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Setting Boundaries With Adult Children and Grandchildren

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One of the hardest things to do as you approach retirement can be toning down the desire to continue financially supporting your children—and maybe even your grandchildren. An adult child is still your child, and you probably want to help. But what happens if your family dynamics need a reboot because the adults in your life have expectations of your financial and emotional support that exceed your means? Sometimes the answer can be found by setting healthy boundaries. If you struggle to set boundaries with your adult children and grandchildren, here’s where to start.

Start with Your Own Situation

Before discussing setting boundaries, it’s important to know where your finances and emotional bandwidth stand.

“First and foremost, understanding your financial capacity is key,” says Hannah Mayderry, a licensed mental health counselor with experience in family dynamics and generational issues and founder of Philosophie Therapy, LLC. “It’s crucial to know what you can and can’t afford. If you don’t know what your boundaries are, you can’t enforce them.”

Ashley Constanzo, a registered marriage and family therapist intern and founder of Sunrise Trauma Therapy, suggests starting with a financial professional. They can help you review your current situation and determine how providing financial help to an adult child or grandchild could impact the future.

“If you can afford to assist children or grandchildren without jeopardizing your own financial planning, consider which of your children or grandchildren you’d like to help based on their needs and your relationship with them,” Constanzo says.

Decide How You Plan to Help

Once you know where you stand, you can decide how you want to help and start setting boundaries with your adult children based on that information.

Cameron Huddleston, author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk, and long-time personal finance journalist, points out that sometimes setting boundaries is about deciding how you want to help an adult child or grandchild ultimately become independent of you.

“For example, if your children want to move back home, ask them to pay a portion of the utility bills, buy their own groceries or even pay rent,” Huddleston suggests. “You don’t have to charge the market rate. But if you don’t require them to pitch in financially, they won’t have any incentive to figure out how to support themselves on their own.” 

It’s also possible to help your adult child or grandchild by offering non-financial assistance, according to Bobbi Rebell, CFP, founder of Financial Wellness Strategies and author of Launching Financial Grownups: Live Your Richest Life by Helping Your (Almost) Adult Kids Be Everyday Money Smart.

“Offer to babysit one day a week and a few times a month on evenings so they can have a break,” Rebell says. This provides them with emotional support and takes financial pressure off the parents to find a babysitter.

Another way to help is to allow an adult child or grandchild to live with you without paying rent. But only allow it as long as they work toward a goal, such as education or work training, building savings, or getting back on their feet after a major setback. Be clear about expectations so they understand what they need to do to receive the help. 

According to both Huddleston and Rebell, setting those guardrails is important if you want your children to move on from your support—and if you want to ensure that you don’t risk your retirement.

“Review your own finances to figure out how much support you can provide,” Huddleston says. “Once you reach that limit, then be prepared to tell your children that you can’t afford to help out anymore.”  

Tips for Setting Boundaries

When setting boundaries with adult children, it’s important to start with open and honest communication.

“Let your adult children and grandchildren know you want to discuss the future and your ability to provide support. Be clear about what you can offer and what you can’t,” Mayderry says. “It might feel uncomfortable initially, but it’s an essential step towards mutual understanding and respect.”

Constanzo suggests the following tips for setting boundaries with adult children and grandchildren:

  • Have a conversation about how long and how much you’re able to help them.
  • If you’ve decided you can’t help in the ways they want, be consistent about it.
  • Don’t feel like you must explain yourself. You can simply let them know that you’ve set your level of help based on your own needs and situation.
  • Lay out consequences for your children or grandchildren not respecting your boundaries and enforce them.
  • Consider exploring how to set boundaries and maintain them with a mental health counselor so that you can enforce them.

Don’t forget to express confidence in your adult child or grandchild as you set boundaries, Rebell suggests.

“Let them know that you have confidence in them to live within their means and that you are there to help them find solutions and brainstorm ideas to bring their budget in line with their own resources,” Mayderry says. “Be their guide, not their rescuer.”

“Enforcing boundaries is a continuous process. Be firm but empathetic. There might be instances where you’ll feel the need to repeat your boundaries, and that’s okay,” she says. “Consistency is key in making sure your loved ones understand and respect your financial limits.”