When Your Children Are Adults: Shifting Boundaries


By Susan Kurlander
Health Educator
Jewish Community Services

How often should I call? Should I give or lend money for them to buy a new car? Should I encourage them to wait before they move in with someone they met only recently?  Should I expect that they spend holidays with me?  Should I let them know I’m upset when they’re planning an out of state move? Once our children are born, we become parents for the rest of our lives.

Our children, however, don’t stay children forever. Once they become adults, our parenting role changes or, perhaps, needs to be redefined. We can no longer control their decisions or the outcomes of those decisions.

Yet does that mean we can’t stay involved in their lives and still be a guiding force? Does that mean we can no longer be on their radar screen when they’re contemplating a change in their lives, when they’ve come to a fork in the road, or when they’re excited about new possibilities?

Absolutely not! Yes, the fine line is always there between being intrusive and being involved, but the challenge is a positive one. The rewards that can be gained when your adult child seeks you out are immeasurable. It’s not easy to give up control, but it is well worth the effort.

So, how do we accomplish this seemingly Herculean task?

•  Sell—don’t tell:  When you’re giving an opinion, don’t make it a directive.  Approach the topic with a few ideas that show both rationality and creativity. Make it clear that you may have a preference as to how to handle a situation, but you understand there are other possibilities, as well. Guidance is not the same as dogma.

• Respect generational differences:  Be clear in your understanding that what worked for your generation may not work for this generation. The differences are huge, with technology being at the forefront. We may still live our own lives in a certain way, but we respect our adult children’s need to approach their lives using a different frame of reference.

• Be flexible:  Take into account the changes that may be part of the bigger picture. Life is seldom static. Recognizing changes in your adult child’s environment may give you more credibility as you respond to difficult questions.

• Respect gender and personality differences:  It is rare that two children in the same family will have the same strengths and weaknesses. Those differences may become more pronounced as our children become adults. We may need to choose our words and actions accordingly.

• Communicate using door openers as much as possible:  Listening is one of the most powerful door openers. Listening acknowledges respect of your adult child’s ability to identify and communicate his/her thoughts.  An active listener is patient and willing to pick up on key ideas and feelings, and contributes to a person’s feelings of adequacy. Other door openers include:  So, what do you think you are going to do? How can I help/make it easier for you? Would you consider …. ?

• Avoid communication stoppers such as sarcasm, moralizing, distracting, interrogating, or placating by saying “It’s okay.”

•  Find common ground:  Look for an activity, a topic or a place that you both enjoy discussing, doing, or going to (books, sports, the beach). Whenever possible, take advantage of those opportunities to reinforce your relationship as adult to adult.

Finally, although it may appear negative at first glance, setting boundaries is a healthy way to stay involved with your adult child. Boundaries are important in any relationship. You can enhance your relationship with your adult child by shifting those necessary boundaries so the scale is balanced more evenly—without losing sight of the roles you both will grow into, hopefully, for the rest of your lives.

For example, you have always taken care of family Shabbat and holiday dinners—the planning, buying  food, cooking, etc. Suggest (“Let’s talk about. . .”) how those responsibilities can be shared. How much easier it could be for you not to have to do everything, and how much more meaningful it might be for your adult child to participate in some of the responsibilities of preparing a traditional meal. We may struggle with how to show how much we care without seeming overbearing, but we can never say the words “I love you and am always here for you” too much. No one outgrows the need to hear those words as they become part of who we are.

For more information on parenting and our monthly Parenting Discussion Series, click here or call 410-466-9200.  You can subscribe to Jewish Community Services’ “Parent Talk,” “Life Happens” and “Work Wonders” blogs at jcsbaltimore.org.


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