Negotiating Boundaries with Your Adult Children

Being a good parent of a young adult requires establishing healthy boundaries for our kids and then holding them accountable. The goal in moving toward responsible adulthood is take the monkey of responsibility off your back and place it squarely on the back of your adult child. This goes right along with the saying, “They will never know how far the town is if you carry them on your back.” One mom said to me, “I wish my twenty-two-year-old would schedule her own dentist appointments.”  I smiled because the mom didn’t get the irony in her statement.

Here are some phrases that I think are most helpful to remember when it comes to setting boundaries:

  • “You earned it.”  In other words, “You earned your negative outcome and consequences.” This is the principle that you reap what you sow. It’s often used in the recovery movement with alcohol and drug abusers, but it also works well when setting and enforcing healthy boundaries. When adult children make poor choices, we can say they earned their consequences. This principle that our behaviors have consequences is an essential life lesson for adolescents and young adults.
  • “You can choose the pain of self-discipline or the pain of regret.” Everyone knows there is pain in life. We either chose the pain of self-discipline or the pain of living with regrets. Enabling our adult children takes away the opportunity for our kids to grow in self-discipline.
  • “You can’t want it more than they want it.” In other words, if your kids don’t want to make good choices, no amount of wanting them to on your part will change things. Even when our adult children aren’t making good decisions or have made a mess of their life, we must let them clean up their own messes. There are consequences for our choices, both good and bad. Until your kids decide they want good consequences, you can’t want them into good choices.
  • “When the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing, they will change.” One parent said to me, “I knew my daughter was making some poor choices. I also knew that when the pain threshold of her decisions got to a breaking point, she had the skills to make better decisions.” It seems like most of life’s lessons come through the school of hard knocks. Sometimes adult kids learn best through the pain of poor choices.

Negotiating boundaries can be extremely tough, but the saying is true, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Boundaries give your adult children an opportunity to thrive by providing a structure for healthy independence. Some might ask, “Can I set boundaries and still be a loving parent?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Establishing boundaries is not selfish or unloving, but rather the best way to give your children the wings they need to become responsible adults. If you take on responsibilities your adult children should be carrying, you only perpetuate an unhealthy dependency that keeps your kids from making healthy lifestyle choices. In creating appropriate boundaries, you are living out the biblical mandate, “Each one should carry their own load” (Galatians 6:5). Everyone has responsibilities that only he or she can rightly carry. Boundaries are a loving way to create a path toward responsibility for one’s own actions.

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the president of HomeWord. He speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 20 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord, which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage, Closer, and Doing Life with Your Adult Children. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi; three sons-in-law, Steve and Matt, and Andy; and three grandchildren, James, Charlotte and Huxley.

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