How much control does, or should, a parent have over an adult child?

“My son and daughter-in-law have betrayed my wife and me, and we’re having a hard time dealing with it.” This bitter confession came from Jonathan, a good friend of mine, as we talked about our families. (It turned into a conversation about redrawing boundaries with adult children.)

“What happened?” I asked.

“They’ve decided to move to the other side of the country! He’s taken a job there, and they are moving in a month. It’s not right, and I’m furious about it.”

This is not going to be an easy conversation, I thought. “Why do you take that as a betrayal?” I asked.

“We are his parents,” he said. “They should get our input into that kind of a decision.”

“It sounds like you see your anger as justified,” I said, “like they actually did something wrong.”

“Of course!”

“I can understand that you are disappointed, but not getting what you want is not the same as their doing anything ‘wrong’ or ‘betraying’ you,” I said. “They have every right to make that decision on their own.”

Somewhere in this story, you might identify with Jonathan and Bridgette, thinking that your adult children somehow owe you certain privileges or preferences since you are their parents. And you find yourself dealing with the same issue: How much control does a parent have over an adult child? And how can a parent set appropriate boundaries with their adult children?

Getting to the Real Issue

The real issue is this: God has a design, and that design is that children are accountable to their parents… as long as they are children. The Bible says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” Ephesians 6:1. But it is clear that the command is to children.

Clearly there is a time when a person is no longer a child; he becomes an adult under his own guardianship and management.

Paul writes in Galatians, “As long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father” Galatians 4:1-2, NIV. This points to the reality that a person reaches an age in which they are free to be responsible and accountable to God.

The question here is how parents and adult children reorder their relationship after becoming an adult, and how parents create healthy boundaries with their adult children. And added to the mix is God’s design that once someone is married, they must clearly “leave and cleave,” which means the adult child has left parental guardianship and management and now has established his or her own new household (Genesis 2:24). And at these points of adulthood, the relationship changes from one of accountability to one of being equal adults under God while continuing to “honour” parents (Exodus 20:12) for all they have done, but not under their management.

Treating Kids as Adults

Today, this issue is more complicated than ever because many adult children are returning home and being supported in some way by parents. This can make keeping appropriate boundaries with adult children challenging. If you find yourself confused by the ongoing changes in your relationship with your adult child, here are some strategies that can help your interactions go better.

1. Reach Mutual Understandings

As a child is becoming an adult, commit to ongoing conversation. Try to discover each other’s expectations so you can reach a mutual understanding of how these years will look. Recognise that your adult children’s lives are now under their own governance and that they are no longer accountable to you. The goal is to have the best relationship possible with each other, so talk about what that will look like. This also means you’ll need to clarify expectations about some other issues.

  • How much time will you spend together?
  • What about financial help?
  • Living situations?
  • Advice on parenting?
  • Faith decisions?
  • These areas of possible conflict often need to be discussed to avoid confusion and disappointment.

2. Finding Freedom

When I first headed off to university, my dad told me, “Son, you are going to university, and I am paying for it. I never got to go, and I am thrilled to provide that for you. Your job was to make the grades to get in and now to stay in, and mine will be to pay for it.” Then he added the real punch line, “And after university, you are on your own. My job is over. If you want to drop by for a sandwich, great, but you’re on your own.”

I remember both the excitement of that freedom as well as the absolute fear it instilled in me to get my act together so I could earn my way. And both of those are good and God-ordained: excitement of a vision and a healthy fear of reality.

As you discuss expectations for parenting your adult children, and start setting boundaries, remember that no one has a “right” to the other’s life. Parents do not have a right to dictate the course of an adult child’s career or marriage, and adult children do not have a right to expect their parents to take care of them forever.

Hopefully, you can work out satisfying arrangements, done in an accepting atmosphere of freedom for both sides to decide what they will agree to do and not do.

3. If Your Desires Are Not Met, Be Sad Instead of Angry

Jonathan’s angry response came when he saw his son and daughter-in-law’s decision as a transgression against him and Bridgette. In his mind, the couple had done something wrong, and he was righteously angry. The truth is that the son and his wife had exercised their God-designed adult rights, but it was not what Jonathan wanted to happen. So, understandably, Jonathan was disappointed. That is natural when we don’t get what we desire. But it is not a justifiable cause for us to be angry or use guilt or control when setting boundaries in parenting our adult children.

Hold your wishes lightly, but discuss why they are important to you. Listen to each other, respect your adult children’s wishes and respond with empathy. And when your wants are not met, just say, “Well, I would prefer if you had done x or y, but it’s your life.” Setting boundaries like this will go a long way toward creating the kind of respectful relationships we all desire with the people we love.

4. Be Available To Help, but Don’t Impose

Tell adult children that you are available to help, but you will not force it on them.

There is a great practice many pastors do at wedding ceremonies to memorialise this kind of adulthood. Before they do the vows, the pastor says to both sets of parents, “We first want to honour you for all you have done to bring these two to this day. You have nurtured and trained them; you have provided for them. And we thank you. And now, as of today, your role as provider has ended. From this day on, they are on their own. And may God bless the future relationship that you will have with them, and with their children.” And then the ceremony goes on to memorialise that reality.

But that does not mean you will have no relationship. *Far from it.* Nor does it mean you are not available to them for advice, wisdom, help, support or the like. And this applies to single adults as well as newlyweds. Send them to adulthood as autonomous, but let them know you are always there to help with their adulthood. Establish that relationship. It is good and biblical.

Moving Forward: Redrawing Boundaries With Adult Children

Again, your help or advice cannot be imposed or enforced like it was during their childhood. And adult children shouldn’t expect that ongoing advice, either. You are no longer their “parent” in those ways. Career decisions, childrearing decisions, and other adult decisions will be theirs, and you will be glad to have input if they desire, and you will also not intrude in areas where your help isn’t wanted. Do just as any other good friend would do, and in this case, a special kind of “friend” — an adult peer who happened to raise them. It is a special relationship.

My parents are both deceased, but my wife’s parents are living, and we have gotten so much great advice and wisdom from them in our 25 years of marriage and 19 years of parenting. But it has never been forced, controlling or demanded. I am so grateful for them and the relationship we have.

Redrawing Boundaries With Adult Children

In the end, Jonathan and Bridgette went to their son and daughter-in-law and apologised. Then they began the healthy discussions that helped them order their relationship differently. They are working well together and being supportive of each other. But they had to have the talk about setting boundaries with their adult children first, and then live it out.

© 2021 Dr. Henry Cloud. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published in June/July 2021 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.

Dr. Henry Cloud

Dr. Henry Cloud is a psychologist, speaker, and author of many books including "Boundaries" and "Never Go Back: 10 things you'll never do again."

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