially independent?
- When is it time to cut the apron strings and close your checkbook?
- When is it okay to step in and help?
Adult Children Who Make Bad Choices
When Your Grown Kid Makes Bad Decisions
There is a big difference between trying to fix your adult child's ongoing, self-created problems and helping a kid face a life crisis. An adult child who makes a poor decision—like a daughter who buys a Coach purse instead of paying her bills, or a son who gambles with his rent money—should learn from that decision. But then there are real family crises—auto accidents, illnesses, layoffs, house fires, the list goes on—when families should work together.
When Your Adult Child Does Not Listen to Your Good Advice
You're saying all the right things to your adult child, but for some reason, they just don't listen. What can you do? Well, the answer depends on whether or not you are supporting your child financially.
- If you're not giving them money, then you're not entitled to them advice unless they ask for it or to try to prevent a serious mistake. This will allow you to save your breath for when the advice might be heard and make a difference.
- If you are financially supporting your adult child, then you still have a say in how their time and money is spent. Spend that money and advice wisely. For example, if you want your child to go to college, then offer to continue funding them while they do so (and if you don't want them to drop out of college, then make it clear that your financial support will end if they don't attend).
So unless you're paying the bills, you don't get any say in how your adult child conducts their life.
What to Do When an Adult Child Calls From Jail
You get a call at 1 a.m. that your adult child is in jail. After hearing the sob story about drunken driving, drug possession, or some other involvement in illegal activity, many parents will rush to bail their child out of jail. Many parents go as far as taking out loans to get adult children out of jail. Why? A friend of mine repeatedly hocked his vehicles to keep his son out of jail for possession of an illegal substance. Even though he knows he is enabling this child, he refuses to stop and let his son feel the consequences of his actions.
In our family, I have made it clear that if one of my children does something illegal, they better not call me. They know I will not bail them out.
Your child is an adult. They should be responsible for their actions. If you bail them out of jail and put yourself in financial dire straits, you are teaching them that you will always be there to fix their problems and willingly suffer for their mistakes.
There is another very good reason to NOT hock the farm for bail: Chances are that adult child is going to continue the behavior that put them in jail. They swear it will never happen again, and you want to believe. Every parent wants to believe the best about their child, but it's your job to know the difference between fantasy and reality.
If your child is headed down a dark path, you can be a light and an example, but do not save them from their consequences. Protecting a child from their own mistakes means that you do not think they can handle the situation on their own. If that is what you believe, then you need to admit how you participated in creating the problem.
To learn about how to set appropriate boundaries for adult kids who live at home, read How to Create House Rules for Adult Children.
Adult Children Who Are Still Dependent on You
What to Do When an Adult Child Asks for Money
Many young adults today seem to have the idea that mom and dad are made of money, so they can spend carelessly. This is the child who gets a new tattoo or a new phone, splurges on a fancy part for a vehicle, buys new clothes, purchases frivolous items for their apartment (or worse—gets a brand new vehicle), then asks you to pay their rent.
Learning to handle money never killed anyone. If your daughter's vehicle gets repossessed because she cannot pay, it will only hurt her credit. This type of lesson is important. If you protect your children from these lessons, they will never learn how money works, and they will continue to lean on you for help.
Case in point:
My oldest son earned his first vehicle. He learned to fix the old Bronco himself and he took care of it (you could have eaten off the floors in that thing). I was very proud of him. Eventually, the Bronco needed work that would be too costly so he decided to trade it in for something newer. He needed a co-signer, so he called me. My deal with him was that I would co-sign, but if I had to start making payments, I was going to take the vehicle. When he lost his job, he called me to say he could no longer make the payments, so I came and got the vehicle. It doesn’t matter that I don’t drive a stick shift or that I did not like the car, I took it on principle. He was not mad because I made it clear from the beginning that I was not going to buy him a car. (He has a car and a job now, by the way.)
Too many parents base their relationships with their kids on money, out of fear that if they don't, their child will not have anything to do with them. That’s right, your actions are not driven by love but by fear. This is a trap for everyone involved. If you have been a good and loving parent, you need not worry about your adult children never calling. As they grow up, they will drift away for short spells. This is a natural part of becoming adults. They will call, and you will have great conversations about their kids and life.
Questions to Ask Before You Give Money to Your Adult Child
- Ask yourself: Can I afford it? This should always be your first consideration. If you have plenty of money, you might want to help them out, then continue to question #2. But if you can't afford to help them without damage to your own financial health, then just say no.
- Ask yourself: Will this money actually help? Is this a short-term crisis or a chronic condition? Is it a temporary or a permanent need? If your financial assistance will solve the problem now, then move on to question #3, but if it won't, consider helping them find other solutions.
- Ask yourself: Will this money be used responsibly? Will help pay for something important or will it be used on frivolous items? Is it for something they need or do they just want it? Is your child following a budget? If your help will not be spent responsibly, then don't give it.
- Ask yourself: Is there something else I could do to help? Sometimes, you can offer another kind of help instead of giving money. Maybe you can offer to watch your grandkids while your adult child looks for a job.
- Ask yourself: Will it help them gain future independence? Some gifts are money well spent. Investments in furthering education and funding business ventures are smarter than helping your child take a nice vacation, no matter how desperately that vacation is needed.
- Ask yourself: Is this a pattern? If you have gotten into a habit of funding your adult child, or if you perhaps even pride yourself on continuing to pay for them, it's probably not healthy or sustainable. It may be time for both you and your adult child to grow up, break the cycle of dependence, and find other ways to maintain your relationship.
- Ask your adult child: Is this a gift or is it a loan? It's important that both of you get your expectations straight. You may expect to be repaid while your adult child is secretly hoping you'll forget all about it. Transparency is key.
- Ask your kid: When will you pay me back? Part of being an adult is keeping promises. Discuss a repayment schedule and make plans for what will happen if those dates are broken.
- Ask your kid: Are you going to ask me for money again? Don't get into an unspoken ongoing financial agreement. Have explicit discussions about your financial expectations.
Note: If you want your kid to stop asking you for handouts, the biggest mistake is to say "no" and then let them whine and cry and guilt you into it. This is precisely why people play slot machines: there's always a chance it will pay off! Better to say "no" and stick to it. Saying "no" clearly and firmly is sometimes the best thing you can do for your child.
"Emerging Adulthood" Happens Between Ages 18-30
Pew Research conducted a recent study that found that almost a quarter of 25-34-year-olds are still living with their parents.
But What if Parents Have the Money to Help?
What happens when you have money and your children never have to work for anything? They become useless, incapable, entitled adults who have no concept of real work. When a wealthy, enabling parent dies, their kids waste their inheritance on stupid things until it's gone and then they have no idea how to function.
Part of being an adult is paying your own way in life. Let your children have their own dreams and let them work to accomplish them. Make your children work for something. When you prevent your child from working, then they never learn to make it on their own. Let them help the homeless and do charity work even if—especially if—you have money.
Case in point:
A 44-year-old woman came into my personal loan office one day. She was beside herself in tears. Her father, a famous heart surgeon, had so much money that even until the day he died he was sending her checks. After he died, all the money went to his 28-year-old trophy wife. His daughter admitted that her father ruined her. She said “He never made me do anything, so I never learned to live.”
Why Shouldn't a Parent Help Their Child Financially?
When a person works hard for something, they appreciate it, but when something is given, they do not feel a sense of responsibility for it. This is even true with college, where I currently teach. Most of the students who work hard in part-time jobs and for scholarships will appreciate their education, whereas those whose parents pay for their school are much more likely to drop out.
Some parents say they want their children to have things easier than they had. Well why would you want that when you turned out so well? Children need to experience hardships, they need to know the world is not fair, and sometimes life sucks. Why?
Until you know pain you do not appreciate health,
until you know poverty you can not appreciate wealth,
until you know failure you can not appreciate an accomplishment,
and until you work for something you can not take pride in owning it.
Do not rob your kids of these experiences. Be there for them with love and moral support, not to fix their mistakes and/or hand them your checkbook.
Case in point:
Years ago, I had an employee who was extremely emotional. She would cry uncontrollably over dogs that had died 20 years ago, and publicly share intimate details of her relationships without solicitation. Her whole life, her parents had taken care of her every need. At the age of 45, she moved back in with her parents. I can't tell you what happened to her, but I can tell you that I had to let her go from a part-time job.
These days, the biggest danger facing retirees, the one thing they haven't planned for, is having to support adult children and grandchildren.
How You Can Help an Adult Child Without Spoiling Them
- When your adult child calls with a problem, talk them through it. Discuss their resources and options.
- Reinforce your child's intelligence with affirming statements such as "You are smart, and I'm sure you will figure this out," or "You are strong enough to handle this."
- Help them think logically. Let them decide what their best option is based on the resources available.
- It's tempting to send money. Who doesn't want to help the people around them? But you are not here to fix the lives of your children, you are here to teach them to stand on their own and think for themselves.
What if You Always Help Them?
When an adult child is dependent, it creates a negative relationship between the child and parent. The child resents the parent rather than respecting the parent. If you had to rely on someone else for everything, you might start to resent them as well. The adult child starts to expect the parent to fix their life, thus creating stress for the parent. Eventually life situations implode from this scenario.
Case in point:
Years ago I knew a family where the daughter was constantly in and out of the parents house. The adult daughter wasn't on drugs but, she refused to take responsibility for herself or her own children. The adult daughter left her kids for days at a time with her parents until she finally stopped coming home. By taking on the daughters responsibilities the parents took over all the responsibilities for the grand kids.
Case in point:
An elderly couple is currently in a court battle with the husbands adult children who want half of everything the man worked during his life. Essentially, these adult children are trying to take their inheritance before their father has passed away. All their lives the father has given them everything, now they believe they are entitled to more. The man is having to fight a costly legal battle to keep his own money. There's a fine but crucial line between parenting and over-parenting.
Adults Who Still Act Like Children
When Does a Child Become an Adult?
When is it time to cut the strings, close your checkbook, and back away? Take all of these things into account when you decide exactly when your child should transition from child to adult:
- There are many different expectations, not only across cultures but from one family to the next. Every family has its own culture which influences every family member's expectations. In some families, multiple generations all pitch in to live under one roof—in others, kids are expected to move out at 18 to start their own families. So there is no universal cut-off age: You'll have to look at your family's explicit and implicit assumptions and patterns for guidance.
- Another thing to consider is the changing times. We used to consider all 18-year-olds adult, but recently, a new term has been added to our vocabulary for what happens between graduation from high school and eventual independence: "Emerging adulthood" is what we now call that transition period between 18-30.
- Pew Research conducted a recent study that found that almost a quarter of 25-34-year-olds are still living with their parents.
- "Failing to launch" is another new term that describes the inability of millions of young people—even those with jobs—to fully transition into independent adults.
- Due to a difficult economic climate (the increasing cost of tuition, the stagnant minimum wage, etc.) we have a rapidly growing problem in which many young people are having a hard time gaining the self-sufficiency of adulthood.
What Kind of Help Is Actually Helpful?
When You Should Help Your Adult Child
Most adult children will move back home with you at least once. Usually, this happens after college. By that time, the kid should be behaving as a roommate instead of a child—cooking, cleaning, doing chores, and contributing to the household.
Our deal with our kids was they got one year after graduation before they had to start paying rent to us. In that year, they were also expected to save money for an apartment and a car. I would never let my children starve but, short of that, all life experience (easy and hard) is for their own good.
If for any reason your kids need permanent assistance (like if they have a disability or a chronic illness) and if you are their only means of support, then of course, you'll need to have other plans in place and will need to make arrangements for after you die. A financial adviser might suggest smarter ways for you to help in a way that doesn't disqualify them from social services.
Let your adult child live their own life. Do not try to save them: Let them save themselves. I guarantee when your children are older, they will appreciate the values you taught them and be better people.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
I decided to do the tough love thing and not enable my son by giving him money when he asks. We have been trying to place him on the right path for too many years. I know it’s time to step back and let him fail and hope he finally finds the right path. How do we stop the worry that he will do something terrible to himself or others?
As parents, worrying is probably one of the toughest things to overcome. I will tell you this, if you raised your child to be self-sufficient and strong, they will be ok. It doesn't mean that they won't have hardship. Hardships teach us empathy. When a person has never had hardships, they tend to have a very one-sided view of the world. Hardships build character and strength. What I want you to remember as a mom is that you want your child to experience life, part of that is hardships. The greatest people throughout history were built on hardships they overcame. While it doesn't make it any easier, maybe realizing that this is part of molding people into empathetic human beings will help you to think about this differently.Helpful 77
We had our 24-year-old son sign a roommate agreement. We gave him three months to help out around the house, pay us his rent of $200 a month, and to either go to school or get a job, or he has to move out. Now there is almost no communication. Did we do the right thing?
Your son is 24, not 12. I don't know your son, is he capable of all the things you asked of him? Is he able to get a job? If the answer is yes, then you did the right thing. When kids first gain independence communication may be light for a while. Also, I don't know how you presented this to your son. If it was presented as "you are 24 and a loser who needs to get it together," he may be mad at you. If you presented it as "we love you, but you have to learn to survive on your own" then he has no reason to be upset. Growing pains apply to maturity and emotion as well. Your child is not your friend. You can have a close relationship with your child that is not based on your financial support.Helpful 62
I have a twenty-eight-year-old son. He has been clean and sober for six years. He lives at home and hasn't worked in five years. He is depressed but won't get help. It is very sad. As his parent, I am heartbroken. How can I help?
I would start by giving him a reason to work, such as "starting next month you will be paying $450 a month in rent." No matter who I am talking to, if they are not engaged in physical activity (working out) or a sport, they should be. Exercise is the best cure for depression, it ups the serotonin levels in the brain. While this doesn't work for everyone, it does work for most people. Sun is also useful for depression. Many people who were career drug addicts crash into depression when they are sober. It's the inability to deal with life's challenges that spur the drug use, to begin with. At 28 he has most of his life ahead of him, it's time to live again. If you are in good physical condition, start taking him hiking, tell him you want to go but don't want to go alone. Get him moving.Helpful 60
My 42-year-old son is homeless living on my property in a tent. I've tried to help him many times but can't. Should I just let all the worry and anxiety go?
Is having anxiety and worrying fixing the problem? If it's fixing the problem then by all means continue to feel that way. If it's not fixing the problem then it may be time to get a new perspective. Your son is 42, tent living is his choice. Maybe you should just accept his choice, let him know that you accept his choice. Then stop worrying, let him do his own thing.Helpful 48
I have an eighteen-year-old son who has been in and out of jail since age 15. Our son was adopted from foster care at age two and diagnosed with fetal alcohol effects. He is now in jail again and is looking at a 2-7 year prison sentence. How do you help the kid who doesn't learn from his mistakes? We have never bailed him out before, but this time I want to. How do I help him get a fair trial?
Ask yourself what he is going to do when you bail him out of this mess? Is he going to walk the line or do drugs again? You can get him an attorney but chances are he will end up back in prison, and you will have wasted your money. Love your son, but realize that this is who he is. This is the life he has chosen for himself. You can be supportive without monetary compensation. Unless you believe he is completely innocent, I would leave it alone.Helpful 46