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: 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.
Questions & Answers
My son has depression and anxiety worsened by pot use. He is not working at the moment but expects me to pay for his phone, car, pot, and cigarettes, and I just can't. Is it ok for me to say no? I'm scared what his reaction will be, but I can't carry on like this.
My daughter is about to turn 21 years old in the next few days. She has a boyfriend that stills does not want to work or be responsible for paying bills, and he is only a year older than her. Now they are both moving out of town, and neither has a job or any money. What should I do?
I have one son that been in prison for 15 years. He has a wife and two sons that she has been taking care of for the last fifteen years. I have helped out by giving my son twenty thousand dollars. How do I not feel guilty when I don't have the money to help anymore?