Whether emotionally, physically, or financially, it’s hard to be there for others when you feel you’re just barely staying afloat. But what about when you feel deeply compelled to help, because the person in question is your adult child? What about when resentment due to a lack of reciprocity gets the better of you?

“I feel guilty for not helping my adult child, but I feel like I am treading water, myself.” This sentiment is more common than you’d imagine. Let’s also not forget about the reverse: “I need assistance, and it hurts that my child can’t provide it now that I’m aging.”

Maintain wellbeing and preserve the relationship when you’re both in need by taking a four-pronged approach.

  • Counter feelings of guilt with reality,
  • Assess how you can bring reciprocity into your relationship,
  • Find ways to synergize for mutual success, and lastly,
  • Set financial boundaries.

1) Check your feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

This is an adult-adult relationship, and you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. Trite but true.

If your child makes you believe you’re inadequate when you’re doing your best, turn to close friends or even online peers for a reality check. Remind yourself of all that’s on your plate, and of the efforts you’ve made to support your adult child despite your personal struggles.

2) Set a standard of reciprocity.

Adult-adult relationships require reciprocity to function without resentment. This doesn’t mean you should meticulously account for favors, tit-for-tat. Rather, this reciprocity should be present at a high level in the relationship. 

Maybe your adult child is struggling so much with their own life, that they can’t get organized to help you manage your changing medical situation. But maybe when you visit to help them with chores, they regale you with their favorite stories from their childhood, which brings you great joy. That’s a form of reciprocity.

If you don’t feel like your helping relationship with your child is reciprocal, do some brainstorming before approaching them with your concern.

Instead of confronting them, first try hinting at, encouraging, or downright inviting forms of support that might be within your adult child’s limitations–and that would make you feel mutually cared for.

If you feel like you’re not helping them enough, feel free to start a conversation about the needs they think you could help them meet.

3) Find opportunities to synergize.

Take out a piece of paper and, with your adult child, try the following exercise.

First, draw a line down the middle of the page. Then divide those two columns in half with a horizontal line across the page. Write one of your names at the top of each column.

The top two boxes are for each of your struggles. What tasks is each of you struggling with lately? In what areas do you wish you had more help from your parent/child? What are your personal pain points in the helping relationship?

The bottom two boxes are for each of your strengths. What responsibilities give you no trouble in daily life? Is there a task (or a few!) that one of you finds burdensome, while the other finds it relatively easy or even relaxing? Does a certain time of day bring energy for one of you and fatigue for the other?

Presumably you could get “more for your mileage” by teaming up and strategizing around each others’ lulls and challenges. Synergy can help both you and your adult child feel more supported, less drained, and less strained with each other.

4) Set financial boundaries.

Relationships between parents and adult children almost always require financial boundaries, because of the way the relationship has changed over time. Under 18, parents truly are financially responsible for their kids in every sense of the word. It helps a child feel secure in the world to know that someone else has their needs covered.

Of course, having “backup” also feels great as an adult, but it’s no longer something we’re entitled to–by either law or moral imperative.

Yes, you want to help your child. No, you don’t want them to be in a bind. But if helping them out of a bind means putting yourself into one…that’s not a recipe for a mutually loving relationship.

Help financially as you can, but setting financial expectations and boundaries serves two purposes. First, it’s a way to guide your child to further independence and help them build self-sufficient habits. Second, clear financial boundaries prevent any undue resentment from brewing in your relationship (assuming your child can accept that you are both adults with your own needs to look out for).

Reciprocity and communication

Again, the concept of mutuality and reciprocity arises. Consider creating an agreement that provides for both of your needs in financial emergencies–how much each of you would be able to help in a pinch, or what defines a “pinch” or emergency in the first place.

How are you both going to avoid getting to that point? What kinds of emergency financial situations can you both anticipate and proactively avoid?

Make sure to also clarify each of your expectations regarding repayment, “strings” attached to financial assistance, etc.

The takeaway?

We’re all struggling nowadays, and it truly can feel hard to give or receive the support you need with anyone–much less with your adult child, with whom you likely have a complex and deeply caring relationship. As long as you come from a place of mutual understanding and openness, it’s hard to go wrong in expressing your wish for a more mutually supportive relationship.