When my 21-year-old son lost his first job and could no longer afford his rent, my knee-jerk reaction was to invite him to move home until he could get back on his feet again.

It was great at first; my son helped out around the house and ran errands for me when I was too busy to stop by the grocery store or pick up the dry cleaning. But after several weeks with no job in sight, I noticed a strain on the household budget when the food, electric and water bill rose higher than I expected.

Too many parents over-provide for their adult children, equating love with favors and financial support.

Somewhere between the duffel bag of dirty laundry my son left on the floor and the empty water bottles spilling out of his trash can, I’d stepped back into caregiver mode, believing it was my duty as a parent to lift him up while he was down.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I loaned him money for gas, car insurance, and cell phone bills on the promise that he would pay me back when he got a job. What I didn’t realize was that by overextending myself emotionally and financially to rescue him, I had created an atmosphere of codependence that could hinder his growth toward becoming independent.

It was months before he found work and moved out, but I learned a valuable lesson during his stay: If I bail out my children regularly, they’ll expect me to come to their aid every time they hit a rough patch and eventually take my help for granted. 

To the rescue

I know several parents who still pay their adult children’s cell phone bills, pitch in on their monthly rent, and pick up their grocery tab. This is understandable if their child is in a temporary bind and needs a little help. But if a parent continues to support their adult offspring for months or even years, they’re contributing to the problem of what many see as a growing population of millennials who feel entitled and ungrateful. 

When my husband and I entered into parenthood 32 years go, we embraced the roles of both provider and protector with an abundance of love and unwavering support. But there were also times when we had to sit on the sidelines and watch our children struggle, knowing this was necessary to create the character-building traits they’d need to survive in the real world. 

Sadly, too many parents over-provide for their adult children, equating love with favors and financial support. Some mistakenly believe their children will love and respect them more if they give them whatever they desire. Others are afraid to say “no” for fear of losing the closeness they’ve established with their offspring. 

It’s OK to help out now and then, but at what point do we cross the line from being parents to being doormats for our adult children?

First, ask yourself these four questions: 

1. Do you cover a large portion of your child’s debt even though it’s a strain on your own budget? 

2. Do you take on the role of a problem solver for your child and run to their rescue (both physically and emotionally) no matter how many times it inconveniences you? 

3. Do you continually loan money to your child if they are unemployed (and exhibiting minimum motivation in finding a job) or if they’ve overextended themselves by living a lavish lifestyle?  

4. If you deny your adult child money or favors and they become disrespectful, do you give in to their demands to avoid their passive-aggressive behavior and family drama? 

If you answered “yes” to these questions, it’s time to set boundaries with your grown child to prevent an atmosphere of codependency. There are several ways to establish a healthier relationship by using these steps to help them become independent adults:   

Remember that it’s OK to say “no” to loans and favors. 

This doesn’t make you a bad parent; it makes you a responsible parent who acknowledges the importance of teaching your child to be more self-sufficient.

Don’t fall into the rabbit hole of emotional blackmail designed to manipulate your decision.

If you’re accused of being unfair or not loving your child enough, don’t fall into the rabbit hole of emotional blackmail designed to manipulate your decision. Stand firm by setting limits on how much you’re willing to do for your grown child. 

For example, if they repeatedly ask to borrow your car or expect you to take a few hours off work to pick them up when they’re stranded at the airport, suggest that they use a ride-sharing app or an airport limo service. If they frequently ask to borrow money (which most likely will not be paid back), remind them it’s not your job to support them financially, no matter how much you make or what you have saved in your bank account (which is also none of their business). 

Chances are your adult child will come around once they discover the benefits of being independent and accept the fact that you are their parent and not their personal bank. 

If a situation arises that makes it necessary to offer financial support to your adult child, discuss finances before agreeing to a loan. 

Resist the urge to tell your child how to spend the money you give them, and set up a reasonable payment plan so that they understand they’re responsible for the debt. If they can’t afford to make regular payments, devise a different plan for ways they can contribute to reducing their debt, such as mowing the lawn, pet sitting, washing the family car, running errands, etc.

Never use your generosity as leverage against your child. 

If you decide to give a gift or do a favor for your adult child, don’t make the offer with emotional strings attached. A gift is a gift, and if you threaten to take back something you’ve already promised, it will create distrust and power struggles fueled by resentment from your child. If you later regret your offer to help, learn from the experience and rethink your decision the next time around.

Appreciation is nice, but don’t expect it all the time. 

Give your gifts and favors freely because you want to, not because you expect something in return. There’s no scorecard when it comes to doing things for your child, but if you feel you’re being taken for granted, express your displeasure calmly without demeaning them or lecturing them. Let them know that a simple “thank you” will suffice whenever you do something special for them.  

Set an example for your grown children by living responsibly. 

If you’ve taken out numerous bank loans, overextended your credit card limit, and are dodging calls from collection agencies, you’re setting an unhealthy example for your child. This type of behavior sends a clear message that overspending and ignoring debt is acceptable, and they may follow suit by doing the same. Set the right example by taking responsibility for your debt and adhering to an affordable lifestyle.  

Emphasize the memories you’re creating with your adult child, not the amount of money spent. 

Whether you’re planning a fun night out on the town or a vacation with your grown child, establish your intentions early — are you picking up the entire bill for the excursion, or do you expect them to contribute something to the tab?

Discuss what is affordable to all, agree on a plan, and then enjoy your time together. By helping your child focus on the experience rather than the expense, you’ll be emphasizing the importance of the family bond and creating memories that will last a lifetime. 

Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of ‘Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lane’ and blogs at Menopausal Mom.