#1256: Boundaries and parenting, when the adult child might be the problem

Dear Captain,

I have read and enjoyed your advice site for several years and appreciate all the work and thought you put into each situation and your response. That being said, as someone who is on the far side of 50, I have noticed that the vast majority of your current audience seems interested in relationships with SOs or with parents. I’m wondering idly if you are anticipating a shift in the focus of questions (toward parenting, menopause, etc.) as your audience ages, or whether you expect they will move on to different sites? What would you most like to happen?

I ask in part because so much of your advice is stuff I have found useful as a parent myself: ask directly/no one can read your mind, you can be angry at someone but not abusive, respect someone’s desire not to communicate, don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm, etc. Just as relevant for me and my middle-schooler and high-schooler as for anyone.

And yet there are some things that kind of squiggle around the edges. Sometimes as a mom you HAVE to take one for the team. Be the alarm clock. Give the last piece to the kid. Sacrifice needed sleep to weekend matches. You DO have to snoop in your kid’s phone if she’s just out of suicide watch or has been self-cutting. etc.

There is always going to be some grey, in part because teens flip back and forth between toddler and adult about every 90 seconds. And the stakes are so high. My mom friends and I are constantly counseling and consoling each other over real or imagined parenting mistakes. And we are always asking each other the magic question: “What Would A Normal Mother Do?

But here’s a problem — how can we set firmly the principles and boundaries of self-care when our roles are to protect and nurture? You can’t go no contact with a kid. You can’t refuse to feed or drive to school a kid who just called you a fucking bitch two minutes ago.

Or here is a problem a friend (for real) called me with today. My friend and I both are very pro-choice, intersectional feminists. Her oldest daughter (in college)has decided that she is “feminist but pro-life,” and has spent all of today at a pro-life rally, while simultaneously bombarding her mother (my friend) with pics, of ultrasounds, signs, pics of dismembered fetuses, etc., and texting her about how she has met “real” feminists today, and how strong and brave they are.

My friend is devastated and furious and hurt, of course. But she doesn’t know at all how to handle this. Does she grey rock/broken record/refuse to discuss the topic? (My recommendation.) Is it her responsibility to argue with and further educate her daughter? (Her inclination.) And where to draw the line between meeting her daughter’s need to bait her and get her attention versus meeting her own needs for some calmness and serenity?

This situation is in my mind a bit simpler because my friend’s daughter is a fledgling adult, though all her bills are still paid by her parents.

But beginning from infancy, this kind of dilemma emerges and while it changes faces, it always comes down to the same question. To wit, what guiding principles and strategies are most useful when trying to keep one’s own boundaries sturdy, and yet keep up your obligations and duties to whomever you are parenting?

A child is a sacred trust. It must be. If you choose to take it on, that child’s needs must always be considered first whenever possible. But where does that leave parents?

I’ve learned an awful lot from your site about how not to be a terrible parent. But I’m hoping it can tell me more.

Thank you so much.

Hi there thank you for reading and the kind words and the question!

I can’t put my finger on where I read this, but there’s a quote that’s like “all advice we give is a conversation with our younger selves.” As I get older and core readers get older, perhaps missions like “Please don’t throw your 20s & 30s down the hole of fixing someone who doesn’t love you right” will lose their urgency. Luckily my friend is writing a book about menopause that I’m hoping gets here before I hit menopause, and I imagine I’ll write about other aging topics as they hit me & mine, with Letter Writers giving me the opportunity to work through what I think and hopefully help in return. But I do not have a long-term plan about any of that! 😉

As for parenting, I am not a parent, I am not ever going to be a parent, and “here’s how to parent children” is never going to be my beat no matter how old I get (46 as of January), I’m also never going to run a site that’s primarily for parents to connect and commiserate with each other. So if you see me writing about a parenting question and you think, “Wait, she doesn’t know what it’s actually like, you’re absolutely right, I don’t. Sometimes people ask me parenting stuff and I weigh in where I feel like I can contribute something (children are people!), if but you need advice from someone who has definitely been exactly where you’ve been, I’m not the one. 

Fortunately there are other resources, and nobody is dependent on me, specifically to sort it out. Off the top of my head The Care & Feeding team does good work, How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen (And Listen So Your Kids Will Talk) is a book & site that gets recommended here a lot, and S. Bear Bergman’s Asking Bear is wonderfully informed by parenting. Carolyn Hax is solid on parenting topics, I’d love to see more parenting advice written by Not White Ladies With MFAs (Or As Good As), but as I said, that’s not my specific beat. 

Since we’re here and since you asked, let’s talk about your friend’s problem.

Your friend is probably going to try a series of things to talk with her child, one option being, “Okay, let’s sit down and talk, face-to-face, about why you value what you value and why I believe what I believe, let’s get it all on the table. But no more memes and fetus pictures and insulting me, that is not okay, you gotta stop it. I don’t bombard you like this, and if we’re going to discuss this like adults, that’s part of being an adult, I have my reasons for believing as I do and you need to respect them even if we disagree.”

One option being, “Clearly we are not able to talk about this constructively so let’s agree not to when we spend time together. You’re not going to change my mind, I’m not going to change yours, no sense in clawing at each other with the time we get.” 

Sometimes the best we get is waiting it out while we use other channels to make the world the one we can live in. By which I mean, your friend might not convince her daughter to change her views ever, my relatives with Fox News Poisoning aren’t coming back any time soon, so who can be reached right now, who needs money, time, resources, love, and care? I’m working on another post about “what we are really saying when we say ‘let’s agree not to talk politics'” and I don’t want to spill it all here, but I’m going to link to this and note that “talking about politics” isn’t the same as doing politics. Friends who work in national political organizing all say the same thing: Election years especially are not “change hearts and minds” years, they are “turn out your people to do the thing” years. Assume nobody is switching sides and work from there so that your side can and does show up, call, write letters, protest, vote, make sure everyone who wants to vote can vote and everyone who can vote does. There are projects afoot to preserve reproductive choice that are not “yank this one young woman’s views into alignment with her mom’s,” but are more like “undo the damage that these movements are doing in the world,” where your friend could (continue to, it sounds like) channel her energy especially when talking to her daughter gets nowhere or hurts too much.

You mention that “This situation is in my mind a bit simpler because my friend’s daughter is a fledgling adult, though all her bills are still paid by her parents.” 

The daughter’s gonna do what she’s gonna do and her mom is going to keep on loving her while she does it.  It’s hard to love someone when they are being love-bombed by extremists, our love looks so itchy and scratchy compared to that warm, unquestioning embrace of shiny new people who just want to confirm every shiny new insight. It’s hard to love somebody when they are hell-bent on rejecting what’s important to us as they try to carve out an adult identity.

The thing about paying all her bills – If your friend yanks financial support over a political disagreement, that is probably the best way to actually, truly, really lose her kid and create a new martyr for the cause at the same time. One thing I do know about parent-child relationships is that parents who try to use money to control their children are always wrong about how financial incentives work.

“Have the career, religion, relationships, gender, sexual orientation, church, friendships, dress code, and political affiliation I say, or else you’re cut off!” the parents who do this seem to think. “By making sure my kid has food and a bed, it’s like I’m directly supporting everything they do that I disagree with!”If I remove incentives, they’ll see the light and straighten up!” 

Here are two of the scenarios that can happen when parents try to cut off support NOT for behaviors like “My adult kid is an objectively terrible roommate, anybody would kick them out for stealing/setting fires/making the space unlivable, never cleaning anything or paying rent, being verbally abusive and hostile” stuff but for like “believing different stuff than me” or “loving people I don’t approve of” reasons:

  1. Your kid lies, complies, and hates you for making them do it. They do not change their minds and they only change their behavior where you can see it. They hide everything about their “real” selves from you. The second they can get financial independence they get as far away as they can, and you both spend the rest of your lives undoing the damage. You get what you want temporarily at the expense of them ever trusting you or relaxing around you again.
  2. Your kid refuses to lie and comply so you kick them out. They go hungry, they get cold, they struggle, they make unsafe decisions out of necessity, they are vulnerable to be preyed upon by abusive and manipulative people who will give them the approval and affection they want (and the warm place to sleep they need). When they run into real trouble they’ll call anyone but you for help.

Is every situation that extreme? No. But are these two stories incredibly common, incredibly possible? Yes.

Does this mean I think every parent has to financially support every adult child forever regardless of their behavior, or that you never get to set expectations about that? No. Boundaries absolutely work both ways, for instance, if adult offspring are living at home for a while, they need to tell you if they’ll be out all night or around for meals, they need to do chores and be quiet on school/work nights and be polite, they need to contribute to rent and household expenses as agreed-upon ‘not’ because you’re their parent or “it’s your house, your rules” but because that’s part of being a not-shitty roommate. “Hey, let’s take turns in conversation” or “Hey, I can’t help with that, sorry” or “This isn’t a good time right now” or “Do I need to factor you in for dinner tonight, let me know” are things everybody needs to say and hear sometimes.

Can kids grow up to be abusive adults, and parents cannot safely have them around to protect themselves or other kids in the home? Heartbreakingly yes, sometimes, the same way safety can mean not allowing an abusive parent to be in contact. You said one can’t go ‘no-contact’ with a kid, but if a parent says they had to stop spending time with their adult child, maybe a good question is how bad does something have to get before that feels like the only option available. If you’ve never been pushed there, you don’t know, but probably the person who went through it does. That’s such an outlier and so above my pay grade I’m not using it as the basis for my advice.

Outside the edge cases, if you are a parent who has said “I will pay for you to go to college and help you while you are there” and you suddenly decide to withdraw support to manipulate the kid to be exactly like what you want them to be, there are consequences and they might not be the ones you think there are. “Stop sending me terrible images and bombarding me with political propaganda, I’m just going to delete them” is totally reasonable. “Every time you send me one of those photos, I donate $5 to an abortion fund, let’s see how high we can go!” + texting her the receipts is an option your friend has (this is how I interact with the Bloomberg presidential campaign). “As long as I pay the bills around here you will [agree with me][do what I say]” is an ultimatum and ultimatums have limits and unintended consequences. Is what is happening so bad that you’re willing to risk losing the relationship entirely if it doesn’t change? Then maybe that’s what needs to happen, as a not-parent I can’t tell anyone else where the line is, what beliefs and behavior are so terrible it’s worth setting the boundary even if it means possibly severing the relationship. As you said, there’s always going to be some grey.

You were looking for some general advice and maybe I can end with some, using your friend’s situation as a jumping-off point. You mentioned that your friend thinks it’s her responsibility to argue and “further educate” her daughter. Consider that maybe the time for educating her daughter is done for now. Not that the daughter has nothing else to ever learn (we all do), but didn’t you go through a stage where your parents were right about many things but they were the last people you wanted to hear it from?

To be clear, I agree with you and your friends politically, I would be horrified if a child of mine were behaving this way and feel like I’d clearly done something wrong if this was even possible, and be frantic to fix it in some way. I would feel like I had to try. But I know it would be doomed. When my strongly anti-choice, no-sex-before-marriage, devout Catholic mom and my “abortion is healthcare, I’m probably never getting married, and if I ever do it won’t be in there” views diverged around the time I turned 12 or 13, she was just as horrified as your friend and just as frantic to fix it. There was literally nothing she could say or do to change my mind. She tried everything. Education. Sincere discussions. Threats. Tears. (“What if your birth mom had aborted you?” “Um…I wouldn’t exist and you’d be having this conversation with someone else?” “Go to your room!” “Okay!”) Communicating deep, eternal disappointment. Forced spiritual retreats. Blackmail & Punishment (“If you want to do school choir you have to sing in the church choir!”). Making financial support contingent on compliance, as in I was 18 years old and leaving for college in the fall, and we were down to “If you don’t make your confirmation I won’t help you with college” so I put on a white dress and I straight-up lied to a bishop in front of my whole family. I would feel bad about lying but I found out pretty recently that that bishop… [See the entire movie Spotlight for the gist of what goes in these parentheses ]…so I think I’m going to let feeling bad about that one go.

When I tell you there was nothing my mother, who fed me, clothed me, loved me, read to me, took me to doctor’s appointments, dealt with my shitty teen years, etc. could do to make me actually agree with her about her views, there was nothing she could do. If she had actually pulled tuition all the times she threatened to, I would have figured out another way to live and get an education and we might never have spoken to each other again.

Your friend can discuss difficult stuff with her daughter, she can share what she believes, but the idea that “I get to keep shaping this human forever because I started out having to do it” is one that can really get in the way of forming healthy adult relationships. My inbox and this site are chock full of parents who think their job is to know more than their kids about everything (including their kids) and who think that because they are the parents they never have to wait to be asked for advice or listen to the word “no.” They spend all their time with their adult children trying to shape, mold, correct, and perfect them instead of enjoying who they actually are, and then they get hurt and surprised when the time they spend together gets shorter and shorter and shorter and their kids stay exactly their big fat queer disabled terrifyingly amazing selves.

If parents are having a strained relationship with adult children and want to try to be someone their adult kids won’t write to advice columnists about, the biggest piece of advice I have for them is: Enjoy & celebrate the person you raised instead of trying to shape them into the kid you think you want. Don’t use the time you see them to try to fix them. You don’t have to love everything they do, you also don’t have to comment on or shape or share an opinion on every single aspect of their lives, not everything they do is about you, for you, or a reflection of you and how good you were as a parent. Your kids will give you tons of leeway about this – they understand that you are their parents and the habit of advising and teaching is hard to break! But consider that they pretty much know how you feel already, they paid attention to the things you said in the past, and they remember it. If your adult kid is shutting down when you go into this mode, it’s time to stop and try something else. Praise what there is to praise. Say “You already know what I think” about the stuff you can’t praise. It doesn’t mean you support it or you are “letting it happen,” it means you’re recognizing that there are limits.

If things are really strained and you don’t know where to start, when in doubt, treat them with kindness and courtesy – the kind you would show a pleasant new coworker or stranger at your church, treat them as a guest when they’re in your home. “But we’re family, we shouldn’t have to _____” Okay but you’re an unhappy family in a stressful situation, the happy ones who enjoy everything about each other don’t write to me, so when in doubt, let go of the level of informality you think family relationships entitle you to and use your company manners for a minute. It won’t make anything that’s already bad any worse to stop assuming you know what everybody needs from you and ask.

“But I changed their diapers!” Okay, let’s imagine you used to babysit someone when they were small and you did change their diapers and keep them safe but now they are grown, they got hired at your company, you are not their supervisor, and you’d like to be friends.

  • Would you assume you already knew everything about this person’s physical and mental health, career aspirations, love life, etc.?
  • Would you give them advice nonstop? Or would you say stuff like, “Do you want advice or were you just letting me know?
  • Would you invite yourself over to their house any time you wanted?
  • Would you expect that they’d take your calls anytime you wanted them to and only talk about things you want to talk about? Even outside of work?
  • When they said they didn’t like a food would you feed it to them anyway because they used to like it when they were 2?
  • If they wore clothes you didn’t like or got an unflattering haircut, would you go out of your way to tell them?
  • If they told you their name would you say “But I remember you as [DifferentName], let’s go with that!” 
  • Would you insist they tell you everything about their lives and get mad if they didn’t recap their entire weekend for you every Monday?
  • If you learned they had a medical diagnosis would you try to convince them it’s not real and that they shouldn’t need medication for it?
  • Say you spotted their pay stub or health insurance forms in HR, would you share personal information about them with others or call them to account for it?
  • If they made a mistake now would you remind them of all the mistakes they’d ever made when they were small? Would you keep reminding them that you liked them better when they were small and that they owe you for all those diaper changes and times you did the Heimlich and kept them alive ’til their parents got back from date night?
  • If they say the word “no” is your first instinct to argue?
  • Would you snoop in their phone or go through their desk or hang out on their social media monitoring everything they say and do and commenting on all of it, like you specifically and personally are the intended audience?
  • Would you touch them – insist on hugs, pick lint off their clothes, groom their hair – if you knew they didn’t want you to?
  • Would you buy them clothes and gifts they said they didn’t need or want and act hurt when they don’t wear them or use them?
  • Do you think you automatically know more about this person than they do about everything?

If you answer yes to the above questions – you would do that to adults you don’t know well (“That’s just how I am”) – that’s not an indicator that it’s okay and you should probably continue doing all of it while parenting, it’s more like, probably stop doing this to anyone and see if your relationships get better.

For parents who wonder, why are my adult kids avoiding me, why do all our visits and conversations end with “Mom, Dad, we need to start setting some boundaries,” maybe start backing up to a “You are a nice person who is separate from me who I’d like to get to know better and have enjoyable time with”-distance and see if that eases the situation.

It doesn’t mean never feeling intense feelings, never arguing, or never talking about serious subjects, and it doesn’t mean loving all of each other’s choices, it means that a fractured relationship might benefit from a reset where you go for “pleasant company” over “performed sufficient closeness & topical agreement.” Maybe the project isn’t “How Do I Fix My Kid” or “How Do I Prove We Love Each Other?” it’s “How Do We Learn To Like Each Other Again (After Surviving The Unlikeable Teen Years)?”

It’s a lifelong project, and I don’t think your friend’s story with her daughter is over by a long shot. We can shut down bad behaviors that affect us without trying to change another person, we can give attention and cultivate relationships and behaviors that we want to see and stop feeding the other kind, and we can trust that love and kind actions are the best possible way to ride out bad times. It’s not a guarantee of any outcomes, but it’s the most hopeful project I know.

Thanks again for writing.


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