Ending Baby Boomer Burnout :
How to Stop Parenting Our Adult Children and Start Reclaiming Our Own Lives

Holli Kenley

“Both my 23 year old daughter and my 29 year old son have moved back home. I find myself doing more for them than for myself. I am exhausted, but they seem to need me.”
“My 25 year old son who graduated from college is now living with us. He says he can’t find work anywhere, but he doesn’t even try. While he stays out partying all night and sleeping all day, I am working twice as hard to keep the bills paid! But, I just can’t kick him out!”
“My husband and I feel like such failures. We gave our children a good home, paid for a great education, and supported them through the good times and bad. Now, they don’t seem to have much direction or drive to find out what they want. Although we feel tired and frustrated, we also feel like it is our fault.”
“When my friends tell me how well their grown children are doing, I just cringe. In fact, I really don’t want to hear it. As long as my 32 year old and 28 year old still need my help, I will give it to them. As they say, ‘you never stop being a parent.’ “

Today, Baby Boomers find themselves in a difficult place. We have been, for the most part, excellent parents. Our children had the benefit of hard working parent/s, a good education, varying degrees of material possessions, and an over indulgence in social, athletic, as well as artistic/creative activities. We have sacrificed for our children and we would do it again in a heartbeat. However, we are starting to wonder when our children are going to launch into the adult world or if they ever will? And, in the quiet recesses of our minds and in the aches of our bones and bodies, we know we are burning out. How, then, do we stop parenting our adult children and start reclaiming our own lives?

Although changing any family pattern or dynamic is not easy, it can be done. It means moving slowly, thoughtfully, and consistently. It means taking time for reflection and communication. It means being honest with ourselves and our adult children. It means being willing to embrace several new ideas or ways of thinking as well as modifying some behaviors. Mostly, it means not wanting to feel the pain, disappointment, and failure that cut at our core and hurt us so deeply when we witness what our adult children are doing or not doing.
Let’s take a look at these strategies:

• Acknowledge the idea that what we are doing is not working.
• Embrace the idea that although we are part of the problem, we are not the sole problem.
• Forgive ourselves.
• Release our adult children.
• Set, communicate, and maintain healthy boundaries.
• Reclaim our lives.

Acknowledge the idea that what we are doing is not working.
As Baby Boomers, most of us are outcome driven; we want to see results. Therefore we work hard, and if it isn’t successful, we work even harder. This strategy serves us well in most aspects of life. However, with our adult children, there is a major factor over which we have no control – free will. No matter how hard we try to manage, change, orchestrate, or direct our children’s lives, they ultimately will do what they want to do or don’t want to do. As their parents, we must acknowledge that although there have probably been successes along the way, what we have been doing for some time is not working and it won’t work. We need to alter our mindset. If we want different results, we must change what we are doing.

Embrace the idea that although we are part of the problem, we are not the sole problem.
Because Baby Boomers are so driven and purposeful, we are also really good at accepting fault. “Oh, it didn’t work out? I must have made an error. I’ll go back and fix it. No problem.” Again, this is an admirable quality and one that typically creates positive outcomes. However, when we take on the blame and the guilt for our adult children’s choices, we remain stuck and so do they. We must let go of the idea that we are solely responsible because it is simply not true. Did we do everything right, no. Did we do the best we knew how at the time, yes. Are there things we would do over if we could, probably. Are there other factors such as peer association, societal pressures, free will, etc. that play into this, absolutely. We, as Baby Boomer parents, are one significant piece of the pie, but we are not the only piece. If we truly had that much influence, power, and control over our adult children, we wouldn’t be where we are. Therefore, let go of the idea that you are the sole problem. Above all, let it go now.
Forgive ourselves.
This next strategy relates back to the previous step. However, it is important in its own right. Because Baby Boomers are so goal oriented and because our adult children are living examples of our lack of success, it is a difficult reality to face each day. If we are going to move forward and make some real changes in our behaviors, we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, we will fall back into the trap of navigating from a position of guilt, embarrassment, shame, and regret. In ways that are meaningful and comfortable, and as often as needed, forgive yourself. Yes, we are Baby Boomers, ready to take on and burst through any challenge ahead of us. But, we are not perfect. There are no perfect parents, not even us.

Release our adult children.
Because Baby Boomers have worked so hard and because we enjoy seeing the tangible evidence of our successes, many of us have placed much of our inner worth in external sources. For example, just look around at the homes, cars, play toys, clothes, etc. that we have accumulated. This is understandable. We worked hard; we earned it. Those things are symbols of our accomplishments and we have every right to be proud. When they break down or get old, we fix them, get rid of them, or replace them. Our worth remains in tack. However, with our adult children, we find ourselves in a painful place. We have worked hard and sacrificed for them physically, emotionally, financially. Unfortunately, much like our material tokens of our success, we have allowed our investment into our adult children to define us and determine our worth. When their lives start to fall apart or break down, so do we. Then, we pick ourselves up and then them; and we start the cycle over again. How do we stop this?
We must release our adult children. We must let them go. We must let them become independent. This is critical. Think back for a moment about when we taught our children certain tasks: tying a shoe, riding a bike, or driving a car. We were there to instruct, protect, and encourage; and then we let go. If we hadn’t, can you imagine the outcome? We would still be holding onto the back of bicycle seat running behind our children! The same concept works with them as adults. The longer we hold on, keep rescuing, continue leading, taking charge and making their decisions, we actually prevent them from becoming responsible independent adults and we reinforce their dependency on us. And, we feel worse and worse about ourselves and our lack of success!
We must start by making a mental shift in our thinking. Right now. Say it. “We release our adult children and we stop managing their lives.” Yes, they may flounder, fall, or even crash. They will succeed or they will fail, or both. But, it will be our adult children who decide that; not us. And no matter what happens, we can be proud that we gave them the opportunity to grow, mature, and become independent human beings. By letting go of the back of the bicycle seat, we gave our children that chance. Let’s do it again; let’s stand back and let them travel their paths. And, let’s let go of how we feel or perceive ourselves in the process. It isn’t about our adult children defining us; it’s about them finding their way. It isn’t about our adult children determining our worth; it’s about them discovering their own.

Set, communicate, and maintain healthy boundaries.
Once we have the mindset that we are releasing our adult children to manage their own lives and that we must do this for their wellbeing and ours, we can start setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. We must move forward in a position of strength and confidence; vacillating or weakening attitudes do not work when changing behaviors. Also, depending how dependent our children have become on us will determine the scope, timing, and degree of change needed. Thus, we are going to look at a few guidelines for establishing healthy boundaries.
1. Communicate to our adult children that we are going to stop parenting them. Explain what this means and why we are doing this. Expect resistance. Remain strong.
2. Move at your own pace, but remain consistent and constant.
3. Don’t change too much too fast, unless you’re ready to back it up!
4. Make a list of your parenting behaviors that must change.
5. Choose one that makes sense with your situation. Communicate that change to your adult child. Set parameters and clear guidelines. Expect questions, resistance, and anger. Remain calm and strong.
6. Set a target date/s to review and revisit the task at hand. Impose consequences where needed. Make adjustments and compromises if healthy and warranted.
7. Keep communicating.
8. Remind yourself of your goal. Remember where you have been. Reward yourself along the way.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples and how they might be tackled. One of the most common problems with Baby Boomers is having their adult children live at home with no job and no motivation to get one or to move out. First, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to contribute to their comfort level of maintaining this behavior. Do we give them money? Do we do their laundry? Do we pay their bills? Do we cook and clean for them? One general question could be, what are we doing for them that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves? Don’t get soft. Stay tough.
Choose a parenting behavior you are going to change and communicate it to your adult child. For example, you want to stop giving money to your adult child. So, you decide to limit the money to a certain weekly amount for a period of time. Then, at a designated time, the money will stop completely. Communicate the details clearly to your adult child. Expect excuses and resistance. Stay strong. When in doubt, remember the bicycle seat! When there are successes, reward yourself and move to another goal. If you experience relapses or weakened boundaries, get refocused and start the process again. Don’t give up!
Sometimes, we are able to tackle more than one objective at a time. Several years ago, I had a client who was worn out from lending money to her adult children and their spouses, who was tired of always being the weekend and holiday baby-sitter for her grandchildren, and who was exhausted after providing short-term and long term housing when her adult children needed a place to stay. After much thought and preparation, she set, communicated and maintained boundaries for herself which radically changed her life. She put an end to being a bank, limited baby-sitting to her times and terms, and moved to a smaller house (with clear expectations on visitation). This remarkable woman not only let go of the bicycle seat, she gave it quite a shove! Within a short period of time, her adult children started acting like adults and living independently.
Some situations are much more complex and complicated. There are parents whose adult children are harmful to themselves, the family, and the home environment. Really tough decisions must be made. Sometimes, it means forcibly removing an adult child from the home. Sometimes, it means providing avenues for intervention, medical and/or mental health care, or letting them go and letting them choose to fail and to fall, and maybe even to fly. It is often in cases such as these that boundary setting is often about protecting the parents’ welfare and wellbeing, as well as other children in the home. This is not an easy task and sometimes the guidance or counsel of a professional is needed. Whatever support we need in moving forward, we must acknowledge that help and embrace it. But, we must move forward.

Reclaim our lives.
Baby Boomers are really good at assessing, evaluating, and critiquing almost anyone or anything else. And, we are experts at figuring out what someone else should do. When we stop parenting our adult children, we will be left with a void. This is to be expected. We need to spend some time assessing, evaluating, and critiquing our own lives and find out how to fill that void in healthy, fun, and meaningful ways. We need to focus our energy on ourselves and find out where we need to reconnect. We need to realize that we have most likely lived over half our lives with most of those years spent parenting. We now have the opportunity to live the remainder as we so choose. We certainly have earned it; it is up to us to act as though we deserve it.
Make a list, brainstorm with your partner, or journal about it; do whatever feels energizing. But start planning and doing the activities or engaging in the facets of your life that bring you meaning, purpose, and integrity. Get selfish and get refocused. Most of all, get going.

In conclusion, it is true that Baby Boomers will never stop being parents, but we must stop the act of parenting. Let’s leave our children with the gifts of responsibility, accountability, and individuality. Let our legacy be that our adult children will know how to ride down that bumpy road of life without our hands grasping onto the backs of their bicycle seats.

Author's Bio: 

Holli Kenley holds a Masters Degree in Psychology and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California. While interning in a women’s shelter, Holli first became interested in the treatment of abuse, trauma, addiction, grief/loss and betrayal. Holli went on to work in a large faith-based counseling center before moving into private practice where she continued treating individuals, couples, and families with a range of issues and disorders. Holli is the author of two books: Breaking Through Betrayal: And Recovering The Peace Within (January 2010 – Loving Healing Press) and The PMS Puzzle (1993 – Joy Publishing