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Updated on Wednesday, July 29, 2015
As parents, we want to help and support our children. We want to keep them safe, be there for them when they need us, and make sure they know that we love them.
It’s also our responsibility to give our children the skills they need to thrive independently. And sometimes it can be hard to balance that responsibility with the desire to show our love and support.
Never is that tension higher than when you have an adult child who is still coming back to the bank of Mom and Dad. What can initially feel like normal parental support can quickly turn into an unhealthy dependence that not only makes it harder for your child to find their own path, but also can make it difficult for you to reach your personal financial goals.
So, how do you know when it’s time to cut off your adult child? In this post we’ll answer that question and walk through four steps you can take to make it happen.
How to Know When It’s Time
Obviously you’re not going to cut off a 10 year old. And just as obviously your 40-year-old child should probably be living independently.
But what about your 20-30 year old who’s still looking to find his or her place in the world? When is it time to say enough is enough?
The exact answer will differ for everyone, but there are three common scenarios where you should be starting to take some action to help your child towards independence.
The first is when your child is moving back home after college. This is a pretty normal thing to do and in many cases is a perfectly acceptable transition. But it shouldn’t be a free ride. There should be clear expectations for making it to the next phase, which we’ll detail below.
Second, if your child has already been living at home or has been coming to you for money for a while, then it’s definitely time to start having these conversations. The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for them to get out on their own.
Third, if you’re struggling to handle your own financial needs, then you really can’t afford to keep supporting your child. It’s kind of like an airplane where you need to secure your own oxygen mask first. Otherwise you’re heading for a situation where you might need financial support later on and your children may not have the skills to provide such help.
If you find yourself in one of these situations, here are four steps you can take to productively help your child to independence.
Step 1: Talk With Your Spouse or Partner
The very first step is to get on the same page with your spouse or partner. This may be a difficult process with multiple stops and starts, and you two will need to have a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish so that you can work as a team and send a consistent message.
Here are some things you will want to discuss:
- How supporting your child is affecting your personal financial goals.
- What a successful outcome looks like.
- Specific steps you could take to get to that outcome.
- A timeline that makes sense to you.
- Specific types of financial support you are willing and/or unwilling to provide going forward.
Step 2: Talk With Your Child
The temptation might be to take that conversation with your spouse or partner and start dictating to your child how things are going to go. But a more productive path will be to open a dialogue with your child and allow him or her to be part of the process.
“It is important to clearly communicate your desired outcome to your children,” says Scott Frank, CFP® and founder of Stone Steps Financial. “Telling them to get a job and get out of the house won’t create a harmonious relationship, which I assume most parents want.”
Think about it this way. If your goal is to help you child towards independence, then allowing them to be part of the solution is the first step. Telling them what to do is really just more of the same. But by empowering them to think through the process with you, you’re fostering the kind of creativity and self-reliance they will need once they’re out on their own
So talk to your child about why you think it’s important for them to find their independence and show them that it’s coming from a place of love and support. Then, ask for their thoughts.
- What do they feel when they think about living on their own? There may be some fear and anxiety there that you can help with.
- What does being “independent” look like to them?
- What are some specific steps they could start taking to get there?
- What would they like some help with?
- What timeline makes sense to them?
Having this conversation will not only help you understand your child’s thoughts and feelings around this topic, but it will give them ownership of the process and make a positive outcome more likely.
Step 3: Make a Plan
Now it’s time to turn all of those conversations into an actionable plan that clearly maps out next steps and can be used to hold everyone accountable.
Be very clear about what specific steps need to be taken, who is responsible for taking them, and when you expect them to be accomplished. This will ensure that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and will make it easier for all of you to work as a team.
Again, in an ideal world you would allow your child to create most of this plan for him or herself, adding your guidance only as needed. We’re much more likely to follow a plan that we’ve set ourselves than one that someone else has dictated to us.
Step 4: Stick to the Values Behind the Plan
No plan is perfect. While parts of it will go just as expected, things are going to come up that cause deadlines to be missed and make parts of the plan impractical or irrelevant.
And it will be those moments that make or break your eventual success.
When you hit a rough patch, do your best to fall back on the values behind your plan instead of trying to stick dogmatically to the original steps. Get back together with your child to reflect on why you’re doing this and what you’re hoping to accomplish, and move from there to outline a new set of next steps.
A big part of successful independence is accepting that things will almost never go exactly as planned and learning how to make adjustments as you go along. This is a perfect time to help build those skills.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Hopefully the four steps above will help you get your children out on their own as quickly and with as little fighting as possible. But if you can start a little earlier, the best solution is really to provide these skills beforehand to prevent this situation from happening at all.
The earlier you start teaching financial skills and providing opportunities for your children to make their own financial decisions, the better.
“The best option in my view is to clearly communicate your expectations long before the issue comes about,” says Frank. “Kids in college should understand that if they come home they would be expected to chip in for family expenses.”