Tips for Creating Boundaries with Adult Children
One of the things I hear often from the moms I work with is that they have a hard time creating boundaries with their adult children. And truth be told, it’s something that I struggle with as well! I mean intellectually I know that my job of offering unsolicited advice or nosing into their business is over, but emotionally it’s very difficult to sit back and watch your kids ‘make mistakes’ and learn on their own. In theory this is their life and it’s their time to spread their wings and learn for themselves. It still doesn’t stop me from lamenting - If only we could take everything we know and just drop it into their head! Voila! Problem solved!
Or is it?
I recently interviewed Vanessa Callaghan for Wise Women Wednesdays in my Facebook Group. Vanessa (MED) is a parent empowerment coach with a background in teaching and Child Development and Resilience at UC Berkeley. She shared some tips for me and the moms in the group, about how to approach our conversations with our kids so that they know we’re there for them, but they don’t feel like we’re hovering.
Prior to jumping into a conversation with our kids, recognize that it’s not our job to give unsolicited advice solely for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a given situation. That puts pressure on us and certainly doesn’t give our kids a sense of comfort when we come in guns blazing.
Recognize the assumptions you might be making about a given situation. If we enter into a conversation thinking that we already have the answers because we know them so well, that will impact our ability to listen and hear what they have to say. If I say ‘Oh, he’s just doing that because he’s a procrastinator, or she’s doing that because she's a conflict avoidant – there’s nothing to talk about! We’ve already solved the issue! Right? Wrong. And the thing is, we may not even realize we’re running these scripts in our head.
What’s the best way to avoid that tendency? Get updates. Gather evidence through observation. Put assumptions aside and stay open minded and then get into their world by asking open ended questions. Instead of assuming your son is not applying for jobs because he’s a procrastinator, observe. You might say ‘the last time we talked you said you had a lot of projects on your plate. How’s it going?’ And no matter how much you want to jump in and start dictating what he should or shouldn’t do, just bite your tongue and stop there. Vanessa swears that the more space you give them, the more they step into it.
So what do you do if your kid is NOT a communicator and he doesn’t step into it? My son doesn’t initiate conversation and if I didn’t ask, I would never know! And even when I do ask, I never know. It’s infuriating. In that case, she says that empathy is the key. Just let him know you’re there. I feel for you and I’m in your corner. No judgement.
And just be ok with that. As hard as it may be.
One of the things that can be running behind the scenes is our own anxiety as parents. We love them and we want what’s best for them. And sometimes this can take the shape of an inordinate amount of focus and attention on their lives and what they’re up to. In that case, Vanessa says we are actually looking to them to soothe us. We’re actually adding to their plate instead of offering them more support.
Vanessa says ‘Ask yourself –why am I trying to get this information from him right now? Is it from a place of I’m well resourced and I have a lot to offer? Or is it that I am trying to get something from him? Get some soothing of my anxiety or some reassurance? Reassurance that I’m a good parent or that they’re ok?’
I think what many of us want for our kids is that they’re successful and live a happy life. Right? What I’ve learned is that my idea of ‘success’ for them is actually quite different from theirs. And most of that is based on my own very narrow path. Checking all the boxes. Good school. Check. Good job. Check. Get married. Check. Kids. Check. But where did that lead me? If you’ve read my earlier blog post, you know that that mentality is what led me to my existential crisis when I was in my early to mid 30’s. So is that what I want for my kids?
That’s where Vanessa suggests that a narrow and constricting vision of success allows for little deviation. So you either go down this narrow path according to these metrics or you’re a failure. And kids will feel judged.
So how do you expand your vision of success? Maybe it’s that she has a healthy friend group? Or maybe when he is experiencing life’s ups and downs, he knows he has his family behind him so he becomes resilient? Could it be that college isn’t right for her at all – that she needs to spend some time traveling to truly discover who she is and what she wants so she doesn’t go through that crisis later in life?
The thing is that they ARE adults. They DO have ideas about what they like and don’t. What they want to do or don’t. And if they don’t, sometimes they need more time to figure it out. When you consider that at 18 kids need to declare their major when they are filling out an application? It’s absurd! Unless your kid has known since a young age that he is going to be a Dr. or she is going to be a Vet and they have stuck to that throughout their education then it’s anyone’s guess.
When I asked Vanessa about the best way to make that shift into adulthood and accountability, she stated what many of us already know – it’s not that easy.
‘Our adult kids need us to show that we’re paying attention. That we care and that if we are concerned to be able to share those concerns. They still need that from us. It just takes a different shape.’ Our objective should be to ‘gather information, show understanding and really, really celebrate whatever successes they’re having’ – even if it’s not exactly what WE had in mind.
As for my own kids? My 25 year old daughter quit her job earlier this year because she was so stressed out and KNEW it wasn’t what she wanted to do so she packed up and moved back home so she can reset. I am so proud of her for listening to her inner voice – something I never did, and maybe if I had I wouldn’t have had my existential crisis in my mid 30’s. At the same time I am cognizant of the fact that my tendency is to remind her that it’s important to have some sort of a plan. So for now, I am hanging back, biting my tongue and seeing where she ends up.
Meanwhile my 23 year old son just graduated from college and secured a job 2 months prior to graduating. Despite the fact that he could work anywhere in the country remotely, he decided to stay in Seattle with his amazing friend group, signed a lease and….adopted a puppy! 2 weeks prior to graduating, he received a call that the company was cutting their sales staff and his entire incoming training class so he was out of a job. Sigh. I am so proud of his resilience and while he was disappointed, he is back out there looking for a job (I think). As my less communicative child, I’m never really sure what is going on and it is easy to let my mind wander back into the assumptive mode – something I am going to work on since talking to Vanessa.