Boundaries Q&A with Dr. Townsend: How to Love Without Enabling an Adult Child

Dr. John Townsend

Question: Dr. Townsend, I have a 35-year-old son in jail for possession of a controlled substance and thievery. How do I love him without enabling him, yet letting him know that I care?

First, let me say that I am sorry for you and your son's situation. I'm also very glad you want to help him. Jail is a lonely and difficult place to be, even if the individual has committed acts that justify him being there.

To answer to your question, in a way, you really don't have to worry a great deal about enabling him. To "enable" is to remove someone from the consequences of his behavior, and jail actually is those consequences. So, he is already in a non-enabling environment. I have worked with inmates, and the responses have been very growth-producing for them. Here are three things you can do to help your son while maintaining healthy boundaries:

1. Stay connected to him. Often, loved ones will visit an inmate in prison or jail at first, then they will come less frequently, because either they don't like the negative environment, or they simply disconnect and move on. Don't do that. If there is any time a person needs someone who is "for" him and is committed in behaviors (visits, phone calls and letters), it is at this point. You are literally one of the lifelines your son needs. Keep coming back!!!

2. Encourage him to be active in life-giving endeavors. As soon as possible, he needs to get involved in healthy activities and relationships, to help counter the isolation and toxic people. Encourage him to get in a Bible study or a 12-step group, get with Prison Fellowship, take a GED course, or learn a trade. He needs as much health as he can get.

3. Accept and listen to him without supporting his blaming. There is one thing you might be tempted to enable him in, and that is if he talks about how unfair it all is and how nothing was his fault. That "stinkin' thinking" is likely to land him back in jail. If he does this, either don't respond and change the subject, or confront it vulnerably and tell him you're concerned about that attitude. That can often help his brain to readjust to the right priorities.

The Bible is full of stories of people who spent time in jail, including Joseph, Daniel, Peter and Paul. Be "Jesus with skin on" for your son. Send him good books on growth and healing. Jail means "I have time" to think, read and grow.

Some people I know who have been incarcerated have said that the following books helped them a great deal in their journey: Phillip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace, Joyce Meyers' Battlefield of the Mind, Patrick Morley's Man in the Mirror, John Baker's Life's Healing Choices, and my books with Dr. Henry Cloud, Where is God? and How People Grow. God bless you, and if you still find it difficult to have a boundary-setting conversation with your adult child, consider reading these resources:


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