Q&A: “My kids won’t help me!” (Episode 93)

In this episode, host Kay Coughlin answers a question that comes up a lot in families, “Why won’t my adult kids help with anything over the holidays?” Listen as Kay shares how the solution starts with setting expectations and then deciding in advance what your boundaries are. As always, no judgment, no guilt and no pressure!

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Q&A “My Kids Won’t Help Me” (Episode 93) 

You’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin. I’m a business coach and an advocate for people with family caregiver responsibilities. I’m a family caregiver for my mother, too, and I just don’t believe that we caregivers have to put ourselves last. I believe that our families, government, and society in general owe us a lot more help than we usually get. And I’m here to help you learn to speak up for yourself so you can live your own life again.

This is episode 93.

Today I’m going to keep on this theme of common holiday issues where things come up and you might need to set boundaries. A few weeks ago, I put out a call to my community for problem scenarios that they wanted me to address, and one of the questions I got was one that I hear a lot in different forms.

I’m going to paraphrase this question because I want for this person’s question to be totally anonymous. Basically what this community member, I’m going to call her Penny, what Penny wrote to me about was how she feels like her adult kids only want to spend time with her over the holidays if she, Penny, does all the work and takes care of all the expenses. Now, Penny’s mom lives with her and she isn’t in great shape, so the holidays are really an extra burden on Penny. And this year, she’s the one who really needs the extra help over the holiday.

So that was Penny’s question, but I get this question quite a lot about closest family members. So that can be parents, brothers and sisters, close aunts and uncles, and adult children, like Penny. And the question is, you know, what do I do if people just won’t help me?

So Penny sent this question to me with a request to help her a little more with boundaries. Before I do that, I’m going to take a step back here for a minute to go further back in the process of setting boundaries, and I’d like to talk about the difference between expectations and boundaries.

Now, this used to be something I talked about a lot when I did mostly leadership coaching and leadership training, and so we were talking about groups a lot and we were working in these big groups a lot. In the business coaching that I do now, it doesn’t seem to come up quite as often, but it does still come up. And I just think it’s going to be really useful for us here too because it really does come into play with family dynamics as well.

What are expectations? Well, they are the guidelines we apply, standards we believe in. Expectations can be deadlines, thoughts about how time is going to be used, thoughts about who’s going to do what, stuff like that. Those are expectations.

Expectations are things that we carry around in our head. We believe things should work this way. That’s an expectation, if we believe something should work a certain way. Sometimes we write them down, like maybe in a handbook.

We definitely can set expectations in advance, but it’s important to know that you can also change expectations as you go along. Some people tend to think that all expectations are written in concrete. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a very human way of thinking about expectations. Just be aware that if you do suggest changing an expectation, some people could be really surprised or even shocked by that, because they might think that you can’t change expectations.

Now, one of the reasons people think that, is that some expectations are laws and rules, and so there’s a very legal way of looking at a lot of expectations around us. But a lot of expectations are more like expressions, and they’re just not very legal, and they probably don’t carry a lot of weight in terms of a court of law, for example. Now, it may be that everybody thinks that certain expectations are rules and laws, but there’s a big difference between what actually is a law and what’s not a law.

Now there’s a really big problem with expectations, and this happens quite a lot, and the problem is that we don’t talk about them. And we don’t write them down for each other and we don’t share them. And so we are not clear about who expects what. And so our expectations could be totally invisible to the people around us.

So we keep our expectations to ourselves and other people keep them to themselves too. And that’s a big problem, especially when these expectations need to change.

Family traditions, I think, are one really good example of expectations that we don’t talk about, and probably we don’t even understand family expectations in the same way. This could come up if in your family, for example, the oldest son always inherits the house or something like that. I see that a lot. That’s pretty common.

For the oldest son, that’s going to be an expectation that feels pretty good, and he probably doesn’t even want to talk about it. But it might be that other people in the family don’t experience that expectation in quite the same way he does.

So let’s get back to Penny’s question about her kids. And remember, her kids only want to visit her over the holidays if she does all the work. That’s the basic scenario. So I’d say in this case, Penny has an expectation that her kids are going to pitch in with the work and with the expenses. Her kids, though, have an expectation that she’s going to do everything, which is probably how it’s always been, and there’s nothing wrong with having that expectation. It just shows us that there’s more than one side to this story, right, and that her kids have different expectations.

Setting expectations really is awkward for a lot of people. Maybe it’s awkward for most people. We just don’t do it very often. We don’t do it personally, and we don’t do it professionally, unless you are a project manager or maybe an events manager for a living, and you have to have those kinds of discussions all the time. Well, in that case, you might be more comfortable having conversations about setting expectations.

Here’s the thing. The reason this becomes such a problem is that if we don’t start clarifying our expectations, we can’t really have any accountability in our relationships. I know a lot of people who don’t want to be held accountable. They don’t want to be held accountable at work or at home, and that’s one reason that I know a lot of people who don’t want to set expectations. Because if we make those expectations clear, it means they could be held accountable, or I might also say be held responsible for knowing what those expectations are, and they don’t want that.

I also find that another reason people avoid talking about expectations is that they’re afraid they’re going to hurt somebody’s feelings if they ask for clarification about things. To throw this in here – I’ve done other podcast episodes about it, so I’m not going to dwell on it – please remember, you are not actually responsible for how somebody else feels. You literally can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings. That is not how feelings work. That’s not how humans work. Still, it really can suck to know that you’ve been the cause of awkwardness in your own family or in your own workplace.

Let’s add on top of this that if you don’t come from a culture where it’s not okay to ask for clarification, that can make it a lot harder for you. And I already said once, you know, there are people who think that once an expectation has been set, it’s been set forever. That’s probably somebody who comes from a culture where it’s not okay to ask for clarification. That could be a family culture, it could be a work culture, whatever. It just makes it more complicated.

But the thing to do no matter what the situation, is to have conversations about expectations. And I mean before and during relationships, projects and caregiving situations, and doctor appointments, and all those situations where there are any moving parts and more than one person is involved. Those are excellent candidates to have these expectations conversations.

Now, I do know that there is one thing that happens a lot because it has happened to me, is that people actually do get offended when someone asks to set expectations. I have been on the receiving end of that myself when I have asked family members to set clear expectations for me. What I’ve heard many times over the years is, “Why are you asking for this? Don’t you trust me? Why do you keep asking for all these details?”

Let me just separate out here for a second, knowing details and asking for details and trusting people are two totally different things. They can be totally unrelated things. I can ask you for information, for details, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I trust you. It just means that I need details.

So, if somebody comes back to you with that, if they say, “Why are you asking for this? Don’t you trust me?” One thing that you could say in that situation is, you could respond by saying, “I didn’t say that. I don’t trust you. I said, I’m not clear about who’s going to do what and when.”

Another thing that happens is we can end up being uncomfortable about expectations when we are not clear about it ourselves. When we’re in situations where we don’t know the details. So something about the expectation or the project or family dynamic or whatever it is, it can seem unfair or strange, or maybe we’ve asked for clarity and been told to mind our own business.

I can’t even tell you the number of times when I’ve been involved, particularly with business projects. where I could not get expectations set because somebody above me simply didn’t know the answers and couldn’t know the answers, and it made them uncomfortable. In fact, I can remember being in rooms full of high-level managers, and this is back when I worked for other people, and I would be the one in the room to say, “I don’t actually understand what’s expected of me.” And it always looked to me like some of the people in the room wanted to just duck under the table and avoid it altogether. And then there were other people who were shooting laser beams out of their eyeballs and wanted to throw their coffee cups at me to get me to stop. Once even a manager said to me, “I just don’t understand why you can’t make nice and keep your mouth shut. Why do you always have to ask so many questions?”

Now, this has also happened to me in family situations. I have been in family meetings, and particularly it comes up when it’s been about finances, healthcare, and end of life planning because of those are tough situations. I’ve been in these family meetings where people just wanted me to shut up even though I didn’t have the answers I needed, and I’ve gotten this treatment from healthcare providers. From my own family too. So this is a really common reaction.

I will tell you that I have learned not to take offense at it. I realize people are probably just feeling and acting defensive, and so I kind of hold my ground gently and graciously and say, “I still need the information.”

Now, another thing that I’ve heard a lot when I ask for clarification is people will say to me, “Why do you need to know so much? You’re just being nosy.” And in that case, I respond with, “Well, since I’m involved in this, I really need to know what’s going on and when.”

And I’ll tell you, I don’t even respond to the nosy part. Name calling like that is often just a distraction. And I think that’s usually what’s going on there. And I’ve just decided that I’m going to let people think I’m nosy if that’s what they want to. Whatever. It doesn’t make any difference to me. If they’re going to judge me about something, I might as well let them judge me about that. It’s just not a problem for me anymore if they think I’m nosy, it’s their opinion, whatever.

So what I’m really saying is you can keep asking to get expectations or get the details out of somebody else if they already know the expectations.

Asking you to be involved in something, but without giving you information you need, isn’t helpful for anybody. It is really common, unfortunately, and in some families and workplaces, I think it’s even traditional not to share these expectations. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay, especially if you are the one whose life or whose work is harder because you haven’t been given clear expectations.

Okay, so that’s what expectations are. Let’s get back to Penny now, and her question.

I would say in her case, Penny has a real opportunity here to call her kids to set these new expectations. Even if it’s not something that they want to do, they don’t want to have these expectations set. And even if it’s not something that anybody in her family has ever done before, Penny can still do it.

It is hard to be in relationships with people if you can’t get clear about who expects what and from whom they expect it. And it’s even harder to be in relationships with people when things change and you can’t have a discussion about new expectations.

So, Penny could say to her kids, “Kids, I need to do the holidays a little differently this year. I’m exhausted from taking care of grandma, and finances are a little tighter for me this year too. I really need your help with this. I would rather come to your house if that’s possible. If that’s not possible, you can cook at my house and then you can help me clean up after we eat. Let’s work out a menu and then you can do the shopping and bring that stuff to my house. Or you could even make some of it ahead of time if you want. What I’m saying is I am really worn out and I need you to know that I need your help this year.”

So, that’s the expectations conversation. By the way, don’t expect this to be just a one-way directive conversation, which is the way a lot of families handle it, because it turns out that most conversations about setting expectations are more like negotiations than directives. Directives don’t work very well for most people. They don’t work very well in families. They don’t work very well in workplaces. Yes, they’re clear. They do have that going for them, but humans just prefer to be able to negotiate. So try and look at your expectations conversations as negotiations when you can.

Then after you set expectations, you can spend time thinking about your boundary decisions. In Penny’s case, if I was working with her directly, I would have to ask her about what she thinks might happen that she wouldn’t like, and then we’d talk about making those boundary decisions in advance. She could make those just for herself, and she might communicate those to other people. She might not have to.

Besides this idea about who’s going to do the work and feed people during the holidays, there are some other common expectation discussions that might need to happen in families around the holidays. I just have a short list here.

The first one is, do you want to allow alcohol at your house or at that gathering? The next one is, who is invited to stay overnight? Where and for how long? Next, we have what time parties are going to start and end, and who’s going to bring what. We get back to that meals conversation again, who’s going to prepare and who’s going to provide. And then the last one on my list is actually a conversation to set expectations about who’s going to park where. And yes, I have heard families fight about that. So that’s another thing that’s, you know, it’s a logistical detail that you can discuss who’s going to park where and for how long.

So, once you’ve had these discussions about expectations, and remember, these might not be one and done conversations. Some of these might need to go on for a while and they might need to involve a bunch of people. Then you personally will have more information so that you can go about making some of those boundary decisions about those situations.

So, back to Penny again. She is worried that her kids are going to show up empty handed, even if they do agree to bring food. So, one boundary decision I’d ask Penny to consider is to not shop for the holiday dinner, to not even shop just in case. That way if the kids do show up without any food, she can send them right back out to the grocery store, or they can visit with her for a few hours without eating a traditional dinner.

There are a bunch of ways to handle these boundary decisions, including that Penny can decide she’s simply not going to further drain her energy and her money and her time and other resources on creating a meal that other people have agreed to provide.

Something interesting I’ve found is that between having these expectations conversations, so setting expectations and then making my own boundary decisions about what I’m going to do if something happens that I don’t like. I can be much more gracious and way less grumpy with the people around me if I have already acknowledged, even in my own head, that this meal might not happen. Even though somebody else agreed to do it, I am giving myself permission to just show up and enjoy myself, even if all of that goes wrong.

What I want you to really remember here is that even when you do have family caregiver responsibilities, or heck, even if you’re just in a family period and you don’t have caregiver responsibilities, you have a right to set expectations and have your own boundaries. Those are human rights for everybody.

Now, just like everything else I talk about on this podcast, you could be feeling a lot of emotions coming up about what I’ve been talking about. Or if you think about trying something new, like having expectations conversations or setting boundaries. And some of these emotions could be really challenging, like anxiety or doubt or shame or vulnerability. That’s all okay. You’re just human and humans have lots of emotions, particularly when we think about doing new things. You are not broken and nothing is wrong with you. All emotions are okay to feel. That’s just the truth, and I want you to remember that all emotions are okay to feel.

Now, not all emotions are okay to act on. Right. You can be angry with someone, but if you act from a place of anger, that’s probably going to be a problem. But all emotions are okay to feel.

Okay. That was a lot and that’s it for today. Please, as always, let me know if you have any questions about this or if you need any help. The best place to find me to have those conversations is going to be over in my free Boundaries Community. Thanks for being with me here today. You can find out more about all of this work at Facilitator On Fire dot net. Facilitator On Fire dot net.

If you haven’t already joined my free Boundaries community, what’s stopping you? It is the place to explore setting boundaries without judgment or guilt. There, you’re going to find just real talk about how humans really work. And you can find that community at Facilitator On Fire dot net slash Boundaries. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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