Western media and culture are so focused on the early years of parenting that there's no handy rulebook for how to handle the later ones. Setting boundaries with adult children is a task every parent's going to face at some point. And you can practice setting boundaries whether or not your kids are actively disrespecting yours. First-time and long-time parents can all turn to these tips to start putting those boundaries in place and fostering the adult relationships you want to see.
Specific Ways to Start Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children
Starting something can be the hardest step you ever take. Making the first move to set a boundary with your adult children can be scary. You don't want to push them away, but at the same time, you want them to both respect you as an adult and work towards carving out their own independent life. Studies show that there can be considerable tension between adult children and their parents; setting boundaries is one way to help reduce the stress and work towards better relationships.
If you're struggling with setting those boundaries or you don't even know here to start, these are great first steps.
Stop Loaning Them Money
One of the biggest boundary issues parents of adult children can run into is the financial question. According to Pew Research Center, financial independence is one of the most prominent issues between parents and adult children today. Ultimately, you always want to be a resource for your children - and for some parents, supporting your kids financially doesn't hurt your own finances. However, it can make you, the parent, feel used and resentful that all your hard work isn't being reciprocated.
Often, being the financial backbone for your adult children will give those kids a safety net they haven't earned yet. They need to be financially independent for themselves and only rely on your goodwill if they're really in a bind. The issue isn't so much a money problem but a self-respect one. They need to learn to work for their lifestyle and not be expectant that other people's hard work will let them coast through life.
Don't Jump in to Save the Day
Disagreement about life choices is one of the most common sources of tension between adult children and their parents. It's so tempting to intercede in your kids' lives if you see them making poor decisions. Remember, you've got years of experience with making mistakes and your brain can pick up on the patterns right away. But, it's that very experience that your grown-up kids lack when you constantly jump in to save the day.
Not only is it exhausting for you, but it's also hurtful to your kid's independence and self-esteem. They need to make mistakes firsthand to really understand the weight of any negative outcomes. You don't learn lessons by reading about them; you learn through living them.
Don't Answer Every Phone Call
Some children have a harder time separating from their parents when they hit their early 20s. If your adult children are calling you multiple times a day crying or yelling because of a supposed catastrophe, then you might have a boundary problem.
In order to model good relationship boundaries for your kids, you have to put in your own. And yes, this can be really hard as someone who's helped their kids walk through life for decades. However, it's unacceptable to be interrupting other people's lives all day long for problems that have easy solutions.
You've got your own responsibilities and mental bandwidth, and your kids need to learn that in order for you to respect theirs, they have to respect yours in turn. Setting healthy boundaries around your time can improve your own well-being and ultimately lead to a better relationship with your adult child.
Set Up a Contract for Them to Start Paying Rent
Adult kids living at home with their parents is a situation that's more common than ever. Yet, living in close quarters can make it difficult for people not to revert back into their old habits. One way to get kids to respect the home and the opportunity they have to live there is to make them an active contributor to it.
In essence, adult children living at home should be paying rent and utilities on the house. Think of it like any other renter or boarder; they're occupying the space and they need to pay for that space. This doesn't have to look like splitting the bill 50/50. You can set a payment they can consistently cover based on their current income. And, if your house is paid off or you can comfortably afford your mortgage or rent, you can hold the rent money to give them at a later date when they're ready to move out.
Remind Them That You Have Responsibilities Too
A great stepping stone in those early adult years is reminding your kids that you have responsibilities outside of them, too. Use their own lives as a connection to yours so that they can see where they're taking advantage.
For example, if you called your child and asked them to come over and help hang up a new light fixture but they were currently walking out the door to run a few errands, you wouldn't make them feel guilty about it. So, when you say you can't meet for brunch or to help them rearrange their living room on your next day off, they should understand that your time is just as valuable as theirs, and that you don't owe them more of yours than they're willing to give of theirs.
Don't Always Be the Good Guy
Parents of adult kids are expert trapeze artists when it comes to walking the tightrope between giving their kids the answers and advice they need to hear and being the good guy. By the time your kids are well into their independent lives, you might need to tell it to them straight. You're not helping anyone navigate a successful future, avoid decisions you regret making, and parent well-adjusted children themselves (if they're having kids) by giving them lip service.
You're not a coin-operated machine that's there to always justify their decisions for them. Instead, you're there to really give sound advice based on your experiences and perspective. Whether they choose to take it or not isn't the goal, it's that you're not letting them build an expectation of the Lifetime parent they want you to be.
Encourage Each Other to Explore New Parts of Yourselves
Kids flourish when they become adults and experiment with all sorts of new identities. From style, to careers, to fashion and subcultures, people grow so much after they leave their childhood behind. Yet, parents grow, too. When their kids leave the house, parents get a new chance to explore life again and see how they want to define their identity at their mature age.
If you encourage your kids to explore new hobbies and interests, like complimenting them on a new makeup look or listening to them talk about training for their first marathon, they might start mirroring that behavior back to you. So, if you've had kids that are too involved and critical of your post-kids lifestyle, lead by encouragement and you should receive it back to you.
Anticipate Their Reaction to Boundaries and Prepare a Firm Response
You don't want to be caught unprepared for when your emotionally attached or entitled adult child reacts poorly to you setting boundaries. They're probably feeling like their current way of life is being jeopardized and are reacting from a place of fear. This is when having a firm response practiced ahead of time will make sure that the boundaries are still set.
For example, you can use phrases like:
- I know you're hurt, but this is what I've decided.
- I respect your boundaries, and you need to respect mine.
- If you want to discuss this more when you've had time to process, I'd love to. But remember that I'm not changing my mind.
- This is a hard boundary for me and I'm not adjusting it.
Remind them that the boundaries are there to help you both be your best selves, not to keep you apart. And ultimately, implementing some boundaries can help you have a great, healthy relationship.
Set Your Adult Children Up For Success
Ultimately, the goal of being a parent to adult kids is helping them blossom into fully functioning, independent adults. Now, that independence can look differently for everyone, but if you're struggling with having kids that are entitled to your money or space, are being disrespectful of your time, or are experiencing crisis after crisis (over little things) then you might have a boundary problem. Thankfully, you don't have to live with these forever, and can implement any of these boundaries with your adult kids to readjust your relationship.