When you’re a parent, you don’t want to see your children suffer in any way, whether it’s from a boo-boo when they fall off their tricycle, or because they can’t pay their bills after a job loss. But as parents, we also know that we can’t protect them from everything and sometimes those bumps and bruises are needed to teach us things in life.
I have two adult children, a daughter in her thirties and a son in his twenties, and while I don’t hear from them as often as I’d like, my daughter recently called me. She was looking for money to pay some of her bills, and this wasn’t the first time. When your adult child asks for help, as a parent your first instinct is to protect them, but before your heart hits send on that money transfer, there are some questions your head should ask:
Is this an occasional request, or a habitual problem?
There are a couple of factors you may want to consider. Is your child newly out on their own trying to navigate adulthood for the first time, or are they in their mid-forties and unwilling to act responsibly? Did something truly unexpected happen that they couldn’t plan for? Or do you get a request for help every month or so? We all have problems crop up but if your child is old enough to know better and simply acting without responsibility, it may be time for some tough love.
What are the circumstances and potential consequences?
Another consideration is how they got into their current situation. Perhaps they lost their job…but were they laid off suddenly or did they quit their job without another one lined up just because they didn’t like their boss? And also think about what might happen if you don’t assist them. Are they eligible for government and charitable programs? Or will they suffer serious consequences because they were unable to take medication they need? Will they lose their residence and become homeless? Sometimes the consequences aren’t easy to see. Like if they can’t repair their car, they may end up losing their job.
Do I know the whole story?
Before you can evaluate if it’s in your child’s best interest to bail them out, you’ll need to know some details of the situation. This can become very complicated if your child has been known to omit the truth or outright lie. It’s especially difficult if there is a history of addiction or mental health issues. You may need to verify some of the details of the situation if your child’s word is not reliable.
Will they be responsible with the money I give them?
Again, responsibility and trust are important elements. If their irresponsibility got them into the situation, will they be responsible enough to use the money for what they say? Can you trust them to do the right thing with the help you give? If the answer is no, there may be another option: you can pay their bills directly rather than give them the money.
Can I afford to help?
This may be the most important question of all. If your budget and savings are limited, you may not be in a position to help financially. It’s a bad idea to deplete your own emergency savings or risk your retirement, but if this is a one time request and the consequences are dire, you may decide to do that anyway. Be sure to consider what will happen if their situation gets worse or you have your own emergency before you are able to save up again.
Also be sure to consult your spouse or significant other if you share finances, whether they are the parent or stepparent in this situation. They should have some say in the decision when it involves their money.
Is this a gift or a loan?
If you decide to help financially, you’ll need to decide whether the money is a gift or if you expect to be paid back. If it is a loan, be sure to get it in writing, including the fact that it is a loan, the amount of money involved, when you expect it to be repaid, and their signature. Remember that you should not loan money you cannot afford to lose, but if your treat it seriously, hopefully your child will do the same. If not, your document can serve as evidence if you ever need to bring the matter to court.
Is there non-financial help I can offer instead?
Even if your child is asking for money, there may be other things you can offer them instead. You can help connect them to resources in their community. You can give them financial advice, but this is only worthwhile if they’re in a mindset to really listen. You can offer to loan them your car…assuming they have a valid driver’s license, are a good driver, and would be covered by insurance. Or you can offer to let them move back home. If you decide on this option, be sure to make the terms clear up front—how long they are welcome to stay, whether they are expected to contribute in any way, and any other house rules that are important.
It’s never easy to watch your child struggle, no matter how old they are. But after asking myself these questions, I had to turn my daughter down. With all the fatherly guilt, it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make. But I know it was the right thing to do for me, and more importantly, for my daughter and her future. Tough love is just as tough on the giver as the receiver.
Have you ever had an adult child ask for help? What about another family member?
Image courtesy of Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com (with changes)