Whenever the topic of setting boundaries with parents comes up, I always think of the Will Smith song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The song can offer some lightheartedness to an often deeply painful topic.
In all seriousness, as adults we can deal with much deeper issues with our parents than just a misunderstanding of the adolescent desire to fit in and experience independence as reflected in this song. Here’s a list of some of the more common difficulties I hear about from adults in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s:
- My parents want to talk to me or see me more often than I’d like
- My parents still try to tell me what life choices I can and can’t make
- My parents think they still need to protect me from the world
- I can’t express my concerns to my parents because it will upset them
- My parents don’t approve of my relationship choices
- My parents can’t handle our differing political/religious views
- My parents need me to be their friend (because they are otherwise isolated)
- My parents ask me for inappropriate financial support
- My parents expect me to help them with more tasks than I’m willing or able to
- My parents expect me to help them with their relationship
- I don’t know what to talk to my parents about (except the weather and what I’m eating)
Here are some tips to help you address some of these common complaints:
1. Identify what areas are problematic
What are the things about your relationship with your parent(s) that are rubbing you the wrong way? Sometimes we’re not always sure even within ourselves what’s bothering us, except that we know we feel bothered. What’s causing that? Thinking out loud to yourself, journaling, or talking to a trusted friend or counselor can be helpful tools to identify what exactly is bugging you.
2. Identify unhealthy dynamics around the problem
Is there anything about the way you or your parents are interacting with this problem that’s unhealthy? It’s important to include yourself in this questioning as often times these kinds of issues can be a two-way street. If you’re not sure how to begin answering this question, you may be helped by checking if any of Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are present in your relationship with your parents. Though Gottman’s tools are geared towards couples, they can play out and damage any relationship. The four horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Here is a quick video outlining the four horsemen of the apocalypse:
3. Identify what changes to the relationship would be helpful
Once you’ve identified problem areas and unhealthy relationship dynamics, you now have a few pieces to the puzzle. See if there’s any changes that you can naturally identify as helpful. For example, let’s imagine that in step one you identified a problem with your mom attempting to tell you what life choices you can and can’t make. In step two, you noticed your mom tends to utilize criticism and you react with defensiveness followed by stonewalling. Just by identifying these core dynamics, a door opens up for an array of possible solutions:
- You may be helped by your mom being more compassionate in how she voices her concerns such that she’s not criticizing your character.
- You might be able to ask for space and come back to the conversation later when you’re ready.
- You could acknowledge your life choices as your responsibility rather than growing defensive.
4. Reflect on any attempts you’ve made to address the issue in the past
Is this something you’ve attempted to address before? Consider what you’ve already tried. What didn’t work? Were there any parts of what you tried that were helpful? Were any of the Four Horsemen present in your prior attempts to address the issue?
It’s important to reflect on past attempts in order to avoid any re-runs of unhelpful interactions. If there is a relative amount of safety in your relationship with your parent(s), you may be bold to simply try attempting some of the ideas from step 3.
If you’ve made attempts in the past and your parents reacted unsafely, this is important feedback to consider before making any future attempts. Consider whether there’s any changes you can make to the environment to foster greater safety: having a sibling, aunt, or loved one present to help diffuse tension; having a conversation over the phone rather than in person; or setting some ground rules before having the conversation (e.g., “I would like to bring up something sensitive, but I will step away from the conversation if I am criticized”).
It’s possible you’ve already made every reasonable healthy effort to address this issue in the past and your parents have reacted in an unsafe manner. Or maybe you know their character well enough to judge that this may not be a safe conversation to step into. If this is true for you, then skip to step 6.
5. Prepare for the conversation
If you’re nervous about broaching the issue with your parents, feel free to practice the conversation in advance. Check in with someone you trust to help you identify your fears and concerns and to practice interacting together. You can even role-play the interaction while you coach your friend to react how you fear your parents might react, and ask them for gentle feedback regarding how you might make helpful changes to your tone of voice, body language, and phrasing.
When you’re ready, have the conversation. If you’re not ready, it’s okay! Take your time – it’s not a race.
6. Know your limits
If after step 4 you sense that there isn’t enough safety in the relationship to address the issue through a conversation, or after step 5 attempts at having a conversation have not succeeded in getting the response you were needing or hoping for, it’s important to learn to release the parts of this relationship dynamic that are not in your power to change.
You may need to then consider ways to set limits and boundaries without involving your parents. For example, if your issue is that your parents can’t accept your differing political worldview, you may simply need to avoid that topic. If the topic comes up, it’s your responsibility to make clear that you’re not willing to broach that conversation.
7. If needed, seek professional help
This post addresses some common issues that come up in adults’ relationships with their parents. I haven’t addressed more complicated relationship dynamics like codependence or abuse. If you are unsure whether you are caught up in a more dangerously unhealthy relationship dynamic with your parents, I encourage you to consider seeking the help of a professional counselor first before making any changes in your relationship.
Information about the Four Horsemen The Gottman Institute
“10 Tips to Build Boundaries with Your Mom” Adapted from Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries and How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding
As a final disclaimer, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Until next time, happy boundary-setting!