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From Chapter Two: Establishing Boundaries

The closeness you had when you lived together as parent and child was vital for you both then. When living separate lives you most likely found a comfort zone in which you erected personal boundaries that afforded you time to yourself and the freedom to live as you wished. Boundaries separating you from family occur automatically when you’re independent, formed either by the physical distance or the amount of contact you orchestrate.

When you live together again, those lines can blur rapidly. If boundaries go undrawn and unchecked, one or the other of you may feel smothered—like the child you once were, or the supervising parent you no longer want to be. In this chapter you will learn how to set important ground rules that will help reestablish and guard the boundaries you had when you lived on your own.

As you settle in the same house, decades-old problems may take new forms, ones instantly identifiable because parents lapse into seeing their offspring as they were during their formative years. If your teen “screwed up” then, you’re likely to be waiting for and expecting a repeat. But, this isn’t the same rebellious, perhaps a trifle inconsiderate, teenager who left years ago. Although returning offspring will rely on their parents to some degree, they should be viewed as independent adults, even when parents’ emotional or financial support is required.

As a full-time mother, perhaps you were a bit intrusive. What makes you think you will stay out of your adult child’s life now? Similarly, as the grown-up child, you may still see your parents or siblings through your young person’s prism—when your parents inserted themselves into aspects of your life you preferred to keep to yourself, or when your sister, always the free spirit, did what she pleased, including reading your diary and borrowing your clothes (or your boyfriend). You worry that they will not necessarily respect you or your belongings all these years later. As adults, we all need more private, emotional space as protection against the intrusion of others.

As much as some things stay the same, others change, so even if you got along growing up, you’re bound to run into a few difficulties. Realizing that everyone will have to make modifications and concessions will help you reframe your attitude and be more accepting of what has to change.

In the extreme, Barbara’s mother is an uneasy driver, and refuses to make left-hand turns. She doesn’t want her fifty-oneyear-old daughter to make them either. She worked out righthand-turn-only routes to the supermarket, beauty salon, and bank—virtually every place she and her daughter routinely drive. When behind the wheel, rather than distress her mother, Barbara concedes and follows these circuitous trails for reasons she can’t explain.

As you tackle the problems of establishing firm boundaries, it’s important to stay flexible. Sometimes roles shift and boundary lines change in the process.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a reversal of roles.

As the adult child, you may find yourself the organizer, running the household. Once your parent cooked dinner every night; now you’re at the stove. A parent soothed your teenage hysteria, but now you’re the soothing influence for your single, dating mother. When you lived together as parent and child, you sought your parent’s advice, but now a parent seeks yours . . . and follows it. But, is this neediness absorbing all your time and energy?

If you’ve just moved in, or your adult child is about to, consider that she might want to hold on to her independent adult status and privacy. Parents, on the other hand, might be assessing how much independence they are losing, or how their office now has to revert back to a son or daughter’s bedroom. Each of you will devise better ways of dealing with your own or your family’s behaviors and reactions that interfere with one another’s personal life.

What Your Parent May Be Thinking:

“I had some reservations about living with my daughter again. As a teenager, she and I had had issues. I realized that both of us would have to make some adjustments. She feels I should be more outgoing and active, that I should not climb into bed at 7:00 p.m. with a book or watch TV until I fall asleep or hibernate in my warm bed for much of the day in winter.”

Helen, eighty-three, lives with her daughter whose three adult children live independently in different states.

What Your Adult Child May Be Thinking:

“I forget that I can’t wait until the next day to clean up after my friends, and that I can’t leave my shoes by the front door. It’s annoying to be told to take care of your shoes, but after growing up with my mother, I know this. I have to respect her ways and take care of my things right away. My parents are helping me out by letting me live with them.”

Adam, twenty-seven, returned home to get his debt under control.


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