When we talk about setting boundaries, it's usually from the perspective of protecting ourselves from job burnout or toxic friendships, where the lines we need to draw are pretty clear-cut. But setting boundaries with your parents as an adult is often a hazier process, no matter your age or how close your relationship.
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"There's a natural power imbalance in parent-child relationships," Alpana Choudhury, LMHC, founder and director of Wove Therapy in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This dynamic is meant to foster trust, guidance and a move from dependence to independence over time."
Sometimes, however, parents have trouble accepting being demoted to passenger in their child's life once they've reached adulthood and continue to demand control of the steering wheel (even if you've been driving for eons).
"Unhealthy boundaries set by our parents are often expressions of unresolved conflict or unhealed trauma," Choudhury says. When these unresolved problems are triggered by relevant stressors, parents can unintentionally project their emotional wounds onto the bond they have with their child in the form of boundary violations.
If you find you're resentful, repeating the same things over and over, avoidant or provocative with your parents, there's a good chance boundary work would be beneficial.
Why It's Important to Set Boundaries With Your Parents
Odds are, the boundary issues you have with your parents now existed in your childhood too. Because they were all you knew, you probably didn't recognize them as such at the time. "It's hard to fix something if you don't know it's broken," Choudhury says.
We typically start to take notice of these violations in early adulthood, a time when we start developing our identity outside the family unit — except our parents' penchant for overstepping is usually hardwired into the family dynamic by then. This makes it difficult to call out or correct their behavior, because they've historically held more power in the relationship.
"Children look to their parents to reflect their inherent worth back to them," Choudhury says. "Parental approval is often mistaken for value. A parent's negative reaction can feel like a judgment of worth."
"Boundary-setting is an incredibly healing self-care practice. It helps you grow past the family system you were born into and create new, conscious boundary norms for yourself and your own family."
You also may have been trained as a child to feel responsible for the emotional wellbeing of your parents and feel guilty when your life, in any way, makes them unhappy — and as a result, continue to kick the boundary-setting can further down the road.
"Guilt is a powerful emotion that can deter the boundary-setting process, especially when you continue to unconsciously believe you really are hurting your parents by considering your own needs and wants," Priscilla Chin, LCSW, a New York-based psychotherapist, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
But by putting off the initial pain of setting these necessary boundaries and fully becoming your own person, you instead prolong its stay by becoming enmeshed in unhealthy patterns that can lead to chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
"Boundary-setting is an incredibly healing self-care practice," Natalie Moore, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It helps you grow past the family system you were born into and create new, conscious boundary norms for yourself and your own family, if you choose to have one."
Healthy boundaries don't just promote the needs of the individual — they promote the needs of the relationships themselves.
"Good boundary work can sometimes help avoid rigid estrangements or protect against trauma from relational violations," Choudhury says. It can also help you feel safe, heal from abuse, love your body, avoid resentments, improve self-efficacy and parent authentically, among other perks.
Unhealthy Boundaries With Parents Come in Many Forms
While boundary issues between parent and child vary depending on the relationship, there are common themes that come up once that child reaches adulthood.
One of the more prevalent is a parent's desire to see their child reach higher heights than they have in life, which can translate into honing in on their child's academic and professional achievements to an almost-obsessive degree.
"Adult children in my practice often struggle with guilt over what they perceive is their parents' disappointment or pressure to embody the identities their parents value most," Choudhury says. "This is often due to inequities in the U.S. based on race, class and culture."
In families of first- and second-generation immigrants, there's often actual and feared loss of cultural identity that gets played out, Choudhury says. This might involve a parent inserting themselves into their adult child's decisions about dating in order to protect against cultural loss.
A Black parent may indicate a consistent preference for their child's relaxed over natural hairstyles. "Not only is that parent failing to recognize their child's own preferences, but they may be inadvertently exposing their child to racialized trauma regarding the role of hair in the dominant culture," Choudhury says.
An additional layer of emotional interference can manifest when parents are self-absorbed or narcissistic. Their attempts to meet their own ego needs through their children or see their children as extensions of themselves might cause their adult child to oscillate between feeling overly entitled and painfully insecure about themselves.
"If boundaries are poor, you'll likely notice tension and tightness in your body when you think about you parent."
Probably the toughest boundary issue to overcome is a parent who doesn't believe in therapy or isn't supportive of their adult child's addiction or eating disorder recovery.
When a parent views therapy as a taboo treatment reserved only for people with severe mental illnesses or acts as if you having an addiction or eating disorder means they were a failure as a parent, the lack of empathy and understanding can negatively affect your mental health, manifesting as internalized shame, Choudhury says.
And because adults today have required more ongoing financial support from their parents than previous generations, adult children often feel beholden to their parents. "This creates an unhealthy power dynamic in which parents can wield more power over their adult children by threatening to withhold financial support, making it difficult for them to stand their ground," Moore says.
These simmering boundary issues can be further exacerbated once you decide to have a family — you work hard to break the cycle with your own kids, only to have your parents disrespect your parenting decisions.
"Young children need consistency," Manly says. "When grandparents cross boundaries and intervene, the child becomes confused and the parent resentful."
Bottom line: Any time you feel intruded upon by your parents is a good time to assess where the conflict really originates and act accordingly.
If the thought of setting and enforcing boundaries with your parents is causing significant distress (guilt, fear, confusion, anxiety), it can be helpful to talk to a professional who may be able to hold information about your family structure and present it back to you in a fresh way.
“Ideally, you want to work with someone who’s committed to understanding the many complex systems that come with race, culture and other identifiers when doing boundary work,” Choudhury says.
How to Set Boundaries With Your Parents — and Make Them Stick
Between parents and adult children, healthy boundaries have a flow and flexibility that respects the adult child's autonomy. It might not always feel comfortable when a boundary needs to be set, but it should feel safe to do so.
The parents and adult child aren't connected by bullying, over-monitoring or hyper-dependence — the connection formed through healthy boundaries is based on self-awareness, other-awareness and mutual respect.
"This translates to a calm and open stance when interacting with each other," Choudhury says. "If boundaries are poor, you'll likely notice tension and tightness in your body when you think about them."
Acknowledging the areas of your relationship where safety, respect and honoring already exist is the best first step toward building better boundaries in the murkier areas.
"If your mother respects your boundaries by not stopping by without notice or calling too frequently, taking note of this affirms the skill of knowing what healthy boundaries look like and how they feel," Carla Marie Manly, PhD, California-based clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Once you're familiar with what already works in your relationship and how it bolsters your mental health, here's how experts recommend using that knowledge to improve other aspects of your dynamic.
1. Reinforce Existing Healthy Boundaries
When you notice areas of your relationship where healthy boundaries are at work, offer reinforcing words of appreciation. If your dad tends to respect your career decisions (even if not your relationships or health), tell him how much you appreciate that about him and how his support inspires your work.
"Noticing what works well in the realm of boundaries reduces defensiveness and sets the stage for increasing healthy boundary patterns," Manly says.
2. Notice Unhealthy Boundaries and Define Your Needs
Take a step back to carefully consider the areas of your relationship that need work — pay attention to ongoing experiences and conversations with your parents where invasiveness, disrespect, abusiveness or guilt-tripping occur.
Get hyper-specific in defining how each boundary-defying interaction makes you feel, without judgment. This step builds greater self-awareness and decreases reactivity, so you can better focus on how you'll course-correct.
"As you look at the areas where unhealthy boundaries are at work, define the specific shifts that need to be made in your dynamic to create a sense of feeling safe, respected and valued," Manly says.
3. Set One Healthy Boundary at a Time
To avoid overwhelming yourself or your parent, focus on creating a shift in one boundary issue at a time. If boundary-setting feels challenging or anxiety-inducing, start with easier boundary violation issues at first — say, guilt-tripping you when you have to reschedule your dinner date.
"Boundary-setting will get easier and more natural with practice," Manly says.
Using a realistic, growth-oriented approach helps to increase personal empowerment. As your boundary-setting muscle strengthens, you'll feel more confident in your ability to tackle tougher boundary issues with your parents.
4. Keep Your Cool
It can be helpful to ground your body before you enter into communication with a pushy parent. "Anticipating the need to defend yourself can manifest into a poor interaction," Choudhury says.
Staying grounded can also help you keep the conversation on the rails, especially if your parent tries to negotiate, goes into guilt-trip mode or busts out the very manipulation tactics causing you to set the boundary in the first place.
"If this happens, remind yourself that you're setting a boundary out of love and respect for yourself and the relationship, not to get back at your parent or teach them a lesson," Choudhury says.
5. Use “I” Statements
State your needs simply and clearly using "I" statements: "I feel disrespected when this occurs. In the future, this is what I need."
Using "I" statements ("I feel upset") versus "you" statements ("You upset me") keeps your heart-to-heart feeling-oriented and non-blaming, which increases the odds of a positive and cooperative reaction from your parents, as opposed to defensive finger-pointing or deflecting.
6. Give Yourselves Time to Adjust
Some parents may naturally appreciate and honor your new boundaries without much effort, while others may struggle when adult children begin to create changes that bring up feelings of discomfort and anxiety. Still others may overtly refuse to accept and honor the new you.
Your parents might not be disrespecting your boundaries intentionally, but emulating what they learned — or didn't learn — from their parents. "Parents often fail to recognize and heal from their own trauma," Choudhury says. It might take you breaking the cycle for them to not only recognize what's at the core of their boundary issues, but recognize them as issues at all.
Don't be surprised if your boundary changes are met with resistance at first. Strive not to engage in boundary disputes and take time-outs as needed to gain balance and clarity.
"When it comes to adult children with marginalized identities, it's extremely valuable to reflect on what traumas they've inherited from their parents, their grandparents and the generations before them," Choudhury says. "Recognizing this kind of 'baggage' can help adult children detach from the responsibility of carrying it."
7. Set Consequences
When a parent disrespects the new boundary you've set, you may need to repeat your request with a consequence noted.
If your mom knows you feel disrespected when she comments on your appearance yet does it anyway, let her know the consequence of continuing to do so — such as taking a hiatus from connecting with her for one week.
Should she cross the line again, repeat your boundary and the consequence, then make sure to follow through on the consequence. Every. Single. Time.
This is called the broken record method: "You communicate the same boundary over and over so they learn that no matter how many times they push your boundaries, they'll be met with the same verbal response and consequence you've predetermined," Chin says.
Here's how it might work:
Step 1: Take some time to reflect on, analyze and identify the common strategies your parent uses to cross your boundaries.
- Do they try to reason away your feelings? ("You shouldn't feel uncomfortable because X," or "You should feel X instead of Y because..."
- Do they guilt trip you or make you feel bad for setting boundaries? ("I guess I'll handle this alone then," or "Excuse me for wanting what's best for you.")
- Do they try to negotiate? ("Can't you just come by for half an hour?")
- Do they try to mask crossing the line by prefacing their imposing commentary with non-imposing statements? ("I don't mean to intrude, but..." or "It's your decision, it's just that...")
Step 2: Call out and reflect their method back to them.
Step 3: Express your understanding of their perspective.
Step 4: Consistently and repeatedly reiterate your boundary and let them know the consequences if they continue to overstep.
"I notice you keep trying to [Steps 1 and 2: Name and call out method]. I can understand why you want me to [Step 3: Express understanding], but I've already made it clear that [Step 4: State your boundary]. If you continue to [Step 1: Repeat method], I'll have to [Step 4: Name the consequence]."
8. Be Patient
Depending on the parent and the boundary you're setting, you may not see changes in their behavior until months later.
"If they've been using specific strategies to push your boundaries for years and maybe even decades, teaching your parents — verbally and behaviorally — that it won't work anymore probably won't happen overnight," Chin says.
Recognize your goal isn't necessarily to get your parents to accept or validate your boundary — their response isn't within your control. What is within your control is voicing your needs and following through with the consequences if your parents don't respect them. The rest is up to them.