Establishing boundaries isn't just for diplomats —every healthy relationship in adulthood should contain good personal boundaries that work for everybody; in other words, there should be clear limits as to what is considered acceptable and welcomed in the relationship, and what, well, isn't. Setting up boundaries with your parents can be an incredibly stressful act, mostly because it'll likely be fraught with some tricky I'm-not-your-baby-any-more vibes. They might be inclined to resist, say, your desire not to tell them where you're going every day, or your wish not to discuss the boyfriend they don't like. Whether your parents are toxic, oblivious, or just normal flawed adults, it's always going to feel stressful when you try to assert your right to have privacy and make your own choices to them — but there are definitely helpful ways to go forward.
Boundaries in child-parent relationships basically establish that you're an adult with your own rights, choices, preferences and capacities. That's a massive change from when you were little, when you were largely dependent on your parents for most of your needs. As a grown-up, though, no matter how much you love your parents and call on them for support, you're your own person. Setting good boundaries is particularly important if your parents keep pushing into spaces of your life where you haven't asked them to be, even if they're doing it in ways that might seem helpful: picking up groceries for you without asking, giving unsolicited opinions, turning up at your house without notice. Yeah, nope.
Even if you know that they're doing these things out of love, that doesn't mean they have the right to keep acting in ways that make you uncomfortable or unhappy. You've got to set some limits to stop this sort of stuff from happening, and make it clear what you like and find acceptable in a parent-child relationship. In fact, establishing boundaries will probably make your relationship healthier and happier. Here are five ways to make that happen.
1. Keep Things Positive
If you can keep the boundary-setting conversation positive and upbeat, that's a massive plus (and yes, you have to have a full-on conversation dedicated to this; you can't establish boundaries through implication or hints). Of course, your parents may take the fact that you don't want to come visit them constantly/allow them to discuss your finances/whatever boundary you're setting badly; that may, alas, just be a consequence of your normal relationship.
But don't make it seem like establishing the boundary is a punishment for your parents or a product of anger (even if the entire process of even having to set up explicit boundaries with them is infuriating you). Starting the conversation can be tough, and depends on your dynamic; if you want to wait until they "push" an issue before you put up your boundary, that's OK, as is making it a pre-emptive strike ("Hi, I just want to let you know that XYZ is no longer going to be a part of my life!").
If you need some help with figuring out what your boundaries are, start very small and get very literal. What have you and your parents had a fight about recently? What have they done that has upset you? Pin down the specific words or actions that have put your back up. Make a list, then go through and see if it's just normal clashing (disputes about whether or not Katy Perry can actually sing) or things that could be classified as "crossing a line": talking about something you don't want to discuss, asking you for something you can't (or don't want to) offer, demanding space or time or access that you don't wish to give. Make these things clear in your mind.
Marking the boundary in a cheerful way ("Oh, that sounds lovely! We're going to do something else, but thank you for thinking of us!") forestalls a lot of sins: your parents thinking you "didn't mean it" when you establish the boundary, because you were angry or emotional; feeling insulted by your tone; or trying to draw you into an argument. Do not get into the argument. Just keep repeating your positive script. (We'll get to that in a minute.)
2. Make It Clear What's Off-Limits
Make things as specific as you like. Your new boundary is: your parents are now not going to call you between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and if they do, the phone will not be picked up. Your new boundary is: They are not allowed to comment on your weight, your job, your partner, whatever. Make it absolutely clear what behavior will not be tolerated.
Don't give wiggle room: a precision-oriented approach here reduces the opportunity for misunderstandings by well-intentioned parents. If they're not well-intentioned, or just don't get it, they'll push back pretty hard, and you can stick to your very well-defined guns. "I will not be discussing X with you"; "you are not allowed to Y"; "we will be doing Z instead." Keep it detail-oriented and firm.
3. Give Something In Return
This is an excellent tip from Psych Central, and may help offset any panic or shock that might occur in your parents when they're presented with the boundary: give them something in return. If you don't want to talk about your weight, talk about a movie you saw instead. If you refuse to go to their place for Christmas, offer to go for dessert on Christmas Eve.
One problem with this "redirecting" approach is that you may end up offering far too much as an "apology" for establishing this one boundary, out of guilt. So have a pre-determined list of possible "gifts" you feel comfortable offering before you start the conversation — all of which are about the right size for you and don't compromise your feelings. That way, you know what you have to offer and you won't budge from it or over-egg the pudding. They get what you've put on the table; no more.
And no, they don't get all of these bonuses. If they want you there for dessert, that's what they get. They don't get that AND the next morning AND a visit in the New Year. The "gifts" are alternatives, not options that they can endlessly add on.
4. Have A Few Scripted Responses On Hand
This is particularly important if your parents have the power to completely hijack or take control of your conversations. (Some parents are like that.) Preparing a script can be a boon for anyone who is trying to establish a boundary, though. Have prepared responses on hand that make it clear you're standing your ground. "I'm sorry you feel that way!" is a common one. "That's interesting" is another.
These scripted responses are not meant to be passive-aggressive; they're sincere. But they also don't give any ground in response to guilt, threats, misery or general negativity.
5. Hold Firm
As far as boundaries go, this is the one thing you have to remember: there must always be consequences for violating them. Every time a parent brings up something you've asked them not to, or calls your house past the cut-off time you've given them, or violates a boundary in any other way, put the same consequence into effect. Leave the room, the conversation, the house; put down the phone; refuse to continue any further. You have to be consistent about this to make it clear that you're serious about the rules you've set.
Establishing a boundary is like getting anybody used to any kind of new rule; consistency of response is key, and there's no room for negotiation or error. If there is going to be negotiation, it must be your choice, and yours alone; nobody is allowed to make that decision for you and decide that you must change your boundary.
After a while of you standing your ground with your boundaries, your parents will realize that things aren't going to change, and settle down. (Or they'll keep antagonizing you, in which case I think you may want to take a look at some of our work on toxic parents.)
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