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Adult Children—When to Help and When to Let Them Learn

Updated on March 6, 2017

Knowing When to Help Adult Children

We have a standing joke in our home: because I am working toward a doctoral degree, my sons occasionally start spending money in their heads. The standing joke is that I tell them that they have to make their own way in the world because I am leaving my money to the dolphins. On some level, like all jokes, there is some truth to what I say. I expect them to make their own money, work hard, and find their own way in life. This article is about handling your adult children.

Immediately the words tough love comes to mind. I have counseled tons of parents who have given away their retirement and life savings to bail their children out of every manner of predicament. This article is for those parents who always say they wished they met me first.

There is a distinction between helping your child fix a problem they created and helping an adult child in a life crisis. An adult child who makes a poor decision should learn from that decision. Such as an adult child who buys a coach purse instead of paying bills. Then there are times of family crisis. A family crisis is an auto accident, cancer, layoffs, house fire, and the list goes on. Do not misunderstand, in a time of family crisis families should work together.

What to Do When an Adult Child Calls From Jail

We are starting pretty extreme. You get the call at 1 am that your adult child is in jail. After hearing their sob story about drunken driving, drug possession, or other involvement in illegal activity many parents rush to bail their child out of jail. I have maintained that if one of my children does something illegal they better not call me (they know I will not bail them out). I have completed loans for parents who have stated that they are using the money to get an adult child out of jail. Why?

Your child is an adult, they should be responsible for their actions, when you bail them out of jail and put yourself in financial dire straits, you are teaching that child that you will fix their mistakes. A friend of mine repeatedly hocked his vehicles and spent his own money to keep his son out of jail for possession of 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.

There is another very good reason to NOT hock the farm to bail an adult child out of jail; chances are that adult child is going to continue the behavior that put him/her in jail. Sure when you talk to the child on the phone they will swear it will never happen again, and you want to believe them. Every parent wants to believe the best about their child. There is what you believe, and then there is 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. Saving the child from their own mistakes means that you do not trust them to handle the situation on their own. If that is what you believe then you did not raise your child properly.

What to Do When a Child Asks for Money

Young adults today seem to have an unyielding idea that mom and dad are made of money. If your child has a job and is responsible with their money then chances are they will not come to you for money. There are adult children who constantly spend their money carelessly and then call you to pay for things like rent. You will know these children by the comments preceding the part where they ask for money. This is the child who gets a new tattoo, new phone, buys a fancy part for a vehicle, buys new clothes, purchases frivolous items for their apartment, or worse gets a brand new vehicle they can not afford.

Learning to handle money never killed anyone. If your child’s vehicle gets repossessed because, that child can not pay, it will only hurt their credit. These types of lessons are important. If you rob your children of these lessons they will never learn what is important when it comes to money. 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 of the floors in that thing). I was very proud of him in this respect. Finally the Bronco needed work that would be too costly and my son decided to trade the vehicle in for another car. He called me after the dealer informed him that he would need a co-signer. My deal with him was that I would co-sign but, if he couldn’t make the payments on the vehicle, I was going to take it. I am sure that he never imagined that he would not be able to make the payments. Eventually he lost his job and he called me to tell me he could no longer make the payments on the vehicle, so I came and got it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t drive a stick shift or that I did not like the vehicle, 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.

As your children grow up they drift away for short spells. This is a natural process of them becoming adults. Too many parents use money as a basis for their relationship out of FEAR that their child will not have anything to do with them. That’s right, your actions are not out of love, and they are driven 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. They will call, and you can have great conversations about their kids and life.

What if Parents Have the Money to Help

Every parent wants their children to become a happy adult. We strive to teach our children important lessons that will forward their character. What happens when you have money and your children never have to work for anything? Well, I will tell you what happens; they become useless conceited brats who have no concept of real work. I have never met a spoiled child who was not a brat and I have never met a spoiled adult that had any concept of the real world. Make your children work for something let them help the homeless and do charity work even if you have money.

As adults your children should earn their own money. Most children of wealthy people do not want to take over the family business. Chances are they have their own dreams. Let your children have their own dreams and let them work for those dreams. When you rob your child of life experience, then they never learn to make it on their own. Eventually you will die and I am going to be honest about what happens when a wealthy person dies; the kids waste the money on stupid things until its gone then they have no idea how to function.

Case in point: A forty-four year old woman came into my office one day. She was beside herself in tears. Her father had been a famous heart surgeon. He had so much money that even until the day he died he was sending her checks. When he died all the money went to his twenty-eight year old trophy wife. That was the end of the money tree. His daughter admitted during her session that her father ruined her. She said “Michelle, he never made me do anything, so I never learned to live”. Even she realized that she would have been better off without the help of her father.

The Importance of the Sacrifice

When a person works hard for something they appreciate it. When a person is given something they do not feel a sense of responsibility for it. This is even true with college. Most of the students who worked hard in part-time jobs and worked for scholarships will appreciate their education whereas students whose parents pay for their school are twice as likely to drop out. Let them work for it.

Some parents function under the idea that they want their children to have better things than they had, well why would you want that when you turned out so well? Children need to have 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 other people of these experiences. Be there for your children with love and moral support, not to fix their mistakes and/or hand them your checkbook.

Case in point:

Years ago I had a coworker who was inappropriately emotional. She would cry uncontrollably over dogs that died twenty years ago, and tell customer intimate details of her relationships without solicitation. Her whole life, her parents had taken care of her every need including any money problems. The world revolved around her. At the age of 45 she moved back in with her parents. She didn't understand being told "No". I can't tell you what happened to her, I can tell you that I had to let her go from a part-time job.

How You Can Help an Adult Child

When your adult child calls, talk them through the problem. Discuss their resources and options. Reinforce your child's intelligence with affirming statements such as "you are smart I'm sure you will figure this out" and "you are strong enough to handle this". Let your child 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? 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.

When You Should Help Your Adult Child

Most adult children will return to your house at least once. Usually this happens after college. By that time the kid no longer wants to be at home, they have tasted freedom. Our deal with our kids is they get a year after high school/college before they have to start paying rent to us for being in our house. In that year they should save money for an apartment and a car. I would never let my children starve. Short of that, all life experience is for their good. . 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 if you teach them to handle things themselves.


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    • susanlang profile image

      susanlang 6 years ago

      well mom you said it all, right there.

    • rebekahELLE profile image

      rebekahELLE 6 years ago from Tampa Bay

      There is so much wisdom in your words. It's not always easy, but adult children need to make their own way. Without hardship and life lessons, I think we miss the whole purpose of our human existence. Life is not about having everything. Thanks for sharing your helpful advice.

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 6 years ago from Bullhead City, AZ

      Thank you for your comment. Parents have the ability to affect the next generation. It's an important concept.

    • SUSANJK profile image

      SUSANJK 6 years ago from Florida

      If they need to come home, we needto welcome them.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Right on, michelleonly3! Many, many parents (my saintly mother and father included) are far too accommodating. I'm glad you're urging readers to protect their own lives and financial stability while also teaching their kids to take care of themselves :D

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 6 years ago from Bullhead City, AZ


      There are times when an adult child moves back in after losing a job, however, I do not think it is wise to bring adults who have shown they have drug, alcohol or gambling addictions back into your home. Chances are you will become a willing victim of their behavior. You know your children, if they work hard and need you that is one thing, if your children are ok with being on your basement couch playing video games, that is a whole other idea.


      I think that fear of your children not loving you drives so many adult parents to behave irrationally toward their adult children. Thank you for the comment.

    • profile image

      Leah 5 years ago

      What about a child with a mental illness? Do all of these principles still apply?

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 5 years ago from Bullhead City, AZ


      That would depend on the mental illness. I had a very good friend who's daughter was extremely bipolar. She would show up at his house and remove parts from his car or break into his house . She spent a lot of time in jail (she was not on illegal drugs). He tried for years to get her help. A psychiatrist would prescribe her medication and she would take it and function for a while, then she would stop taking it and have an episode. This cycle went rounds until she was 29 when she physically attacked him as he was leaving his home. The reality of these types of situations is that people with extreme disorders need to be institutionalized. I am talking about people who are a danger to themselves or others.

      That said I had an uncle with down syndrome. He was not dangerous but, was not functional enough to do a job. He lived his entire life with my great grandparents. They supported him without help from the state until he passed away at 56. When you love a child there is difference between responsibility and enabling that child.

      When it is to the detriment of the parent to continue to “fix” situations a child creates, then it’s time to walk away. Mental illness is a tough thing to live with as a parent. These disorders strain family relations and cause huge holes where a loving child once was. Every one of these situations is different. I think if you are unsure what needs to be done the best thing you can do is look at the limits of that child’s understanding and what your motives are for enabling the adult/child. As I said in cases of extreme mental disorder, an institution would be preferable to jail.

      If you need to you can email me as well.


    • profile image

      Shell 4 years ago

      i needed reassuring that I have to stick to my boundaries of my rules. But what if your 19 year old has no where else to live if you kick him out?

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 4 years ago from Bullhead City, AZ

      Some kids are home until they are 20, it depends on the situation. We are in tough economic times. Some families are pulling back together out of hardship. The reality is that there is always work somewhere. If you have a 19 year old who refuses to get a job, or go to college, I would say it is time to intervene. My husband always says you can stay as long as you are in school or have a job. Full time jobs are few and far between in some areas. However, if your 19 year old is playing video games all day, its time to put your foot down. Kicking him out may not be be the best option, it just depends on your situation.

    • profile image

      mommy dearest 4 years ago

      We got this .times the 10th power ...45is. A 17 year old,a27year old who is 15 .the money is there ,but some how,we need to make them think that the new will ,is going to the church or charity,they think mom is that crazy to do just that

    • profile image

      Mama BeeJay 3 years ago

      Helpful advice. I am right in thick of it and my husband and I are determined to say 'NO' this time.

      I have four grown children. Only one of them is still at home and she's in college. Of the other three, two of them are stable and have never asked for money. My son and his family (wife, 2 yr old and 4 m old) moved in a year ago and lived with us for 6 months. They moved out and now once again, a year later, are facing homelessness. My son is trying to play catch-up at a $10/hr job after losing his job a few months ago. On top of they have yet to learn life lessons around money.

      We have given a LOT of money as their need arises - just call mom and dad. We are done. Tapped out. Ready to make the change towards letting them live their own lives with our rescue.

      BUT ITS HARD!!! I cry all the time when I think about their impending eviction in 2 weeks and can't imagine them and their babies in a shelter. At this point that seems like the only alternative to moving back in with us.

      The other siblings are angry and resentful that we help so much. And I'm angry too. Angry that they just don't seem to 'get it': Rent first, utilites, car pymt, THEN everything else.

      I fear I'll cave and take them back to start the cycle all over again from a year ago.

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 3 years ago from Bullhead City, AZ

      Mama BeeJay,

      I would suggest to your son that he sell some things to make rent. We forget that many things we own are not necessities. Big screen TV's, sound systems and such are not needed. People who are struggling should forgo luxuries like cable TV, and cell phones. If he wants to make rent, he will. You can tell him that you trust him to be an adult and handle his own problems. Believe in your child's ability to make a decision. Saying No doesn't mean you don't love him. My son once sold his dirt bike to pay a bill rather than calling me for the money. While he loved the dirt bike he knew he had to be responsible. Stay strong.

    • profile image

      Lynn 3 years ago

      My daughter made a very stupid decision. She married a guy after knowing him for five days and then moved to New York to be with him. He is in the army. We live in Virginia. Long story short she wants a divorce and been to speak to a lawyer about this. They live in military housing and she works at Arby's. She is 21 and has never had a decent job just a lot of fast food jobs. My concern is that when they separate she will no way be able to support herself with living on her own. She has already shown us she is not responsible enough to do that. What do I do if she becomes homeless in New York with no place to go and cannot afford a place to live. Given the fact the military moved all her stuff there .

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 3 years ago from Bullhead City, AZ

      The decision to allow a child back into your home is completely up to you. I wouldn't allow my child to be homeless. However, I would consider making it conditional. If she is coming back then she has to live by your house rules. Those rules are set by you. She may be 20, yet her lack of responsibility shows she's not an adult. She obviously has a sense of adventure, maybe she should consider jobs on cruises or stewardess positions. Don't hold her hand. Expect her to be an adult and act like an adult. Also I wouldn't offer help. She may have an exit plan, if not then she we call you. Our gut instinct is to rush in and save our child. She might not need to be saved. If you set up a pattern of bailing her out, you will be doing it forever. Give her some space. When you talk to her say things like "what do you think is the best way to solve this problem" make her think it out. Just because you may have all the answers doesn't mean she will listen. Learning to fix her own problems is a big step in becoming an adult.

    • profile image

      Willow Rockson 14 months ago

      I wish I hadn't taken care of my 50+ year old son with his DUI Extreme. Paid for lawyer, court costs, etc. etc. One year later, looking back, I should never had done it. He wasn't working anyhow. It's not like he lost a job, wife or anything of importance - except for the fact that he didn't learn the full impact of responsibility. He actually turned around a week later and got into a bar brawl and got injured pretty bad. With no insurance, I paid for the doctor's bills as well. Here I am, 75 years old, worried about how I'm going to manage financially in my old age. I bet he's not going to be able to, let alone understanding he should.

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 14 months ago from Bullhead City, AZ


      It sounds like you have worked very hard and your son for whatever reason is not taking responsibility for himself. You have choices. I would star by forcing him to pay you back. No more help, no more handouts.

    • michelleonly3 profile image

      Michelle Jackson MSIOP 2 weeks ago from Bullhead City, AZ

      No, you shouldn't bail her out of jail. Although you didn't say, it sounds like your daughter is into drugs. Whether or not you take in her baby depends on what you can live with in your heart. Understand that her children are not your responsibility. We all love our grandchildren, however she is placing a life burden on you. Now if you have the means and want to take these children in, then that is your decision to make. If you are married then the decision should be made with a spouse.

      As soon as she has this baby I would take her down and have the five year birth control put in her arm. She is not taking care of these kids, she doesn't need more children. If you do take the baby and continue to raise her other children, I would cut ties with your daughter. She needs to have a serious consequence for her behavior, and sometimes that consequence is that you stop making life easy for her. Its easy to drop babies off at moms house when you know you can show up whenever you want. It sounds like she is using you to take care of her responsibilities.

      I personally could not let my grandchildren become wards of the state, that's me though.However, know that turning her children over to the state is an option. The children are a byproduct of her behavior. No one except your daughter is responsible for those kids, not you and not her sisters. Turning your daughter away doesn't mean you don't love her, it means you love yourself too much to be a doormat. Most people have to hit rock bottom before they come back up. It's likely to be a long time, if ever, before she turns her life around. You cannot control your daughters behavior, you can control her involvement in your life and the life of those children while she is being irresponsible.

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