June 8

Communication Key to Setting Boundaries in Adult Child-Parent Relationship


I recently came home from the hospital for the second time, and my daughter has been in town trying to make sure that I make a smooth transition home. She has done lots of cooking and makes sure I am resting. While I truly appreciate all of her efforts, how do I tell her that she is hovering, and it is time for her to return home?

The adult child-parent relationship can become a delicate dance as a parent ages and boundaries change. Most adult children are well intended but are not sure how to change established roles and boundaries when they find a parent needing more help. This can result in providing too much support, or in some cases, appearing uninterested for fear of overstepping those established boundaries. They want to protect your independence while making sure your needs are met.

Many adult children see changes in their parents and want to return the care and affection they received growing up. Some feel it is their family duty, while others have never had a close emotional relationship and feel it is inappropriate to step into that role. 

When a parent faces a crisis, like a hospitalization or medical procedure, it forces these issues to the surface, and old family dynamics can come into play. Guilt can also become a factor, especially when adult children live far away or are balancing careers and families of their own.

Communication is key in these situations. Perhaps you and your daughter can establish some ground rules you can both feel good about. There are certainly times when intervention is warranted, such as safety concerns, but other times, it may be going overboard. A friendly visit can quickly turn to feeling checked up on. Your daughter checking all your expiration dates on food in the pantry may make you feel like she no longer thinks you are capable of doing that yourself.

Start by discussing a timeline for visits, including how long is acceptable and how long is too long. If you do this prior to the visit, it will not feel like you are asking her to leave. If you have established routines for meal times, television time, quiet times and other patterns, outline those so she can follow them, instead of having to guess.

Discuss your eating habits with your daughter. Nutrition is important, but you don’t want to be left with a house full of foods that don’t appeal to you. You may have different or changing tastes in food. Make a list or meal plan for the visit, before heading out to do the grocery shopping.

Come up with a list of things that need to be done to maintain the household. This may be cleaning, yard maintenance, checking smoke detectors, changing filters, putting out the trash, etc. Discuss what things you feel up to doing and what tasks you are comfortable letting her manage during visits.

Discuss a backup plan. Many adult children are worried about what may happen when they leave and the guilt they would feel if you had a fall or crisis while they are not there. Consider a personal alert system you can use to get help at the push of a button. While you may not see it as a necessity, it provides a nice compromise for peace of mind. Identify a local backup person. This may be a friend, neighbor or professional in the area who can step in to help navigate the unexpected.

Essentially, you are putting a safety net in place, and your daughter wants to be a part of it. Let her know you appreciate that but still have boundaries you want to maintain and the decisions you want to make for yourself. She may not agree with all of your decisions, and that’s OK unless you are putting yourself in an unsafe situation, such as not taking medications, skipping meals or having multiple falls. You still have the right to make decisions, even if they are not always the best. Decide what the really important things are, and talk about them. If she is doing something that is really bothering you, and you cannot tell her directly, try sending a letter or note to explain your feelings. If it is hard for you to hear what she has to say, ask her to do the same.

Remember that there are underlying fears you both have as you enter a new phase of your relationship. If the hovering is too much, ask her to give you some space. She may need reassurance that you are ready for her to go and agree on a reasonable timeline for checking in. This is a transition for both of you. Take it one day at a time, continue to explore resources and options and, together, you can establish your new normal.

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