Couples Counseling Louisville

How to Set Boundaries with Adult Step Children

Published On: February 22, 2024

Whether you have been in their lives for decades or you have recently joined their family, navigating your relationship with your adult stepchildren can be incredibly complex. Although these relationships may feel challenging to navigate, it is possible to have a thriving relationship with your stepchildren. One way to promote this healthy relationship is by setting boundaries.

Boundaries are essential to creating healthy relationships with your adult stepchildren as they lay the foundation for mutual respect. Without boundaries, you and your adult stepchildren may feel either enmeshed or avoidant of one another. With boundaries, your relationship will be clearer, more respectful, and harmonious. When you inevitably run into conflicts, you will be adequately equipped to address them more effectively as you have a solid foundation.

Wondering if boundaries would be helpful for your family? Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do you feel overwhelmed by your adult stepchildren’s questions, requests, or comments?
  • Is your relationship with your partner strained due to your stepchildren’s involvement?
  • Do you often feel frustrated, left-out, or disappointed when engaging with your stepchildren? 
  • Do you feel disrespected by your stepchildren? 
  • Do you struggle communicating effectively with your stepchildren?

Tips to Setting Boundaries with Adult Step Children

If you’re wondering how to set boundaries with adult step children, here are a few tips to get the process started.

1. Communicate

Without communication, we will be setting ourselves and our adults stepchildren up for failure. We must communicate openly, respectfully, and be prepared to actively listen. I always encourage people to lead with their emotions. Rather than saying, “You always make me feel like I’m an outsider!”, you may consider saying, “I find myself feeling as a bystander in the family when I’m excluded from important conversations. I’d really like to be included.” 

When implementing boundaries, it is important to clearly lay out what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

It is also crucial to include how you will respond to unacceptable behavior. For example, if your adult stepchildren call you excessively throughout the day, you may say, “I really enjoy talking with you. Unfortunately, I have other obligations I must attend to throughout the day. I will be available to talk after 6pm, and I usually go to bed around 10pm. I won’t be available to answer phone calls outside of that time.”

Communication is sometimes challenging, as it requires a certain degree of vulnerability in order to be effective. It may feel hard to share our emotions with those around us, and it is an important step in creating healthy boundaries with adult stepchildren. If you’ve already faced a tough conversation with your adult step child, you might want to apologize to them to break the communication barrier.

2. Be Consistent and Follow Through

After communicating your boundaries and expectations with your adult stepchildren, it is important that you follow through.

If you have set a boundary around the times you will answer phone calls, for example, it is important that you do not accept phone calls outside of that window. If you are not consistent with your boundaries, they will not be respected. This creates additional challenges for you and your stepchildren whenever you attempt to implement the boundary again in the future.

When you follow through on the boundaries you put in place, you reinforce their importance and significance. It encourages those around you to take your boundaries seriously, and are less likely to press you to break them. I encourage you to repeat your boundary when you are being consistent. In the example above regarding answering your phone during particular hours, I’d recommend returning their phone call you’re within the hour expectation that you’ve set. You may begin the conversation by saying, “Hi, I noticed you called me at 10pm last night. I didn’t answer because it was later than 9pm. I’m glad we can connect now. How are you?” 

3. Be on the Same Page with your Partner

One of the reasons that navigating your relationship with your adult stepchildren is complex is because they are not your biological children.

Many stepparents struggle addressing their stepchildren for this very reason. To overcome this, it is crucial that you and your partner are on the same page. This allows your partner to support you and stand by your side, which reinforces the importance of the boundaries you are setting. I recommend checking in with your partner prior to engaging your stepchildren in a discussion about boundaries and expectations. This allows you to consider your partners needs and wants, and include them in the discussion as well. 

When initiating this conversation with your partner, I encourage you to use the communication strategies I’ve included above. These strategies are useful in any discussion you may have. You may consider expressing how you feel your relationship is impacted by your adult stepchildren, and engage in problem-solving with your partner to ensure you both feel supported. 

4. Acknowledge any Difficult Feelings that may Arise

It is not uncommon for parents to feel guilty when they begin implementing boundaries. Many parents will question if they are being too harsh, or if it would be better for their relationship if they had looser boundaries. It is important that you process these emotions as they pop-up, otherwise you may have difficulties following through on the boundaries you attempt to put in place. 

Although you may be feeling guilty, it does not mean that you are doing the wrong thing. Emotions come and go, and it is important to resist making decisions based solely on emotions. You may consider your inner values and how setting boundaries allows you to live in alignment with those values. Reminding yourself of these values whenever you’re tempted to relent on your boundaries may be helpful. 

5. Seek Professional Help when Needed 

If you are having a really hard time setting boundaries, there are resources available to make this easier. Parents find the support of a trained therapist to be very helpful as they navigate the complexities within setting boundaries with their adult stepchildren.

Some of the ways therapists may support you through this process is by providing psychoeducation on the most effective ways to approach these discussions, provide space for you to process feelings of guilt or challenges you may experience, and reinforcing your efforts during this transitional time.

Therapists also offer family or couples therapy sessions, which are great opportunities for your family to come together and process presenting concerns. Therapists are trained to ensure each individual family member feels heard, valued, and seen, which fosters healthy relationships. Many families find family therapy sessions really helpful when beginning to implement boundaries. 

Final Thoughts

Having a healthy, supportive relationship with your adult stepchildren is very possible. Setting and reinforcing healthy boundaries helps you build a relationship on trust and mutual respect. It is never too late to begin again. If you feel you’re ill-prepared to have these discussions, you may find the support of a licensed family therapist helpful.