Help Your Children Gain Independence

Dr. Robert Ritzema

January 26, 2017

I recently met with a couple whose adult daughter constantly seeks their assistance--one day wanting money, another wanting to use their car, the next wanting free babysitting for the grand kids. The daughter--let's call her Beth--shows only perfunctory gratitude for their help and regularly reneges on commitments she makes to them, such as to repay loans. She becomes angry if the parents say 'no.' The day before our meeting, Beth accused the couple of "making me lose my house," alluding to their recent refusal to pay several thousand dollars to cover months of missed mortgage payments and penalties.

As the couple described Beth's behavior, I become convinced that she has a hostile-dependent relationship with her parents. What should parents do when faced with a hostile-dependent child? It's important for them to recognize the ploys being used to elicit assistance, limit the amount of help provided, and encourage self-sufficiency.

Recognize the patterns

A hostile-dependent relationship is one in which one or both parties depend on the other and as a result remain in the relationship despite anger or hostility being present. The anger can be expressed in words or actions and can originate from either the dependent person or the one being depended on. Often, one party begins expressing anger, the other party responds in kind, and recriminations escalate from there. Beth and her parents engaged at times in such angry exchanges. Beth would blame her parents for ruining her life and they in turn would berate her for not acting more responsibly. Sometimes they wouldn't speak to each other for days. Then Beth would ask for more help, the parents would give it, and the cycle would continue.

Consider the underlying emotions

Beth not only had a hostile-dependent relationship with her parents; she also had one with her ex-husband and with her current boyfriend. Why are some people prone to develop such relationships? Children depend on their caregivers but seldom find this dependence troubling. In the teen years, there is still dependence, but also a desire to become independent. This conflict between where one is and where one wants to be can lead to anger or resentment towards the caregiver. Though it may not be recognized at the time, teens are usually not only angry at the parent on whom they depend but also angry at themselves for not being self-sufficient. Underlying feelings may include inadequacy, fear of never becoming good enough, or even shame about not being able to do more for oneself. Often, there's also fear that one's needs won't be met; this fear motivates efforts to persuade others to meet those needs.

When is it expected?

A modest amount of hostile dependency is to be expected in young teens. Soon, though, most teens start developing resources that will enable them to become more self-reliant. Wise parents will encourage and expect children to help meet their own needs, from doing chores around the house to finding part-time employment.

Unfortunately, a subset will stay focused on getting others to meet their needs, and they are the ones at risk for developing a lifelong pattern of hostile-dependent relationships. And it is not only family, friends, and romantic partners that can be the focus of such a relationship. Some of us have a hostile-dependent relationship with God, angrily expecting him to meet all our needs and making little effort to help ourselves. As such, we are much like the Israelites who at the time of the Exodus quickly started treating God and his representatives in a hostile-dependent fashion. Listen to the anger and blame in the Israelite's complaint to Moses and Aaron at Elim:

"If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve us to death." (Ex. 16:3)

How can you change behavior?

What to do with a teen or adult child relating to you in a hostile-dependent manner?

First, recognize the strategies being used to elicit your assistance. Often these are efforts to induce guilt--"You are responsible for my problems so you owe it to me to help." Also, dependent people often present situations as especially dire and exaggerate their own helplessness. Things are terrible, the message goes, and they are a victim of circumstances. It's up to you to rescue them. Don't be swayed by this plea. Seldom are you the source of their troubles; nor are you responsible for providing the solution. The problems may not be as they are being presented and there is often much more that your child could do.

Second, don't be afraid to say 'no' to the request. If you do decide to help, limit what you do to only a portion of what is needed rather than taking the whole problem on yourself. Remember that helping too much will just foster further dependency. Your child will never develop confidence in his or her ability to handle problems if you always step in to fix things.

Finally, encourage age-appropriate self-sufficiency. Comment positively on successes; support efforts at problem-solving. When discussing the problem, ask the child how she or he plans to solve it rather than offering suggestions. And be consistent. Don't say "you need to handle this sort of thing on your own" while at the same time relieving the child of responsibility. Your actions speak louder than your words!

Through it all be honest with yourself about where things stand. A child who has been overly dependent on you for years won't suddenly change, so you have to be prepared for some ups and downs when you no longer are tolerating such dependency. It's difficult to deal with a hostile-dependent child, but you can manage their behavior successfully as long as you recognize the strategies being used to gain your assistance, are stinting in the help you offer, and consistently encourage self-reliance.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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