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Redrawing Boundaries With Adult Children

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 Florida.” (My friend and his wife, Bridgette, live in California.) “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 “honor” 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:

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. Recognize 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.

Finding Freedom

When I first headed off to college, my dad told me, “Son, you are going to college, 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 college, 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.

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.

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 memorialize this kind of adulthood. Before they do the vows, the pastor says to both sets of parents, “We first want to honor 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 memorialize 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.

In the end, Jonathan and Bridgette went to their son and daughter-in-law and apologized. 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.


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Bundle of Why Your Kids Misbehave

Why Your Kids Misbehave and What to Do about It

Tantrums. Talking back. Throwing toys or food. Meltdowns. Slamming doors. Kids know just how to push your buttons. You’ve tried all sorts of methods, but nothing seems to work. In this book, Dr. Kevin Leman reveals exactly why kids misbehave and how you can turn that behavior around with practical, no-nonsense strategies that really work . . . and are a long-term win for both of you.

Understanding the Root of Your Child's Misbehavior - Part 2

Often, children act out because they are used to getting attention through bad behavior. Dr. Kevin Leman offers advice to help parents transform their child’s behavior. He discusses the benefits of allowing your kids to learn from real-life consequences and describes the importance of understanding your child’s temperament based on his birth order.

Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman has written more than 50 books including The Birth Order BookHave a New Kid by Friday and Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours.

Bundle of Why Your Kids Misbehave

Why Your Kids Misbehave and What to Do about It

Tantrums. Talking back. Throwing toys or food. Meltdowns. Slamming doors. Kids know just how to push your buttons. You’ve tried all sorts of methods, but nothing seems to work. In this book, Dr. Kevin Leman reveals exactly why kids misbehave and how you can turn that behavior around with practical, no-nonsense strategies that really work . . . and are a long-term win for both of you.

Loving Your Spouse Through the Seasons of Marriage - Part 2

Debra Fileta has identified the four seasons of marriage that correspond with our natural seasons – spring (new life and new love), summer (things get hot!), fall (showing our true colors), and winter (long days ahead). In this interview, she will help couples better understand the four seasons of healthy relationships, what to expect during each one, and how to carefully navigate them for a stronger marriage.

Author Debra Fileta in the Focus on the Family broadcast studio

Debra Fileta

Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor specializing in relationship and marital issues. She is also a public speaker and the author of multiple books, including Married SexChoosing Marriage: Why It Has to Start With We > Me, Love in Every Season, and Are You Really OK: Getting Real About Who You Are, How You’re Doing, and Why It Matters. Debra’s popular relationship advice blog, TrueLoveDates.com, and her Love + Relationships podcast reach millions of people each year offering guidance on topics including love, sex, and marriage.

Love in Every Season: Understanding the Four Stages of a Healthy Relationship

Every relationship goes through four life-changing seasons: Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. Each season plays an important role in taking your relationship to the next level. And depending on how you navigate each season, your relationship will either flourish and grow, or it will slowly die. Whether you’re single, dating, engaged or married, join licensed professional counselor and relationship expert, Debra Fileta as she takes you on an eye-opening psychological and spiritual journey through the four seasons that she has observed in every healthy relationship.

Reconciling Faith and Science in a Medical Crisis

Dr. Lee Warren is a neurosurgeon who has faced many heavy challenges in his life – from serving in the Iraq War to removing deadly brain tumors to experiencing the loss of a teenage son. He’ll share about his difficult quest to find answers to some of life’s toughest questions, while holding onto his faith in God and the sure hope of heaven

Headshot of Focus on the Family broadcast guest Dr. W. Lee Warren

Dr. Lee Warren

W. Lee Warren, M.D., is a brain surgeon , inventor, Iraq War veteran, and author of I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know, winner of the Christian Book Award®. His previous book, No Place to Hide, was included on the 2015 U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff’s Recommended Reading List. Dr. Warren has appeared on The 700 Club and the CBS Evening News, and his writings have been featured in Guideposts magazine. His Dr. Lee Warren Podcast, which is heard in more than 60 countries, helps listeners use the power of neuroscience, faith, and common sense to change their lives.

Cover image of Dr. Lee Warren's book "I've Seen the End of You"

I've Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon's Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know

This gripping inspirational memoir grapples with the tension between faith and science—and between death and hope—as a seasoned neurosurgeon faces insurmountable odds and grief both in the office and at home.

Praying Scripture Over Your Child’s Life - Part 1

Jodie Berndt loves to pray for her children. She’s been doing that for the past thirty years. Now she helps other parents to talk to God, asking for the salvation of their kids, and for wisdom, self-discipline, purpose, a future and much more. She offers fun and practical encouragement that moms and dads can put to work immediately in their daily lives as they prepare their children for a life in Christ.

Headshot of Focus on the Family broadcast guest Jodie Berndt

Jodie Berndt

Jodie Berndt is a public speaker, a Bible teacher, and the the author of 10 books. Find out more about Jodie and get some free resources (including printable prayer cards and calendars) at her website, jodieberndt.com.

Cover image of Jodie Berndt's book "Praying the Scriptures for Your Children"

Praying the Scriptures Over Your Children

You will discover how using the Bible to shape your desires and requests opens the door to God’s provision—and frees us from things like worry and fear in our parenting! This expanded edition of the bestseller features updated content on issues like technology and identity, and comes with new material designed to invite children into the family prayer circle. Purchase now and receive 10% off your product.

Mothers and Sons: Being a Godly Influence - Part 1

Rhonda Stoppe describes her early motherhood challenges of raising a son, which was intimidating to her. She found help through group of older women mentors. She urges moms to see their role as ministry in shaping sons to be good and godly men. Rhonda outlines several practical suggestions to moms about spiritual training, how to communicate with boys, and supporting the father-son relationship as a wife.

Headshot of Rhonda Stoppe

Rhonda Stoppe

Drawing upon 35 years of experience as a mentor, pastor’s wife, and homeschool mom, Rhonda Stoppe offers encouragement and guidance to women as an author and public speaker. She is popularly known as the “No Regrets Woman,” as she is especially passionate about helping women live life without regrets. Rhonda’s books include Moms Raising Sons to Be MenReal Life Romance, and The Marriage Mentor, which she co-authored with her husband, Steve.

Cover image of Rhonda Stoppe's book "Moms Raising Sons to be Men"

Moms Raising Sons to Be Men

Mothers of boys have the special calling to shape future men of God. Popular speaker Rhonda Stoppe, mom to two sons, knows this opportunity is a challenge, a joy, and probably the most important work of a woman’s life. Drawing from years of experience, this inspirational resource will revive the faithfulness and fortitude a woman needs to partner with God as they shape the character and heart of a future godly man.

Identifying Triggers in Your Marriage Part 1

They were both convinced they had married the wrong person. From almost the very beginning of their marriage, Amber and Guy Lia experienced various tensions and personality clashes related to house cleaning, backseat driving, workaholism, and intimacy. In this two-day Focus on the Family broadcast, Amber and Guy discuss how they bravely faced the triggers head-on, and committed to working on their own relationships with Jesus. As you listen to the Lia’s story, you’ll feel hope that you, too, can see real marriage transformation!

Headshot of Guy and Amber Lia

Mr. and Mrs. Guy and Amber Lia and Mrs. Jean Daly

Amber Lia is a work-at-home mom, blogger, public speaker, and co-author of two best-selling books. Her husband, Guy, is a former TV, feature film, and VFX development and production executive who has worked on popular TV shows and films. Guy and Amber own Storehouse Media Group, a faith- and family-friendly TV and film production company based in Los Angeles,

Cover image of the book "Marriage Triggers" by Guy and Amber Lia

Marriage Triggers: How You and Your Spouse Can Exchange Angry Reactions for Gentle Biblical Responses

A husband-wife team offers practical advice for married couples to end the cycle of reactionary arguments by examining the most common issues that trigger disagreements and apply God’s Word to radically transform relationships.

What to Do When You're Not Okay - Part 1

Life can be pretty stressful. Between work, relationships, and other obligations, the pressure builds, and we lose sight of who we are. Counselor Debra Fileta helps you better understand your emotions, assess your mental, physical, and spiritual health, and intentionally pursue a path to wellbeing. In dealing with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, Debra understands the importance of self-examination as well as the benefits of seeking professional help. She offers biblically-based advice, tools, and encouragement to help you get on a path toward healing and wholeness.

Author Debra Fileta in the Focus on the Family broadcast studio

Mrs. Debra Fileta

Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor specializing in relationship and marital issues. She is also a public speaker and the author of multiple books, including Married SexChoosing Marriage: Why It Has to Start With We > Me, Love in Every Season, and Are You Really OK: Getting Real About Who You Are, How You’re Doing, and Why It Matters. Debra’s popular relationship advice blog, TrueLoveDates.com, and her Love + Relationships podcast reach millions of people each year offering guidance on topics including love, sex, and marriage. Debra resides in Pennsylvania with her husband, John, and their four children.

Are You Really Okay?

Are You Really OK: Getting Real About Who You Are

In Are You Really OK? author and licensed counselor Debra Fileta challenges you to get real with who you are and how you’re doing spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically so you can recognize where you need growth and healing.

Navigating a Toxic Culture with Your Daughter - Part 1

As a pediatrician, Dr. Meg Meeker has seen thousands of girls come through her office through the years. They struggle with eating issues, sexual identity, social media…and many other challenges in this toxic culture. Dr. Meeker will encourage parents to invest love and time in their daughters and develop their character to give them the best opportunity for a bright future, all rooted in a spiritual foundation. The discussion also includes healthy feminism vs. toxic feminism

Mrs. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker is a pediatrician who is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading authorities on parenting, teens and children’s health. With appearances on numerous nationally syndicated radio and TV programs, her popularity as a an expert on key issues confronting families has created a strong following across America. Her work with countless families over the years served as the inspiration behind her best-selling books which include Strong Fathers, Strong DaughtersStrong Mothers, Strong Sons and The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers

Cover image of Dr. Meg Meeker's book "Raising a Strong Daughter in a Toxic Culture"

Raising a Strong Daughter in a Toxic Culture: 11 Steps to Keep Her Happy, Healthy, and Safe

Meg Meeker has been a pediatrician for more than thirty years, is a mother and a grandmother, and has seen it all. She knows what makes for strong, happy, healthy young women–and what puts our daughters at risk. Combining that experience with her famous common sense, she explains the eleven steps that will help your daughter–whether she’s a toddler or a troubled teen–to achieve her full human potential.

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Newest Release - Episode 1: The Truth About Life!

In this episode, we will tackle tough questions like, “When does life begin?” and “What does the Bible
say about Life?” You’ll discover and understand the stages of pre-born life and that babies are more than
just a clump of cells!

Yes, I Promise to Pray for the Pre-born and Their Moms!

Will you pray for the pre-born and moms that are facing unexpected pregnancies? We will send you a 7-day prayer guide that will help guide you along this journey with us!! You can even choose to receive this great resource by text!

Thank you for committing to pray for the pre-born!

Sign up below for your free seven-day prayer guide. This daily guide will help give direction to your prayers for the pro-life movement. We will be praying with you! 

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