A study published this year found that young adults whose parents were both supportive of their independence and responsive to their needs had more positive outcomes, such as better academic engagement, less delinquent behavior and lower levels of depression, compared with young adults whose parents were uninvolved or too controlling. But how do you find the line between those extremes?
“For parents, the early years of adulthood, from ages 18-25, can feel like a stressful balancing act,” says Laura Padilla-Walker, a professor and associate dean in the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University. Her findings suggest that it’s important for parents to remove the scaffolding of their support gradually, which means helping a child when they need it, but being careful not to take over.
“When debating whether to step in to help,” she says, “be honest about your motivation and whether you are truly needed or if you’re trying to control the outcome.”
Although there’s no single perfect formula for establishing and maintaining boundaries with grown children, experts say there are ways to stay close in a healthy way as you step back.
Finding the line
Establishing boundaries can be hard for adult children who are closely attached to their parents. It’s the parents’ job to make the boundary-setting easier and to let their child know that it is healthy and normal to do so, says psychotherapist Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Get on the same page. “When my children were teens, we had regular conversations about independence and boundaries and came up with solutions that worked for all of us,” Stern says. In high school, for example, Stern and her teens agreed on “destination calling,” where they’d check in when they were out at night with friends. When her daughter was pursuing a master’s degree and living alone in the Middle East, they agreed to touch base at least every other day. Stern adds, “Over the years, we’ve come up with solutions and intentionally tweaked our boundaries, so that they feel respectful to everyone.”
Learn to cope with radio silence. It’s normal and necessary for kids to pull away as they go through the important developmental task of creating their own separate identity. Sometimes sporadic contact can be a signal that a child is wrestling with a difficult decision and wants to test their wings. Parents would do well to honor that privacy and not take it personally, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist at Clark University and co-author of the book “Getting to 30.” But, other times, he says, silence can be a warning sign, so trust your parental instincts and be ready to intervene if you suspect something dangerous or unhealthy is going on.
Help kids let go. Today’s adult children sometimes prefer to stay close to their parents. When a parent is more ready than the child to let go, Arnett suggests handling it gently so the child doesn’t feel rejected. Try moving some of the conversations to text, he says, which allows you to have more control over the frequency of contact.
From parent to mentor
It can be helpful for parents to think of their role evolving into more of a mentorship at this age, says developmental psychologist Richard Rende, co-author of “Raising Can-Do Kids.” “Mentors dispense perspective, encouragement and make suggestions on how to shape behavior, instead of trying to control it.”
Offer advice they’ll hear. In a heated moment, it’s easy to revert to our parenting muscle memory, Rende says. “It takes a deep dive on the parent’s side to recognize our impulse and get into the habit of dispensing perspective instead of making judgments,” he adds. One way to do this is by asking questions, which help bolster a young adult’s problem-solving skills rather than undermine them. Take e-cigarettes, for example. With a teen, you could set consequences for using them, but that won’t work with a 25-year-old. Instead, you might ask if they’ve been reading the latest research about how addictive the devices are and how the government is trying to crack down on them, Rende says. The key is to keep the tone conversational and don’t let it turn into a lecture.
Bite your tongue. “It’s important to remember that adult children now get to make their own choices and parents have to, above all, honor that,” Rende says. It’s wise to make certain topics off-limits. Avoid making unsolicited comments about their personal habits, clothing, grooming and significant others. Young adults are protective of their autonomy and comments that appear to undermine that can cause them to pull away.
Know when to intervene. There are times when a parent has a responsibility to speak up. “If I feel like my kid is in emotional or physical danger, I’m going to say something, even if it’s not popular,” Stern says. Be sensitive in how you frame the conversation. First, acknowledge that you respect their independence and that what you are going to say may be hard for them to hear. Apologize for that discomfort in advance, Stern says.
Rules for boomerang kids
Many parents talk about a child’s return home as a bonus time together, but it’s not unambiguously positive, Arnett says. “Children are monitored again in a way they don’t want to be,” he says. Before the boxes get unpacked, Arnett suggests sitting down and clearly discussing ground rules. If you’re already living together, it’s never too late to have a family meeting and reset expectations.
Establish roommate etiquette. “You have a right to have your household rules respected and for your child to take on an adult share of the responsibilities,” Arnett says. Talk about how you’ll divide the chores and when they’ll get done. Discuss social expectations too, such as how often they plan to be home for dinner or if they need to call or text if they’re going to be out especially late. Thorny questions, including whether a significant other is allowed to spend the night, should also be discussed upfront.
Set financial boundaries. Think through potential money issues in advance. Will you ask them to pay rent or contribute to the household in some other way? Will they do the grocery shopping every second or third week — and pay for it, too? Is there an end date for living together or will it be more open?
Avoid a backslide. Parents want to be careful not to slip into old habits, such as taking over their child’s laundry or chores. “While some emerging adults might want to be taken care of, it’s a mistake for them and for you because you’re not allowing them to grow up,” Arnett says. “They need to learn to do all the daily tasks that are part of adult life,” he adds. “Require it now, and they’ll thank you down the line.”
Build an adult relationship that thrives. Most parents report that their relationship with their grown children is the most rewarding area of their lives, according to Arnett’s research. The key is to find new levels of closeness and contact that work for both of you.
Make time for their significant other. Get to know your child’s partner and embrace them, Arnett says. “Over the years, they might be bringing a series of people around,” he says. “Keep the door open each time. You never know who is going to be the one who stays for the long haul.”
Find common ground. One way to build and maintain intimacy with an adult child is through shared experiences such as trying new restaurants, biking or hitting weekend flea markets. “My son and I play tennis and watch sports together, while my daughter and I love to go to rock concerts,” Arnett says. Making the effort to find things that you both enjoy, he adds, is a great way to stay close through the years.