Does guilt make you feel responsible for adult children?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Many parents say guilt makes them feel responsible for adult children. They mop up crises and give never-ending support, even though their children may have left home years ago. This habit often starts way back when children are young. Parents who lacked confidence may have felt they weren’t doing enough for their children. But their good intentions somehow slipped over into being too responsible. They hadn’t thought about how to teach their children self-reliance.

So now, they find it hard to let go, and to allow the child to take the consequences of what they do.

Are you in this position, or do you know someone who is?

Take a step back if you can see yourself doing this. If you have younger children, think about what kind of a child you want to raise. And whether down the track, you want to still be feeling responsible for adult children. 

So what makes parents run around after their older children so much?

1 It reduces guilty feelings 

Many parents feel guilty they didn’t or couldn’t spend enough time and energy on their children when they were smaller. Or perhaps they didn’t know much about parenting, and feel they made lots of mistakes. Now they blame themselves for problems their children are having as adults.

In the parents’ minds, if they’d only tried harder back then, their kids would be fine now. 

So these parents are trying to make up for what they see as their failings. They feel as if they owe their children some sort of debt. Therefore, they bend over backwards to smooth out difficulties for their children. 

2 You like to feel needed

Having your adult children depend on you can also make you feel needed and useful. You are seen as a caring and loving person if you look after the needs of others. 

Sometimes this can cover up a gap in your life. You may not know how you really want to spend your time. It’s easier to run round after everyone else, than explore your own dreams. Many parents live through their children’s lives, rather than developing their own interests and social activities. 

3 You’re caring and empathic

There may be other reasons for you taking too much responsibility for your adult children. You may be an empathic person who can’t bear to see others in trouble. And that’s commendable – to a point.

There’s no suggestion that you stop being caring and helpful. Simply that you see the fine line between being supportive, and not allowing your children to work out their own problems. 

Are you tipping from supportive, to taking too much responsibility? Be sure that you’re not stepping over the line. If you feel responsible for adult children, you may continue to take on too much.

Because, unfortunately, doing too much for your children when they’re older can backfire  – on both the parents and children. 

Disadvantages of being too responsible

1 You get taken for granted

There are disadvantages in being “on tap” for others. In the long run, you can feel burdened by others’ needs. And these needs have a way of turning into demands.

Other people can start taking you for granted. And soon, you’ll feel unappreciated, resentful, and even angry. Left for too long, these feelings can damage relationships.

2 Your children don’t learn independence

Acting as your teen’s personal assistant stops them learning skills. They’ll be only too happy to pass responsibility to you – because they can. It’s easier for them in the short–term.

But that means they won’t learn how to organise their own lives. Soon they’ll be relying on you for every little thing.

Later, older children may transfer this dependence to future partners. And they certainly won’t thank you for it!

A word of warning

However, a word of warning is useful here.

Sometimes family members have problems that go beyond simple “laziness,” or a slightly selfish desire for others to make their lives easy. 

Instead, they may be anxious, depressed, or have serious problems with attention. Any of these can cause them to be disorganised. At times they may be unable to fully manage their finances or job-related issues. Their motivation and ability to complete tasks can also be affected, as their brains may struggle to focus. 

So don’t simply take on the burden of always sorting out the mess. Get expert advice if you think there’s something behind your child’s difficulties. A proper diagnosis may help calm things down.

And even so, the affected family member can still learn to take some responsibility. They can learn ways to improve organisation and initiate activities.

Give others responsibility

So how do we make sure we’re not taking too much on ourselves? Or do we just sit and watch when things go wrong?

Parents often aren’t sure how much responsibility they still need to take as their teens grow older. Or perhaps they don’t want to lose control of their child’s behaviour. So they maintain strict control until their teens come of age, and then step back suddenly. Unfortunately, this leaves the now adult child in a vacuum, possibly without useful life skills. 

Remember, it’s never too early or too late to encourage self-reliance in others. Give them more responsibility in stages, a little at a time. 

Far better to loosen the reins gradually, and teach your children (or grandchildren) to be self-reliant in stages as they grow older. Start while they’re young, and pitch your teaching to their level. Brush up on your parenting skills if necessary, by attending some classes or reading parenting books. 

Slowly allow your children to make little choices. Discuss the pros and cons of their options in simple terms. Help them understand how to solve problems when things go wrong. Foster their belief that they can work things out for themselves – with you in the background for support.  

And yes, it takes more patience than if you simply go ahead and do it for them. But if you do that, you’ll be still mopping up your adult children’s crises when you’re due for retirement.  

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