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This Is How You Set Boundaries with Your Parents
mom and dad

This Is How You Set Boundaries with Your Parents

Unconditional love does not mean relationships must be without respect, communication, and privacy.

First off, there’s something you just have to accept: your parents are always going to see you, at least to some degree, as that little girl just learning to ride her bike, the young boy struggling to spell out C-A-T, that toddler on the trampoline, the 14-year-old first dealing with a breakup, and so on. You’ll always be their kid no matter how old you are, and they are always going to be looking for ways to guide, teach, and help you, even when you really don’t need it. Or want it, frankly. 

Let’s give moms and dads the benefit of the doubt and assume they mean well; they’re just overstepping a bit. Or a lot. And often. Either way, things will be OK, because in any family where love exists, so too can boundaries between parents and their children exist, and these mutually understood and agreed upon boundaries will only strengthen the mutual respect and affection that are foundational to familial wellbeing.

For the record, when we talk about setting up boundaries between you and your parents, we can assume you have reached adulthood or are at least quite close to it; while you’re a child living under your parents’ roof and dependent on them for most all aspects of life, it’s naïve to assume you can demand things to be arranged to your liking. You are entitled to respect and regard at any age, but you can’t make the rules when you’re a kid. 

Now, assuming you are a grownup – as wild as it can sound to define yourself as such – you sure can call some of the shots. Just do it kindly.

How to Tell You Need to Set Boundaries With Your Parents

If you dread every catch-up call with your mom, you worry when the next unexpected visit from dad will come, you fear your folks will try to re-arrange your kitchen yet again on the next visit, or you work to never let your friends or partner cross paths with your parents, or other such overt signs, then you definitely need to set up some boundaries with your folks. These will be things like establishing rules that relate to when and how you communicate, what topics are to be off-limits during conversations, expectations for visits, and so forth.

elderly man
(Photo by Tim Doerfler on Unsplash)

But the need for boundaries can be much more subtle than that. Maybe your parents always have advice to offer that, well-meaning as it may be, makes you feel they can’t accept your way of doing things – perhaps can’t accept that you’d even be capable of navigating a certain task. Maybe they always buy you things trying to be nice that end up being superfluous clutter and serve as a reminder that they seem to think you can’t make it through life on your own. These and other more subtle issues can nonetheless merit the boundary conversation.

And that is how to set boundaries with your parents, by the way: by talking about it.

First, find out where they’re coming from

To start off the boundary conversation (which never need actually feature the word “boundary,” by the way – and maybe shouldn’t, for that matter), first ask questions. Think: “Mom, why do you always rearrange the cabinets in my kitchen?” or “Dad, why don’t you ever tell me before you show up at my house?”

The answers may be: “Oh, I just think the way I arrange things is easier, dear, and I want to help” or “Well, I just get so excited to see you, I hop in the car and start driving as soon as I get the idea.”

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Both of those answers point to very well-meaning people who just happen to have habits that rub you wrong. By asking first, when you say: “I appreciate it, mom, but I really have become more comfortable with my arrangement,” or “That’s lovely, dad, but taking the extra few minutes to call and make sure I’m home and not busy would let me enjoy your visits more” they will really hear you because they were heard themselves.

Be kind, but be firm

elderly woman
(Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash)

If scenarios like those just laid out play out and there’s a meeting of the minds, great! Your done and family harmony can rebalance. If, on the other hand, the issues are a bit bigger and more insidious, or if it’s clear you were not heard when you asked for things to be reoriented in certain ways, it’s time for you to put the proverbial foot down.

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To stick with the above scenarios, the firmer sentence frames would be: “Mom, I’m asking you to please not rearrange things in my house; I would not do that to your home, and I expect the same consideration in mine,” or “Dad, I am asking you to please tell me before you arrive at my home; it’s unfair for you to regularly show up assuming I can drop what I’m doing, and going forward I won’t drop what I’m doing if you arrive unexpectedly.”

Don’t drag up the ancient past

Your parents surely screwed up a thousand times when they were raising you, because they were human beings when they were doing it, and that’s what humans did. Maybe they were too intrusive into your social life in high school, maybe they had rules that seem silly now, like never allowing closed doors until bedtime, maybe they always had to have the last word.

Those mistakes your parents made years ago can help inform how you live today and how you’ll raise your own kids should you have them, but they are not fair fodder for the conversation about the boundaries you want to establish now. At issue now are the current behaviors, and only these should be on the table, even if your childhood experiences are informing you in the background.

Remember, you have every right to draw lines for yourself

elderly couple
(Photo by Esther Ann on Unsplash)

There’s a good chance your parents are not going to be thrilled when you say you are establishing some new ground rules for the relationship; there’s a chance they will act hurt, that they will be offended, that they will call you ungrateful, even spoiled. If anything like that happens, it’s really all the more indication boundaries are needed, as they just aren’t seeing (or aren’t respecting) your needs without things spelled out.

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Even if they are hurt, offended, or resentful, this is something you are doing for you – no one else can or will draw the line for you when it comes to your parents. And in truth, rather than being put off, they should be proud: establishing boundaries with parents indicates a high level of self-actualization and self-respect, and those are traits any decent parent should be overjoyed to see in their child.

One Last Thought About Setting Boundaries With Your Parents

When it comes to parental boundaries, don’t make mountains of molehills. If the issues that bother you are more of mild annoyances than genuine grievances – maybe your mom pops in without a heads-up too often; maybe your dad offers embarrassing relationship advice in front of your friends or colleagues – you may end up doing more harm than good in raising the whole boundary conversation. 

Your well-meaning parents may be needlessly hurt by your diving into a large topic when really you could just address the specific issue. Maybe you can just directly ask your mom to text before she arrives, saying it will help you plan your days; maybe you can ask your dad to only give you advice in private, saying it will make it easier to discuss that way. Long story short, if it’s just a behavior or two at issue, don’t call it out as a larger problem or you may end up creating trouble where none really existed.


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