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  • Writer's pictureRon Gallen

Parents: Setting and Keeping Financial Boundaries

Most of the parents I have worked with who are struggling to set and keep reasonable financial limits with their children are in fairly serious circumstances. That said, the solutions for less challenging, more common situations, are very much along the same lines. A good many of the parents I see are referred to me by psychotherapists, trust and estate specialists, psychiatrists, treatment centers and the like. In general their situation is a child out of control in some way. And the parents either can't set boundaries or, once set, have real trouble sticking with them. Sometimes they have been see-sawing between cutting the child off financially when they can't take it anymore and enabling them once the smoke clears again.

Their child may be struggling with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes they are acting out, spending money, demanding money, or getting into extreme trouble. My job is frequently to help parents figure out how to help their child, without indulging or depriving them. That is easier said than done .Especially when you have other tough problems to deal with, like getting them the treatment and help they need at the very same time. By definition, you will come right up against the weakest links in your psychic chain. What do you do when your child threatens to commit suicide if you don't give the money he is demanding? Is it worth that chance in order to withhold money from someone who is out of control? Tough call. What if it's to pay a loan shark or drug dealer? What if it's to keep going to the club or to buy stuff to keep up with some fast friends?

Many parents have asked me when and how it is appropriate to use money as leverage to get their child into rehab, or to get them the therapy they need, or to stop some dangerous acting out. There's no one answer, but I generally feel that if money is the only lever big enough to get their child what amounts to life-saving help, then you probably do it. It's generally not the first thing you try. But many eventually get there.

I guess the most common question I get from parents is how much is the right amount to give to their child to support them when they need it. Should they have a regular allowance? Should their allowance be generous or modest? How do I instill in them the value of money when they don't seem to have any real values? Should how much I give depend on some certain actions, like a job search?

How do I take on board the lifestyle my kids grew up with when I am deciding? Do I give enough for them to keep living the way they have? Do I give along the lines of average kids their age? I had two young adult men at the same time who came from similar financial backgrounds. Their parents could both afford to give at the same levels. But one family had a standard they went by that demanded to them their son live modestly while he was getting on his feet, in a walk-up apartment with $100/week for all other expenses. The other family bought their son a million dollar apartment to live in while he studied. Is one right and one wrong? Hard to say. Each family is different, each situation very different indeed.

It's also difficult in the extreme to get everyone to agree. What if the parents are divorced? What if they just disagree strongly? One may not be interested in boundaries at all, one needs them so very badly. Things get complicated in hurry when family financial advisors get into the mix. What do you do when there is a trust for the child? What if you need the trustee to agree to a course of action? These are some things that can become touchy as hell.

What about when mental health issues mean the child's needs may be ongoing? Do I pay for treatment but not other things?

These are the questions, and they need some serious consideration. But they are the practical, financial, considerations. What about the emotional ones? What do you do when your own psychic needs and your own powerful natural responses get in the way of doing what you know is right? How do you summon the resolve to stay your course when everything in you is screaming to give in again?

My experience is, unless you address these things, develop the resolve to stick to your guns, and get the help everyone needs (the parents may be just as needing of support as the child), your chances of success become small indeed.

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