How to Set Boundaries With Adult Children

Like many parents, you have realized that your adult child has overstepped some boundaries, and that you must reassert yourself to better define them.

Many parents are coping with “boomerang” children – those who leave home and “boomerang” to the comfortable confines of their childhood home following a divorce, financial setback or other calamity. Setting boundaries with these children isn't just advisable; it may be the key to restoring peace and harmony to your relationship with your child.

Even children who do not live with their parents can “step over the line” – by expecting too much, giving too little or behaving in a thoughtless or oblivious manner. As you've known since the day your child pitched his first tantrum, it's up to you to take the upper hand; your child will not heed boundaries until you show him where they are. While you don't need to arm yourself with a spray paint can to draw your boundaries, this is no time for subtlety, either.

Adult Children Who Live With You

Set a time limit for your child's stay. You may be happy to help your child in her time of need, but make it clear that the living arrangement is temporary, not permanent. If you're unable to set a move-out date, then peg it on an event, such as when she gets a job, saves so much money or finds a suitable place to live. Circumstances may prompt you to extend the time limit, but reiterate your goal: that you want your child to be a self-sufficient adult.

Set your financial terms. Many psychologists say it's a big mistake to allow an adult child to live free of charge – enjoying a roof over his head, food on the table and a full menu of satellite TV choices every night without paying a dime. (Leave home? Who'd want to?) You could unwittingly create a dynamic of entitlement that will undermine your child in the future. If your child is unemployed or at the end of his financial rope, he may be unable to contribute even a small amount of money for rent, food and utilities. In this case, make sure you compensate with chores, household projects or errands so that your adult child contributes to your household in meaningful ways. He'll respect you for it – and enjoy a sense of self-respect, too.

Set your house rules. Your rules may not have changed much over the years: remove your shoes at the door, put dirty dishes in the dishwasher and hang up wet bath towels. But your child's habits may have undergone a sea change since she lived with you. You may have to update your “old rules” about curfews and drinking in your home, but there will be little day-to-day peace unless you clarify your house rules – and enforce them.

Adult Children Who Live Elsewhere

Set a time limit on grievance sessions. It can be rewarding (and flattering) to play the role of sounding board, mediator and wise sage. Bring these sessions to a productive conclusion by asking him to outline solutions to his problems.

Set yourself up to take your time with requests. Sometimes without intending to, adult children can word requests that sound more like demands. No one likes to be rushed into making a snap decision, so if you need 24 hours to think about a request from your child, exert your right to play out the clock.

Set a limit on gifts and money. There is nothing like a child in need to pull the heartstrings of a parent. If you've experienced another shopping trip that ended up with you footing a large bill, recognize the excursion for what it probably is: a child who knows how to pull those strings to her advantage. Either reduce or eliminate such outings or set some friendly terms upfront: “We're just looking.”

Final Words of Encouragement

It may help to remember that the boundaries with your child didn't become blurred overnight. And they won't become clear overnight, either. It will take calm, confidence and consistency on your part – qualities you probably honed when your child was much younger. Some of your efforts may not place you in contention for a family popularity contest. But if you're willing to tolerate the occasional pout or cold shoulder, you should persevere.