Ep 76: Setting Better Boundaries

Episode Summary

Linda Perlman Gordon, co-author of Mom, Can I Move Back In With You? and four other books sat down with me this week to explores techniques and strategies for parenting teens who are transitioning into ‘real’ adulthood. Linda, a private psychotherapist in the greater D.C. area, counsels parents of teens and twentysomethings–and is the perfect person to discuss how to make better boundaries with your maturing teen!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s the middle of the night, it’s raining, and your teen asks you for help. Her car is broken down and even though she has the number for roadside assistance on her phone, she’s asking you for support. You’re conflicted because as much as you want to get your daughter out of the rain, you know you won’t always be available to solve her problems. If something like this happens again and you aren’t there to pick up the call, she might not think to call a tow truck without parental guidance. 

Parents should be preparing their kids for the teenager to adulthood transition by helping them become more independent and self-sufficient. Different parents have different solutions to foster independence, but they all have the same question: as teenagers turn into adults, when does “helping” turn into “coddling?” 

The answer to properly preparing your children for a teenager to adulthood transition becomes blurrier with each passing year. An increasing number of teenagers go off to college and emerge as young adults with low-paying jobs, unpaid internships, student loans, and grad school applications, so highly-involved parenting tends to extend past the teenage years and into early adulthood. 

The markers of “adulthood” are not as clear cut as they used to be in generations past.  Although 18 year olds are considered adults, your own kids and many others may not be ready for all the responsibilities that come with a teenager to adulthood transition. And that’s fine! Making the transition from teenage years to adulthood will look different for everyone, so don’t be discouraged if your teen isn’t making the smoothest transition. Most “twenty-somethings” still need Mom and Dad for financial and emotional support. 

To understand this paradigm shift in parent-young adult relationships and the teenager to adulthood transition, I had a wonderful interview with Linda Perlman Gordon, author of five books and private psychoanalyst. Her book—Mom, Can I Move Back In With You? A Survival Guide for Parents of Twentysomethings—explores techniques and strategies for parenting children going through a teenager to adulthood transition

Many parents find themselves in this situation without resources or research to help, but they don’t realize how many other parents are in the same boat. These are the parents Linda works with in her private practice and in group sessions. Her many years as a psychoanalyst and a parent of young adults have made her a comforting and authoritative voice on the subject of teenager to adulthood transition. If you’re a parent of an older teen or an early twenty-something, then this week’s episode is for you! 

A Balancing Act: Pushing to Independence and Offering Help 

A successful teenager to adulthood transition hinges on whether or not your kids can support themselves independently. In some instances, they may need to move back in with you. Should your child be paying rent to live at home? Are they on the right track, or are they falling behind? It’s crucial for you to know the difference. The good news is that Gordon specializes in answering these questions! 

Gordon and co-author Susan Morris Shaffer’s work shows most parents feel awkward discussing their twenty-something “children,” when they really shouldn’t feel awkward at all! In today’s housing and job market, it’s almost impossible for young adults to be completely independent post-college. Instead of cutting kids loose when they turn 18, parents should consider fostering independence in progressive stages. Listen to the episode to hear Gordon’s definitions for different independence levels and how to progress them!

Your child may be twenty-four and living at home, but are they motivated? Are they looking for jobs, taking initiative, and moving toward a financially-stable state? Are they working part-time to build their resume or planning to go back to school to strengthen their personal skill set? If so, you’ve nothing to worry about! A successful teenager to adulthood transition isn’t created overnight. Seeing your child take steps towards independence should be celebrated. 

Instead of looking at age as a benchmark for independence, it’s vital to look for signs of “personal responsibility” such as actively applying for jobs, actively searching for their own apartment, or actively applying for schools. This takes pressure off the teen and the parent because it removes the sense of external expectations about adulthood. You haven’t failed as a ,nor have your children failed as young adults, if they aren’t married with a home and lucrative career by 25. Growing into adulthood is not a race against the clock, or at least it shouldn’t be. 

The teenager to adulthood transition should be a stage of life when your kids actively strive towards independence on their own. If your twenty-four-year-old isn’t taking any steps to better themselves and expects someone to hand them a career, a house, or an entire lifestyle, then there’s a problem. Handouts foster a sense of entitlement and laziness. If a young adult isn’t learning how to make a life for themselves because parents dole out easy alternatives, that’s when helping turns into coddling. 

One of Gordon’s best pieces of advice comes from setting boundaries, whether emotionally, financially, or otherwise. For example, you could offer to help your young adult child by paying for their living expenses, but only if they are applying for grad school. Or you could allow them to move back in, but only if they agree to work part-time. These boundaries protect against freeloading young adults who won’t learn how to fend for themselves in the near future.

Setting boundaries like these also help foster a sense of self-determination needed for a teenager to adulthood transition. It could inspire them to move out of home and and get their own place, or to go back to school so that they could get a better job than they have now. 

Without clear boundaries between you and your child, it’s easy to overstep your responsibilities as a parent and for your almost-adult twenty-something to take advantage of you. This could look like racking up your credit card debt, using your house as a venue for their parties, or expecting you to do everything for them. 

Part of growing up is knowing when to be self-reliant and how to problem solve without having to consult anyone else. And that means not having to ask Mom and Dad. As a young adult, they should be using all the time on their hands to their advantage to build the lives they want for themselves. 

By setting clear boundaries, you’ll let your son or daughter know that there are parts of their life in which you can’t be involved in anymore. This can be one of the hardest yet most important moments in parenting a teenager to adulthood transition. Being firm in what you can and can no longer do for them actually helps motivate your children to start thinking and making decisions for themselves. You can still be a present and helpful presence in their lives while not coddling or babying them anymore.

More Resources for Parents of Late-Teens and Twenty-Somethings 

In this week’s episode we discuss far more in depth about what it means to grow into adulthood today. This week’s episode contains so much valuable information. 

In addition to issues about the teenager to adulthood transition, Linda and I discuss:

  • How adolescence has “aged” in years
  • Fostering adult responsibility in your teen
  • Why parents might want to think twice about charging ‘rent’
  • Keeping in touch with your emerging adult
  • The fine line between lending a hand and ‘coddling’

You will always be your child’s parent, no matter how old they are. Times change, and transitioning into adulthood now looks different from when parents transitioned into adulthood. Heavy involvement may expand past the traditional 18-year mark, and you need to be prepared to best help your child make the transition into adulthood. Listen in, and hear Linda Perlman Gordon explain exactly how to adjust parenting techniques for older teens and emerging adults!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen is relying too much on you checking their work:

“I think you’re a solid writer and I want you to feel secure enough to be able to send your stuff on and you know I always want to help you. But I’m not sure it’s helping you to have you feel like it’s not good enough unless my eyes are on it.”

-Linda Perlman Gordon

2. What to say to remind your teen of your genuine pride in them:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: As you write in here, “Mom, can I move back in with you?”. Adolescents has kind of started to creep and become longer and longer and longer, it seems like. And then now we have this new whole phase of emerging adulthood that kind of happens after adolescence. So, parents are kind of on the hook a lot longer these days. It seems like your job is not done at 18 when the kids go off on their own. And so there’s a lot more issues I think. And it’s really, really interesting to me how parents can successfully make that jump. What got you so interested in this period and how did you come up with 270 pages worth of material about this topic?

Linda: Well, life is the mother of invention. And actually when I wrote the book with my coauthor, we were both the parents of 20 somethings. And what we realized from our own experience was that we were closer to our children than we had been, or we were closer in a different way than we had been with our parents. And so given that we’d written several books before this, we decided to explore questions as we were developing along with the children that we were raising. And we decided to hold focus groups with a lot of other 20 somethings and parents of 20 somethings. And we started to ask a lot of questions, but one of the things that we noticed was that the markers of adulthood were not as clear anymore. So in the late sixties, early seventies, if you got married, I think that the average age was really somewhere in the young twenties. A lot of kids got married after college and they moved right out of their parents’ house and they knew they were adults. They also could afford to rent an apartment using their combined incomes with their jobs. And all of that broke down somewhere in the, I guess, nineties or so. Kids could no longer support themselves out of college. They weren’t getting married out of college and they were actually going to be single for about another seven years, more than the generation before. So things were changing.Andy: aInteresting. So you had started conducting these focus groups and where you were you surprised by what you found or was it kind of in line, like other parents were saying the same things that you were experiencing?

Linda: Well, yes, what we were doing was we were pretty open to whatever was going to come our way. But the truth of the matter was is that a lot of people were having a similar experience to us. Yet everybody seemed to think they were the only ones. So there was no built in community anymore for parents. So many people thought they were an abberition or that their kids were failing to launch. And the truth of the matter is, is that this was just something larger than every individual family.

Andy: This actually is just exactly what you’re just saying on page 29, this mother that you talked about, who said, “No, you wouldn’t be interested in what my husband and I do. We are aberrant and many parents think their experiences are atypical because they don’t talk about these things with other parents”. And this really struck me because this was what a lot of the research that I did was. We’d bring parents of incoming college students all into a big room and ask them questions and ask them what they, how they thought other parents were going to answer. And then we just project all of the data immediately, right on the board on a big projector and show them, hey, here’s how you thought other parents were going to answer. And here’s how they really answered. And there was just always this moment when you switch from one side to the other, where there’s this gasp in the room and parents realize that, Oh my God, everyone else feels the same way that I do.

Andy: And I thought that everyone felt differently or had this different experience, but they don’t. And a lot of this stuff was related to alcohol use, but we found this time and time again, no matter what question we threw at them, that parents, they think that other people are not struggling with this stuff in the same way that they are. And I think then that makes it really hard because that makes you feel like you can’t open up about it, or we can’t talk to other people about it. And so obviously, while it’s great to join some of these focus groups that you’re having and just be able to go talk to other parents with a couple of amazing moderators here to walk you through it, but what can parents do if they don’t have that?

Linda: Well, it’s kind of natural that they don’t have it. So not only are they a little bit more silent because they might be embarrassed. But besides that the natural community of parents like you had a community because you would go to PTA meetings, you had a community because your kids were playing soccer and baseball together. So you would stand [crosstalk 00:05:30] around and talk to other parents. You lose that when all your, all the kids go to colleges and they go their own way to college. And you’re not really friendly with the parents who live in another state that your children are making friends with. So you lose that natural community. And in fact, it even made it more difficult when we placed this book in the bookshelf of the bookstores. There wasn’t really a for books on parenting all the children. Parents don’t go looking for those books, the bad markets. So it’s a built in conundrum.

Andy: Bookstores are like where do we put this?

Linda: When we first wrote the book, we were on very early side of this. And then it got to be a little bit easier. And parents were then surrounded by their friends who had kids moving back home. What I found really interesting was that a lot of the articles I was reading the advice that they were giving to helping launch their kids and the advice that made parents understand whether their kids were acting more adults was backwards. I didn’t agree with them.

Andy: So are you talking about, you mean the stuff that works for teens and tweens and younger kids doesn’t work anymore once they get to the 20 something years?

Linda: Well, that’s certainly yes, but the one question that every interviewer asks me, every journalist asked me was, do you ask your kids to pay rent? And everybody expected me to say yes. And I didn’t say yes, I didn’t say it because the whole point of moving back home was to help you become financially [crosstalk] . The whole point in moving back home is because you can’t afford an apartment.

Andy: If you could afford rent why would you be living with mom and dad, basically?

Linda: Right. It was just silly. So what we did is we established what we considered were the markers of adulthood for parents so they could figure out if their kids were behaving in a way that would help them move on. And so I would say so many 20 somethings were coming home and they were underpaid in their first job. Or they might even be in an unpaid internship, which they were happy to get because it was going to help them build a resume for their hopefully next job, which would be paid. And so we would say, no, don’t have them pay rent if you can afford to keep your house and cover the mortgage when your kids at home. If you aren’t going to downsize and you are going to keep that house, then let your kids move back home.

Andy: It’s just sitting there anyways. Right.

Linda: Yeah. So we decided to look at the bend, what we considered the new benchmark of adulthood. And so what parents needed to do is they needed to look at behavior. And so some of the things that we wrote about were taking personal responsibility. So that means if you’re 20 something was looking for a job and was actually waking up in the morning, going online, trying to get his or her resume and doing things that you thought were moving the ball along, that’s taking some personal responsibility. If your kid is sleeping in and going on the Xbox, et cetera, et cetera, that’s not taking responsibility. That’s when you step in.

Andy: Okay. So I like that. Looking at behaviors, you think mostly that’s tied to work and that’s tied to looking for jobs and trying to move themselves towards financial independence.

Linda: I think that’s a big one. I also think another behavior which really doesn’t have anything to do with them moving back home because they could fail at this. Even not living under your roof are things like having appropriate boundaries, lack of entitlement, like assuming that you are going to wait on them. We thought that it was really important to have cultural competence, especially in today’s world and in the workplace. And those are things that you could use this period of them living at home to kind of talk about these values, or just have some kind of conversations that would help your kid get some of these. But one would hope that as a parent, you were doing this for a long time beforehand.

Andy: Page 43, you talk about a dad named Steve who permits his son, Aaron, to use his credit card to pay for his son’s health club charges. When I guess this was in or during a focus group. So you guys talked about this and you have kind of quotes from Steve. So when asked why he doesn’t share this information with his wife, Steve’s response is, “She thinks Aaron should only go to the health club if he can afford it. I think he works hard. He doesn’t make enough money to maintain a quality of life that I can afford to give him”. In this instance, the father is not fearful of pampering his son while the mother worries that continuing to indulge her son will hinder his ability to grow up. So I think there’s just like so much going on there. That’s really interesting. But what one issue there of course, is the disagreement that can happen between two parents on how to approach this phase or where to draw the boundaries.

Andy: You talked about boundaries earlier, which I want to get to, but it’s really interesting thinking about how to kind of navigate those disagreements. So this guy’s response was just to not tell the wife that he was actually going ahead and paying for the health club charges. That doesn’t sound super healthy. But what I mean, is there a certain point where you just need to kind of say hey, dad’s going to do it this way, mom’s going to do it this way? Or do you think you need to present a united front and work through everything? Or where do you see parents being successful in those kinds of negotiations on boundaries?

Linda: I think that if we use this instance and I actually, in my private practice, I see a lot of couples. So I feel like this is kind of a couples issue first before a parenting issue. And it’s really common that one parent will have a different value system than another. And that comes from how you were raised, right?

Andy: Sure.

Linda: And let’s just take this pretend family and say that money is not an issue for them. So they have whatever they need, but dad thinks mom will think that he’s pampering. The thing to do is have a conversation with each other and for dad to say, “Okay, listen, I see that our son is taking personal responsibility and this is how I see it”. He doesn’t have any debt, he doesn’t blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and the fun times. [crosstalk] And then, and say, “This is important to me. What do you think?”. And then I’ve got to hope that she will then say, “Well, I worry that this will lead to him having the sense that things come easy, et cetera”. And so my hope is after talking to each other, they both get to express what their concerns are and they will both make sense. And in that moment, one of them has decide or concede to the other one.

Andy: Yeah. Whoever it’s more important to probably is going to win, honestly.

Linda: Yeah, I think yes. And I think that’s okay. I think it says [inaudible].

Andy: You might have to let a couple of go. The ones that are less important to you, let those go. And the ones that really matter, maybe though you put your foot down on those and say, no, if the gym is the thing that really matters to you as a parent.

Linda: Right? I mean, you may think your kid really needs to work out. How do you know? I don’t know. Maybe they went to the doctor recently and their triglycerides were high. I have no idea, but I think that that stuff should be discussed. And then one of you make the decision.

Andy: And also, I think it has to do with a lot of if it’s really important to you. If I’m the kind of person who loves to work out all the time, and it really like helps me to distress after the day, then I want my kid to be able to do that too. And also, if you’ve seen it really be beneficial for your child and experience the benefit of something like that for them, then you could really be something that’s important to you or something that you want to provide to them, even if they can’t really afford it right now.

Linda: That’s an excellent point because you’re bringing up the fact that, like I said, maybe there was something that exercise would help on medically, but there’s also, there are also ADD kids that find themselves focusing better when they exercise. There are kids that are slightly depressed that find themselves less depressed when they exercise. So one of the parents could bring that stuff up and then it becomes a clear answer.

Andy: Okay. I love this. Okay so on page 53, one father Michael laughed when he told us a story about his 21 year old son’s first day of classes in his senior year of college. Michael was doing some paperwork on his desk when the phone rang, he answered the phone and it was his son, Matt calling, while walking to class. Matt said, “Dad, can you do me a favor? Log onto the net, go to the homepage for my university and search for location of this history seminar. I don’t know where to go. And class starts in 15 minutes.”. So of course, Michael logged on and with the aid of high speed internet access was able to get the information within three minutes. He told us on where to go and hung up, scratching his head and thinking about what just occurred. “Sure.” ,Michael said, I could have told him I was too busy and he needed to go get all that information for himself before he ventures out. But I didn’t. I paid too much tuition to sit back and let him miss classes because he can’t get it all together. I also pick my battles. This one was just not important enough. And to be really honest, I like the fact that Matt knows I’m no farther away than the phone in his backpack.

Linda: It just goes to show that we all have different styles. If this, if, if this father felt like a concierge father, then it would be too much. But this father was saying that’s kind of connection. And my kid is really basically independent, and this is a quirky moment. I’m going to give into it. Not, that’s why this is so hard because it taken out of context that could look like you are absolutely pandering to this child and the child will never grow up.

Andy: Right. He’s now going to just never going to get stuff together before we go to ventures out on his own and right.

Linda: Right. But that may not be the case at all. It just may be a connection that the two of them have. And at some point, yes, this boy is going to have to learn to figure it out himself. And when the father thinks that… I think the most important thing about the book was to let parents know that you’re not the only one other parents are dealing with these really tiny little examples that actually can build entitlement can make it so that you are your child’s external brain. And you don’t want to be that because you end up crippling your kids. Puts everything in moderation, everything needs balance.

Andy: But how do you know when you’re crossing the line or when it’s going too far or when you’re becoming the external brain? Is that just something every parent has to figure out for themselves?

Linda: I think you have to go back and look at some of those markers of adulthood that we’ve created, which has to do with whether your child is taking personal responsibility for moving towards the next phase of life and your kids…

Andy: Age appropriate responsibility.

Linda: Exactly and that’s right.

Andy: More than they took last year at this same time.

Linda: That’s a good point because your twenties, the years in your twenties have become a really big exploration. There are more kids going to graduate school now than had ever gone before. Generations ago college was enough. And so people are not finding that job until they are in their late twenties. They’re not getting married until they are in their late twenties. And they’re not having kids, many of them until they are in their early thirties. And it usually is the most, the clearest marker to the 20 something or 30 year old, whether they are an adult is when they have a kid.

Andy: Sure, yep.

Linda: Because you are now, it’s like the buck stops there, right? Your parent is not that child’s parent. You are the parent, you know, that you have grown up at that point. You just hope that you have all these other ducks in the row so that you deserve that responsibility or can handle it in a grownup way.

About Linda Perlman Gordon

Linda Perlman Gordon is an author and psychotherapist with a private practice in the Washington., DC area. She specializes in family issues with an expertise in young adulthood, couples and individuals. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Mom, Can I Move Back in with You?, How to Connect With Your iTeen, Too Close for Comfort, Why Boys Don’t Talk and Why it Matters, and Why Girls Talk and What they’re Really Saying. Linda’s expertise has been featured on news sites like Today.com, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and The Globe and Mail.  

Linda is the proud mother of her own emerged adults. You can find her on LinkedIn.