Enabling Bipolar Disorder: Why It Happens and How to Stop



Does your adult child have bipolar disorder? If so, you know that the symptoms can be terrifying, confusing, and frustrating all at the same time.


At any given moment, you might be worried about them stopping their medication or falling into a severe manic or depressive episode. Maybe you've been through hospitalizations and therapists and treatments. Maybe you've seen them gain and lose independence. Maybe you don't believe they're capable of truly being a functional adult.


Many parents unknowingly enable bipolar disorder without realizing the true impact of their behaviors. The intentions are good: you want to provide emotional support for your struggling child. But, at the same time, it's frustrating to feel like a grown adult is taking advantage of you.


When it comes to the parent-child relationship, this type of enabling can be insidious. But changing unhealthy patterns takes time. Here's what you need to know.


Signs That You're Enabling Bipolar Behavior With Your Grown Child

Enabling adult children isn't a problem that's unique to bipolar disorder. Many adult kids rely on their parents for emotional, physical, and financial support. And a loving parent might simply want to share their resources with their families.


But parents can enable their children in multiple ways. Here are some signs to look out for:


You Keep Providing Financial Support

Do you always pay rent because your adult child can't control their money? Do you get stuck paying bills because they can't make payments on time? Do you sometimes just feel like a walking ATM?


There's nothing wrong with helping your child out financially. But if you keep coddling bad money decisions, they won't establish their own sense of responsibility and independence. They simply learn that mom or dad will always be there to bail them out of their own problems.


You Keep Engaging in a Power Struggle

Does your relationship with your adult child feel completely chaotic? If so, it's probably because you're perpetually in some kind of crisis with them.


That isn't a good thing. If you're fighting like immature kids, it's time to take a step back. Maturity, patience, and calmness are key if you want to model a loving relationship with your adult child. In addition, you can't stop enabling their problematic behaviors if you're meddling in every part of their life.


You Refuse to Let Your Child Struggle

It's heartbreaking to watch your child experience pain. All parents relate to this difficulty. But an enabling parent makes it their mission to avoid it from happening. Instead of recognizing that suffering, to some extent, is inevitable, they aim to take control of their child's life.


This pattern makes it impossible for your child to be self-sufficient. If they aren't allowed to make their own mistakes, how will they learn to solve problems and cope with distress in healthy ways?


You Feel Overwhelmed and Exhausted

Enabling parents often sacrifice their needs, relationships, and well-being for the sake of their children. While this isn't inherently wrong, it can lead to feeling resentful. It can also result in burnout.

You Keep Making Excuses For Your Adult Child

Do you ever find yourself lying on behalf of your child? Do you rationalize that they can't change inappropriate or selfish behavior because that's just how they're wired?


There's nothing wrong with seeing your child for who they are. But enabling children to not seek opportunities for change or growth stunts their development. They are capable of living a fulfilling life, but you can't just rationalize every action they make.


You Assume They Can't Complete Everyday Tasks

Everyone has a different capacity for learning and implementing life skills. But don't assume your adult child is utterly incapable.


When left to their own devices, grown children often rise to the occasion. And if they don't? They have to deal with some of the natural consequences associated with their actions.


That reality may be hard for you to swallow. But if you want to stop enabling your grown child, you need to let them stumble and potentially fall.


You Neglect Your Other Adult Children

Many parents spend so much time focusing on one child's mental health that they overlook other children in the home. This usually isn't intentional. They may assume that everyone else is "fine," so they spend their time, money, and effort "fixing" the problem child.


You Accept a Sense of Learned Helplessness

Do you just assume that your grown child can't complete certain tasks? If so, you might not really be giving them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, you might be enabling your grown child by automatically doing things for them. This reinforces their perceptions of incompetence, and it causes them to rely on you disproportionally.


Your Other Relationships are Suffering

Because enabling adult children consumes so much time and energy, you might not have much left for other people. This can include your partner, friends, and other adult children. Many parents struggle with isolating themselves because they feel so emotionally spent.


How to Set Limits With Your Adult Child

We won't sugarcoat it- it's hard to set boundaries with any child. If you're an enabler parent, you may have struggled with this issue throughout your child's life. This doesn't make you a failure. It also doesn't make you a bad parent. But you can change the dynamic you have with your kids.


Here are some tips:


Acknowledge Your Enabling Behaviors

If you want to change enabling behaviors, you need to recognize when you tend to enable your child. Remember that both you and your child will struggle if you can't set limits.


If you aren't sure about your specific behaviors, ask other trusted adults for their feedback! Talk to your partner or friends. Consider consulting with a licensed therapist.


Set Clear Boundaries

Unconditional love doesn't mean unconditional generosity and enabling your adult child. You can still love your child and want them to thrive in life. Boundaries are one of the ways to achieve that goal.


Consider When Tough Love is Appropriate

The concept of tough love can feel scary, but sometimes it's the best approach when setting boundaries. Your child needs to know when you're absolutely firm on a certain belief. For example, they need to know what is and isn't permissible in the family home. They need to understand that inappropriate communication or actions will have consequences.


Take Threats Seriously

You are not your adult child's therapist, doctor, or psychiatrist. If you're acutely worried about their well-being, take action to keep them safe. For example, if they threaten suicide, follow through with calling 911. Even if you're worried about how these actions may impact your relationship, being willing to take their mental health seriously is an important step towards stopping enabling behaviors.


Continue Encouraging Professional Help

No matter your child's level of motivation, keep emphasizing the benefits of treatment. Individual therapy can be a great starting point. It offers your child the ability to connect with a compassionate provider and set realistic goals for recovery.


Reinforce Healthy Coping Strategies

Positive reinforcement is beneficial for everyone. It's so easy to obsess over what your child might be doing wrong. But try to make a note when they do things well.


Look After Your Own Emotional Wellness

Regardless of what your adult child is doing, you shouldn't neglect your mental health. Your own life matters, and you have a right to seek peace, happiness, and love. This may mean spending more time engaged in self-care.


Seek Family Therapy

Mental health issues are often systemic. If parents enable one child, this dynamic can have ripple effects within the entire family system. A family therapist can help family members communicate with one another and create healthy boundaries. It can also support your child in becoming a more independent adult.


Seek Individual Therapy

You might be enabling your grown child due to deeply-rooted issues like trauma or intergenerational stress. Letting your adult children be independent is hard, particularly if you're worried about them making it on their own. Therapy can help you identify concerning enabling behaviors and learn new ways to cope with your stress.


Final Thoughts on How to Stop Enabling Grown Children

Bipolar disorder can be challenging for all family members. Enabling parents often have big hearts, but their behavior can cause tremendous problems.


At Mental Health Transitions, we understand that having an adult child who struggles with mental illness can be challenging. We know that enabling your grown child often feels tempting. You may even feel like there's truly no other option.


We help families stop enabling problematic behavior. At the same time, we work hard to help a grown child launch into an independent adult. Regardless of your child's mental health, we are here to provide support, reassurance, and practical skills required for recovery.


Contact us today to learn more!

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