Question 

A year ago our daughter had an emergency surgery that required a lengthy recovery. She and her two boys moved in with us so we could help her out financially (she is divorced and her ex does not pay child support). She is now a year past the surgery and is very active and has a part-time job working about five hours per day. That means we cook and care for the kids daily. Her boys are involved in many activities that would not be possible if she worked a full-time job. We have talked about the need for a plan for the future, including housing, full time employment, training for a career that will support her family, and so on. In our opinion she is too comfortable living with us and has made no effort toward independence. We love her and the kids, but this is more than we bargained for. We are exhausted and see no end in sight.

I work full-time and my husband is retired. I can usually handle the chaos but my husband is stressed and worn out. Our daughter does not appreciate his health issues or show much consideration for him, but instead comes to me, which is cause for concern. How can we encourage her to move toward independence without causing major damage to this relationship?

We would like this to be a positive transition. A friend once said, “It’s a fine line between helping and enabling,” and we think we’ve crossed the line. We have suggested she go to a support group or get some counseling to deal with her emotional issues but nothing has come of it. We are ready to go to counseling ourselves if it would help!

Answer 

You’ve got a wise friend who has described your situation well. Indeed, it is a fine line between helping and enabling. Based on your description of the situation, I agree that you’ve unintentionally ended up on the unhelpful side of that line. The good news is that you can correct this and regain your peace and help your daughter rise up to privilege of being a responsible mom.

Even though people who enable others often get criticized for their actions, it’s my observation that most enablers start out from a loving and sincere desire to help. Unfortunately, the enabler is held hostage by the possibility of a crisis, so they continue to carry the stress and responsibility for the other person’s problem. The love turns to fear, the willingness to help turns into resentment, and the relationship becomes soured as the enabler faces emotional and physical burnout. Thankfully, there is a better way.

You and your husband stepped in at an appropriate time to help your daughter with an unanticipated medical emergency. This was a selfless sacrifice that any parent would make for their child and grandchildren. Now that the medical crisis has passed, your job of caring for her and her children full-time can come to an end.

You are worried about your relationship with her. Is she worried about her relationship with you? Does she worry about the impact her children (as wonderful as they might be) are having on you and your husband’s health? If she’s not worried about any of these things, it’s time for her to carry that awareness so you can have a balanced and respectful relationship.

Sometimes we worry that setting limits with others will be seen as mean-spirited or selfish. I believe it actually protects the relationship, as you don’t have to have secret resentments toward the other person. As you express what you expect, they get to make a fully informed choice about the kind of relationship they want to have with you.

I recall an experience about healthy boundaries that Emeritus Seventy Elder Rulon Craven shared with me years ago when I was serving as a missionary. He said that when he showed up to his first meeting as the new secretary to Elder Thomas S. Monson, he sat down eager to fulfill his new assignment. He said the first words that left Elder Monson’s lips were, “Rulon, do you want me to provide you with pen and paper, or do you want to bring your own?” Elder Craven shared that these words were said with love, but clearly communicated what was expected of him in this new role. He said this candor helped him fulfill his assignment more effectively and enter a greater awareness of himself.

My guess is that she has settled into a comfortable routine and isn’t aware of the gradual build-up of stress you’re both experiencing. If she’s a thoughtful and sensitive person, bringing up your desire to see her move toward independence will make sense to her and she’ll embrace it. If she carries an entitled victim mentality, it’s likely she’ll react poorly. Either way, it is important to talk with her about her situation so she can carry the responsibility of her reality.

Even though you can give her suggestions, resources, and encouragement, the real change won’t happen until you change the routine. I recommend you meet with her and discuss a reasonable timeline for her to find housing and childcare. You don’t need to figure out how she’ll accomplish this, even though you might have some great ideas. This is a chance for her to create the kind of life she wants for herself and her children. From the information you provided, it sounds like she is fully capable of doing this.

The real test will happen when the deadline nears and she’s not ready with housing or childcare. You might be put in a situation where you have to ask her to leave without a formal plan in place. You might begin charging for rent and childcare. It may require her to have to ask for help from others. Regardless of what you choose to do, you will be in a situation where you have to do something different to honor your own emotional and physical health.

If it gets pushed to this point and you can’t bring yourself to follow through, I recommend you seek the counsel of a wise professional who can help you understand your own hesitations to help her be responsible. Don’t worry about her counseling. Turn to your husband and seek the strength to help your daughter rise up to the full stature of her potential as a woman and mother.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT