Mental Health Holidays Stress setting boundaries
7 Boundaries Adult Children Should Consider Setting With Their Parents
Setting boundaries with your parents can improve your relationship. Therapists share practical advice for how to have these conversations.
Senior Reporter, HuffPost Life
Nov 21, 2022, 06:13 PM EST
Setting boundaries with your parents as an adult isn’t always easy. But it may be necessary for your own well-being and the health of the relationship.
Know that boundaries are for you. They’re a way to respect yourself and honor your needs. They’re not about controlling other people — in this case, your parents.
As Allison Hart , a psychological associate at Wellspace SF therapy practice, put it, boundaries “describe your behavior, what you will do or how you will be when someone crosses them.”
“A boundary is not telling someone they need to change,” she told HuffPost. “It’s changing your relationship to someone or their behavior” when their actions are compromising your wellbeing.
Adult children often worry that if they set boundaries, they might jeopardize their relationship with their parents.
“It’s a terrifying thought to lose our parents,” said Kate Stoddard , a marriage and family therapist at Wellspace SF. “However, what is lost from not trying to create a dynamic that is actually healthy? You may be living with this fear of loss, doing things out of guilt that you don’t want to do and then feeling resentful, or feeling controlled or beholden to others.”
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Setting some healthy limits can be a game-changer for your mental health and your relationship with your parents.
We all have different circumstances, histories and current relationships with our parents, so keep that in mind when thinking about what boundaries to set and how to set them.
“It’s important to put any of these conversations into the context of your life and the full circumstances at play,” therapist Jor-El Caraballo , co-founder of the mental health and wellness practice Viva , told HuffPost.
If your parents are respectful, willing to listen and receptive to feedback, boundaries can be simple, loose guidelines . Other times, they may need to be more rigid, hard limits.
“In either situation, it’s important to acknowledge what works best for you,” Caraballo said. “Consider how you can communicate your concerns in a way that is understandable to someone else, even if they don’t like what you have to say.”
We asked therapists what boundaries adult children might want to set with their parents. Below they share the ones you should consider and offer practical advice on how to have these conversations.
Boundary No. 1: No commentary about my body.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for parents to comment on their child’s body shape or size throughout their lives and into adulthood. These remarks tend to pop up more around the holidays or anytime it’s been a while since you’ve last seen each other.
It’s “most often coming from a ‘you should be skinnier or smaller’ perspective,” Caraballo said. However, some parents will also praise their child if it appears they’ve lost weight. Although these comments are often intended to be complimentary, they can still be uncomfortable to hear and even harmful — particularly for people who struggle with body image issues or disordered eating.
It’s understandable if remarks about your body get under your skin. And it’s valid to want to put a stop to them.
“You don’t have to tolerate it, no matter your size,” Caraballo said.
What to say:
You might respond, “I’m not interested in talking about my appearance,” and then change the subject to something more interesting. If you know they meant it as compliment, you can acknowledge that upfront and then say you’d still prefer your body not be a topic of conversation.
If you need to set a firmer boundary, you might say: “What you’re saying — or suggesting — right now is hurtful,” Caraballo said. “If you can’t stop talking about my body or eating habits, then I’m going to have to leave this conversation.”
Boundary No. 2: Limits on conversations about my money.
When you’re financially independent, hearing your parents’ opinions about how you handle money can be frustrating. Their concerns may come from a good place: They just want to ensure you’re financially stable. But as an adult, you shouldn’t feel obligated to heed their advice or justify your spending habits or money decisions to them.
What to say:
Try saying something like, “I understand you’re concerned for my future and want the best for me. I’m comfortable with how I’m managing my money and the plans I have for my life,” Caraballo suggested. “I don’t want to discuss this further.”
If your parents still won’t drop it, you can add: “I’ll remove myself from any further unsolicited conversations about it,” Caraballo added.
Boundary No. 3: No digs about my about career choices.
Some parents pressure their children to follow a certain professional path — one they believe is more stable, lucrative or venerable.
“Usually the boundary-pushing and unsolicited advice comes from an anxious parent wanting the best for a child,” Caraballo said. “This can produce an incredible amount of pressure and anxiety on a child, which can be difficult to deal with. It may even potentially leave them feeling never good enough or wrong for pursuing things they think fit them best.”
What to say:
Consider saying something like: “I can appreciate you are concerned about my future and my path,” Caraballo suggested. “At the same time, this is my life and I have to make decisions that work best for me. I’d appreciate your support. And if that’s not possible, then I’d appreciate your silence on the matter.”
Boundary 4: No unsolicited advice in general.
Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes said that among his clients, he sees an overarching pattern of parents offering unsolicited advice to their children across a number of topics: their jobs, relationships, parenting choices, money management and spiritual practices, to name a few.
“This may be coming from a well-meaning place, or their anxiety, or mistrust in the adult child’s abilities,” he said. “Regardless of the origin, it’s often met with annoyance or strong anger from the adult child, which is a signal of a boundary violation.”
If you wanted their guidance, you’d say so. When you get advice you didn’t ask for, it can be annoying or even hurtful.
“The adult child can feel like they’re being criticized, treated like a kid, or viewed as incompetent,” Howes said. “Interestingly enough, this often comes from the parent’s fear that they did an inadequate job of equipping their child for adulthood.”
What to say:
Howes provided a possible script for addressing this boundary: “Thank you for raising me to be a confident and responsible decision-maker, that was a wonderful gift. As a result, I’m now able to make my own choices and accept the consequences, regardless of the outcome. I won’t hold you responsible if my decision turns out poorly, I’ll just learn from my mistake. If I need some advice from you, I’ll be sure to ask for it, but if I don’t, let’s assume the advice isn’t wanted.”
Boundary No. 5: No gossiping about our family members.
Parents will sometimes talk poorly about or reveal private information about a relative or another one of their adult kids — even when that information isn’t theirs to disclose.
This is common “especially if the sibling didn’t live up to the parents’ expectations or if they are treated as the family scapegoat,” Hart said.
“If you were raised in a family where respecting your parents meant your feelings and thoughts were dismissed, where silence was expected when the parent was making a mistake or causing pain to others, or you were punished by them removing love for and connection to you when you advocated for you or your family members, then setting this boundary can feel very uncomfortable,” Hart said.
“Remember that if you don’t agree with that definition of respect, you don’t have to play by those rules anymore.”
What to say:
If you want to draw a boundary here, you could try one of Hart’s suggestions: “This conversation makes me uncomfortable and I won’t participate in it,” “I’m not going to talk about someone in the family when they aren’t here to share their point of view,” or “This is not our information to share so I’m going to excuse myself.”
If these sound like very mature things to say, it’s because they are, Hart said.
“But as adults sometimes we [still] feel like children around our parents, so even imagining saying these things sounds like we are ‘out of line,’” Hart said.
Boundary No. 6: No more trying to “fix” each other’s emotions.
This is another fundamental boundary that can apply across a number of different situations: “I am not going to try to manage your emotions or control your feelings with my behavior — nor will you do that for me,” Stoddard said.
“This means we get to allow our parents to have negative emotions and not try to fix them or take them away, or do what they want us to do to make them feel better,” she explained. “We all get to experience disappointment, anger, frustration, overwhelm and upset without having to ask someone to do something to make it go away.”
You can listen to and acknowledge your parents’ feelings, but it doesn’t mean you have to do something you don’t want to do just to make them feel better, Stoddard said.
What to say:
Stoddard offered this hypothetical scenario: Let’s say you tell your parents you aren’t flying home for the holidays this year. They might say they’re hurt by this decision and try to guilt-trip you into coming by saying: “How could you not come home to visit us for Christmas? We haven’t seen you in forever. It feels like you don’t care about us at all anymore.”
Normally, you might be so unsettled by your parents being upset with you that you’d book a flight home anyway to try to smooth things over.
But if you were trying to hold this boundary instead, you might say, “I completely hear you and understand that this decision might feel hurtful towards you,” Stoddard suggested. “The truth is that our holiday visits have been really hard on me, and it would be better for me if I didn’t visit this year. I actually do care about you both and believe this will be better for our relationship right now.”
Let’s say the reason you’re not spending the holidays with your parents is because you have plans with your partner’s family this year. But the pushback from Mom and Dad is the same: They feel like you don’t care about them and feel slighted by your decision.
Again, you might start by validating their feelings, saying you can see how this might be upsetting to them. Then you could say, “The truth is that it’s really important to me to get to know my boyfriend’s family, and it would be better for me if I did that this year,” Stoddard suggested. “I actually do care about you both and this decision has nothing to do with how much I love and care for you.”
Boundary No. 7: Don’t assume we’ll do things the way we always have.
“When a child becomes an adult and starts making their own choices, the saying, ‘but we’ve always done it that way’ no longer automatically applies,” Howes said.
Perhaps, growing up, your family took a vacation to the same spot every August. But with your limited PTO, you’d prefer to spend that time off volunteering. Or maybe you visited your parents every Sunday for dinner for years and years. And now that you have kids, you’d rather occasionally spend the day at your own house instead of driving back and forth to Grandma and Grandpa’s.
“The problem here is the assumption that things will and should stay the same as they were when they were children, and many hurt feelings can arise from this assumption,” Howes said. “The key is to have an open, honest discussion that acknowledges that circumstances have changed and we need to communicate our wants and needs going forward.”
What to say:
You could tell your parents: “I really appreciate the many good times and memories we’ve had from the past years,” Howes said. “Times have changed, though, and this relationship is now made up of adults instead of parents raising children. Let’s talk about what changes, if any, we’d like to make about how we handle holidays, vacations, advice and contact with one another to avoid stepping on each other’s toes in the future. And let’s keep this as an open discussion, because things will continue to change.”
If the above boundaries don’t apply, here are some boundary-setting tips for other situations:
Everyone’s family dynamic is different and there are other boundaries you may consider setting. Here is some general guidance you can apply to whatever situation you find yourself in.
Don’t over-explain yourself.
Hart tells her clients to consider their parents’ limitations and their history together when broaching these conversations. Some parents may be capable of a more in-depth conversation, while others may not be. In the latter case, a simple, straight-to-the-point statement might be the best course of action.
Here are a few Hart suggested to keep in your back pocket:
“I wish I was, but I’m not available.”
“No, thank you.”
“That’s not for me.”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.”
“This is what I’m able to make work and I’ve already considered other options.”
“I’ll let you know if I need help processing this.”
“I usually tell my clients to start with less information, the bare minimum, and it’s only once a parent shows that they are psychologically safe and trustworthy, they can expand if they choose to,” Hart added.
Try to be patient with your parents — within reason.
“They come from a different generation and may not even identify with the same cultural norms as you,” Caraballo said. “This can be especially true for people of color who have to navigate acculturation issues as well as generational differences.”
Try to be compassionate with your parents, if you’re able to be. It will make boundary-setting more productive, Caraballo said, “as the ultimate goal is to be able to enjoy as much time together as possible.”
Assume repair is possible.
When setting boundaries with family, it’s “good to leave a line of communication open, if the person is willing,” Stoddard said.
Even if the initial conversations don’t go well, try not to lose hope for the future of the relationship.
“I think it’s always better to assume that repair is possible than to assume you have to cut someone out of your life,” Stoddard said.
But if you need to take a step back from the relationship, that’s OK, too.
If you’ve tried work things out with your parents to no avail, then you may consider distancing yourself and lessening contact. We all have our limits and it’s OK to honor those.
“We don’t acknowledge this in the public sphere a lot, but it takes a lot for an adult child to go no-contact with their parents,” Caraballo said. “Sometimes it is necessary, and as hard as it can be to do, it’s a valid course of action when a parent continuously harms you with their words or actions.”
Consider working with a therapist.
In some cases, setting boundaries with your parents can be “very painful and very challenging,” Stoddard said. She recommends working with a therapist especially if you’re dealing with difficult family dynamics or trauma.
“Having a relationship with a family member break due to boundary-setting is a possibility and it can be traumatizing, though sometimes very necessary,” she said. “And it’s important to have a therapist help you navigate the process.”