Setting Boundaries with Estranged Adult Children

Many parents of estranged adult children cringe when they hear the word “boundaries.” 

It’s understandable. The last time they heard that word was when their adult child accused them of boundary violations… on their way out the door.

To parents who feel rejected and confused by sudden estrangement, boundaries feel like nothing more than walls put up to keep them out.

But boundaries are not simply walls. They’re not just for creating distance. And they’re not just for your adult child(ren), either.

Boundaries were not a “thing” when I was growing up. Younger people today are way more savvy about boundaries than we were back then.

Today it’s more widely understood that healthy boundaries are an important part of loving relationships. And you and I can benefit from them, too.

Defend Your Boundaries

When it comes to your estranged adult child(ren)’s behavior, you might think you have to take what you can get. But that’s not necessarily true.

It’s not good for a relationship with your child(ren) in the long run if they don’t respect your boundaries. Deep down, nobody wants a parent they can walk all over. Most of us prefer to look up to our parents if possible.

Whether or not other adults return your texts or emails, you can’t set a boundary that says, “You [an adult] have to reply when I reach out to you.” That would be like telling a neighbor they have to weed their lawn or clean their garage at the same time you’re doing yours.

You and I can’t tell other property owners what to do on their property. There are boundary lines between ourselves and our neighbors. Staying in our own yards, we can put limits on sharing our time, money, possessions, home, and personal information.

Here are some examples of personal boundaries you might want (or need) to set with an estranged adult child:

1. As long as they’re estranged, you’re not giving them gifts. Why reward rejection? Depending on your situation, they might get an e-card. But why should they expect money or gifts on special days from someone they’re not speaking to?

You may decide that grandchildren are exempt. Or not. It depends on what feels right for you — and what your estranged adult child has indicated is right for them as far as their children are concerned.

As much as it might break your heart not to send gifts (and we know that presents = presence) to your grandchild(ren), that’s a boundary your adult child is allowed to set. Violating a request not to send gifts to grandchildren could make things worse. Try going for a No instead.

IMPORTANT: I don’t recommend cutting off adult children financially without a two-way conversation. Or at all, if they’re still in college or unable to support themselves without your help. Ideally, money shouldn’t play a central role in a troubled parent-adult child relationship. The more financial or other resources are used for leverage or barter, the worse for the relationship. But if you need to reduce financial entanglements, it’s usually a good idea to do so in a collaborative way.

(If you’d like help coming up with a plan to shift the relationship from quid pro quo toward more emotional safety, trust and affection, feel free to book a private consultation with me.)

2. They’re not allowed to use your stuff without speaking to you first. I’ve heard multiple stories of estranged adult children using their cut-off parents’ homes, boats, cabins, swimming pools, etc. without asking. In some cases, a fed-up parent, feeling used and angry, calls the police. As you might imagine, this only damages the relationship further.

Never take action to defend a boundary until 1. You’ve communicated your boundary clearly, 2. You stated the consequences for further violations, and 3. A violation occurs after 1. and 2. have taken place.

3. You’re available to talk (or babysit) only during certain hours. This is counterintuitive; of course you want to talk to your estranged adult child(ren)! Of course you want to spend time with your grandchildren! But having times when you’re not available signals to both yourself and everyone else that your time and services are valuable.

Personally, I don’t answer the phone if I’m talking with a client, or after 9pm. In a true emergency, my family has other ways to reach me. If I answer the phone no matter what I’m in the middle of (including the night), or agree to do a favor when it’s very inconvenient, I’m communicating that it’s okay to interrupt me or use my time as you wish. I can’t fault you for taking me up on that.

4. No foul language or rude behavior. You are allowed to set limits (i.e., boundaries) around how you’re treated.

If your choice is either verbal abuse or no contact, choose no contact. Let them know you want to hear from them, but tell them what your limits are. Always give them the choice to try again when they’re able to use nicer language.

Becoming angry, in itself , is not rude, abusive or dangerous. But if your adult child isn’t able to feel angry without resorting to verbal or physical abuse, seek help for yourself with a qualified mental health professional. Abuse is not something you have to, or should, deal with alone.

When Boundaries Don’t Work

“But I’ve tried setting a boundary,” you might say. “She keeps doing XYZ anyway.” The question is then, What do you do when she does XYZ?

If there are no consequences for violating your boundaries, there’s no reason for the behavior to change.

If your estranged adult child fails to RSVP for an event… Or refuses to answer multiple texts or emails… You might feel they’re being rude. But what do you do about it? Do you keep reaching out, trying to get a response? If you do, how are there consequences for their rudeness?

By repeatedly reaching out despite the lack of any response, you’re signaling that it’s okay to ignore you. 

The first time an adult child doesn’t respond to an invitation can be the last time they’re invited until the relationship improves, or they apologize for not getting back to you in time.

The boundary-setter is the only person responsible for holding any boundary. Yes, it would be very nice if everyone would respect our boundaries without our having to defend them. But especially in families, boundaries are made to be tested. And they often fail.

For much more on boundaries, take our Healthy Boundaries course.

For more about your adult child(ren)’s boundaries, listen to the Reconnection Club Podcast Ep. 119: Finding Out Where the Boundaries Are

 – Tina Gilbertson, LPC

*   *   *

This article was featured in our monthly newsletter. If you’re a Reconnection Club member, feel free to leave a comment in our General Discussion forum.

Not a member? You can still receive our monthly newsletter and get articles like this one in your inbox. Click here to join the mailing list.

Members have access to helpful courses, workshops, and expert interviews to help them create and follow a heart-based strategy for reconnection. They also gain support and ideas from our friendly, private discussion forums. Learn more about the Reconnection Club.

*This page may contain affiliate links. If you follow one and make a purchase, the Reconnection Club will receive a small consideration. There’s no cost to you, and we only share links to resources we believe in.