What Your Adult Children Wish You Knew...Part 4: Dealing with Contempt

In my last post I talked about how enabling/rescuing your adult children often breeds contempt. Over the years I've spoken with many parents who are mystified by their adult children's contemptuous response. I hear incredulity in their voice, anger with their adult child's ingratitude, desperation as to the future, and confusion over what went wrong. You might share in their struggle to understand how "helping" your adult child[ren] can lead to contempt.

Why would an adult child who has asked for your "help" repeatedly, end up feeling contempt toward you? What possible reason could they have for responding this way after all that you have done for them? In my counseling practice, I sat with many parents who couldn't understand where they'd gone wrong.  Many were heartbroken. Some were angry. Others were desperate. Most were mystified. How did this happen?

Most adult children know deep down inside that part of being an adult means they should be productive, independent, and responsible. When parents repeatedly enable their children, even when asked to do so, the adult child feels an unspoken unconscious fear that is shame producing. That unidentified shame is the source of their contempt. They want your "help", but at the same time, they resent you for giving it.

This doesn't mean that we don't help our adult children at times. Enabling is when we do for someone else what they can and should do for themselves. When parents enable or rescue their adult child[ren] repeatedly, it is often difficult to break the cycle. 

So what does a parent do? First, the parents must be committed to change. They must "own" responsibility for their part. They often need the help of a counselor or support group to provide accountability, encouragement, and on-going support, but it rarely works if only one parent is committed to the process. Second, the parents need to have a genuine, honest conversation with their adult child. They must take responsibility for their role in enabling and express a sincere apology. They need to acknowledge that this pattern of enabling has been destructive to the development of a healthy relationship and been hurtful to all parties involved. Third, the parents must be clear that they are committed to changing and that they will no longer step in to provide help. Then, they must actually do what they said they would do. They understand that this new stance may result in disappointment and upheaval but they are willing to risk that for the sake of having a healthier adult to adult relationship sometime in the future.

What can parents expect in response to this new found commitment? Stay tuned for my next post to find out!