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Why adult children set boundaries with their parents.

Updated: Apr 5

Adult children are setting boundaries with their parents.

"I just have to put up boundaries with my parents."

I'm hearing that a lot from clients these days. Honestly, at first it was jarring to hear. I was raised to have a deep respect for my parents, so to hear people say they need boundaries felt like disowning their parents.

I think a lot of parents feel the same way.

However, as I've continued to listen I've come to learn that many of these clients do need boundaries with their parents. I've heard clients talk about the nasty ways their parents have talked to them, the snide comments they make about their kids, and the digs they take at their spouse or partner.

Of course we need boundaries to protect us from these sorts of parents. But it's not just clients with these emotionally abusive parents who feel the need to have boundaries with their parents.

It's also adult children with normal family drama who say they need boundaries.

These clients pricked me the most. I've got three small boys and the idea that one day after years of wiping their butts and having paid for college they'd tell me, "well, dad, I don't want you around any more" is terrifying.

So I've been trying to understand this.

Jordan Harris and his mother.
Personally I have a great relationship with my mom. My father and I do not speak. I think that means I see what's it's like to have a good and a bad relationship with your elder parents.

Adult child and parent relationships must change as both age.

What I've discovered is the parents of adult children have a hard time transitioning into their new role as elders.

We humans have four phases to our life cycle. Childhood, adolescents, adulthood, and elderhood. We're typically parents through the adulthood and elder phases.

As a parent when you're in your adult phase you are in charge. For better or worse. Even as kids get older the consequences of their actions ultimately fall on us. As the ones with the resources it's our responsibility to act, even if the problem isn't our fault.

For instance I've known a few parents whose adolescent kids are struggling with drug addiction. It's nearly impossible to stop a 17 year old from using drugs if they really want to, but when they get caught and have to go to drug court, it's the parents as the adult who's got to figure out what to do.

So even when our kid's actions aren't our fault, they are our responsibility. Because we're adults.

And with that adult role comes certain expectations. We get to call the shots for our kids in their childhood and adolescent phases. We can expect our kids to listen and follow directions. If we ask them to sweep the floor, they should sweep the floor, and if we ask them to clean their room, we should expect them to clean their room, and maybe even if we're paying for college we can expect they'll call their mother once a week and come home for Christmas.

But at some point our kids move out of the adolescence phase of their life into their adult phase.

And here's where a lot of parents get stuck. Parents don't realize that as their kids move from the adolescent phase of their life into the adult phase, the parents are also moving out of the adult phase into the elder phase and its only those in the adult phase who get to call the shots.

Different phases of life come with vastly different roles. Elders don't call the shots. The elder's role is as an advisor and an assistant to the adult.

This can be jarring for elders. They've been in charge for decades. Why should they give up control to their adult children?

One big reason is they simply can't be in charge anymore. As we age we need more and more care and assistance. Part of aging is physical and mental decline.


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Why parents of adult children struggle when their kids set boundaries.

Elder parents are often in denial about this. One of the common problems I see with adult children is they are very frustrated with their elder parents, because their elder parents don't have their affairs in order. They continue to drive when they should give up the keys. They don't have a will. They aren't communicating when they have medical issues. They still act as though they are in the adult phase of their life.

Jordan Harris and his mother posing for a photo.
Right after this photo my mom slipped and fell on her hip. How she didn't break it I'll never know. Totally freaked me out.

I have a lot of compassion for elder parents. The more I've worked with people in the elder phase of their life the more I've come to realize they have this slow persistent fear of disability and death that only grows. It's not something I have to deal with. I can see why they are in denial about it. I don't think their adult children get how scary it can be.

There's another aspect to the elder parent adult children dynamic. Elder parents, I think, often feel owed a debt. After all, they sacrificed a lot for their children. I mean the list of things parents do for their kids is endless. Parents stay up late wrestling kids into bed, get up early when one gets sick, chauffeur kids to play dates, pay for vacations, tolerate disrespect they'd never get from employees, and the list goes on. Oftentimes struggling with a persistent sense that they are failing.

When they're old and finally no longer have to parent and their kids say “mom, dad I need boundaries,” from the elder parents' perceptive, man, it's brutal.

The flip side is I think the adult children push their parents away because they actually still want their parents approval. There's something in how bitter they are about their elder parents which tells me these adult children still deeply long for their elder parents' support and approval. They want to see their elder parents put down the phone and play with their grandkids. They want to share their experience with spirituality, even when it’s different, and have their elder parents be interested. But having this longing so alive for them is painful when it comes with so much pain, which means the only way they can manage it is to push their elder parents away and set boundaries.

Why are adult children so hurt by their parents?

The next question is in normal families where does the adult children's pain come from?

I think it simply comes from them not being able to share their pain about their parents, with their parents.

Imagine a dad helping a son learn to drive. They stop at a gas station and the kid puts diesel in instead of gasoline. So the dad loses his temper. Or take a smart kid who isn't applying herself to school and her grades are slipping and the mom makes barbed comments. Both are understandable situations from the adults perspective. And the kid probably knows they screwed up. But blowing up or making barbed comments still hurts. Do you think the typical parent would apologize in these situations?

Does that dad come back and say, "sorry, diesel instead of gasoline basically ruins my car. So I lost my temper. I know that hurt you. We've got to work together to fix this now, but I don't want to hurt you. So I want to apologize for blowing up."

Does the mom say, "Look, I'm actually really worried about your future. Still, I don't need to be passive aggressive about it. I want to talk about you and your future, but first, I want to say sorry for saying those comments."

Most parents I know would never say that to their kids. So kids are left with a lot of wounds which fester for decades.

How do we repair relationships with adult children?

So what do we do about it?

I don't have any perfect answers. I think many adult children could do a better job of deeply respecting the fear inherent in aging and the sacrifice their parents made in raising them.

Jordan Harris, poet Jalynn Harris, and their mom.
My mom, sister and I having dinner.

But honestly I think most of the power tends to lie with elder parents. My hunch is elder parents are still seen, unconsciously, as parents by the adult children. I think if the elder parents were able to hear, deeply empathize, and show remorse it would go a long way for their adult children.

That's my hunch anyway. I suspect that if this could happen, both parent and child would get what they want; close, loving and meaningful relationships throughout the entire course of their lives.


Jordan (the counselor)


Dr. Jordan Harris is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists who works in the Northwest Arkansas area, servicing Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville. With over 10 years of experience, he's worked in various fields from addictions, to kids, to psychiatric wards. Currently his specialty is working with couples with young children.

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