How To Tell Your Mom You Need Space: A 5-Step Guide To Setting Adult Boundaries
Just because you've moved out of the house or are an adult, that doesn't mean your relationship with your parents and family is going to suddenly become easy or simple. In fact, in our 20s especially, it becomes difficult to define what our adult relationship with our family will be once we're out of the house and out of our parents' pockets. Figuring that out isn't always pretty, but don't worry — we've got you covered. Michael Y. Simon, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, educator, and author is here to answer your family advice questions.
Now, on to this week’s question:
Q: My mom and I have always been really close. Like, talk every-other-day close. But lately, I'm feeling like I need some space to become my own person. She doesn't seem to get the hint when I don't return her calls, and even seems hurt, which makes me feel guilty. How do I establish a different sort of relationship with her without making her feel rejected? And how do I even know what the appropriate boundaries are now that I'm in my 20s?
A: I love your question because the thing that rings clearest is your wish to keep a close, good relationship with your mom. It's totally normal to want to talk less with your parents now — and possibly well into your mid-to-late 20s. But... wait for it: There usually isn't a way to redefine a relationship without feeling some guilt and without both of you having feelings you'd probably rather not have.
Okay, now that we have the shittiest part of the answer out of the way, I can get to the details, which will help guide you through this conversation and its potential aftermath.
step 1: understand Why you need the space
At this time in your life especially, you need autonomy — to feel you're really the author of your own life. During these years, parents often misunderstand the push for autonomy as a push for separation. It's not. You're not trying to leave your mom behind. You're trying to relate to her more on an "adult to adult" basis, and that requires you to feel more confident and solid in your own identity before you take in too much of your mom's thoughts and opinions on your life.
So that's the paradox: In order to become closer to your mom (eventually), you need more distance (now).
Your mom may feel a bit rejected by your asking for space, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do. Asserting what you need to do, even if someone you love isn't quite on board, is one of the hardest and most necessary things about becoming an adult.
You wrote that you and mom have always been really close. Changing something that's always been one way is difficult, even if its right. It means dealing with the loss of how things used to be. It means giving reassurance to your mom (and yourself) that you're doing the best you can, even if you might fall back into old, familiar patterns on your way to a new relationship. But parents and twentysomething kids must go through this dance of establishing a more adult relationship.
step 2: figure out what boundaries you need
I could give you a listicle of the “7 Most Appropriate Parent Boundaries,” but the problem is, that list would only be meaningful to you if I designed it in relation to your family's specific history. Since I can't do that, I'm going with option two: I can give you a bunch of questions for you to ask yourself, so that the answers are really your own. (That's what autonomy is all about, anyway.)
You wrote that you've talked every other day. About what? Does it feel real to you? Can you tell her about everything, including the hard, embarrassing stuff? If you answered "yes," to those questions, then I'm betting your mom is going to want what's best for you in the long run, even if it means giving you some more distance in the relationship for a while.
Next, some boundaries to consider: How often will we talk? What will we talk about? How much time will we spend together? What will we do when we are together? What kind of physical contact will we have?
Try not to jump to extremes. If you talk every other day right now, you might ask mom to try out talking once a week. Try something and then see how panicked, worried, or guilty you feel. Having a regular phone call, say, every Sunday afternoon, might give you and your mom some predictability in the middle of the change.
Step 3: ...and then figure out the consequences for breaking them
Setting a boundary usually doesn't work unless there is a consequence along with the boundary. In order to establish a healthy boundary, you need to tell your mom both a clear request and a statement about what you'll do if your boundary isn't respected or recognized.
In other words, if you ask that she not call you more than three times a week, then there needs to be a consequence for not respecting that boundary — like no talking that week altogether. (I didn't say this was going to be easy, did I?)
The more subtle work of setting boundaries has to do with figuring out why you're setting the boundary and what you're trying to achieve in the first place. It might be that you don't actually mind talking fairly regularly, but that mom's questions about what you're doing are starting to feel intrusive, or are making you feel like you're still 15 years old. In that case, setting a boundary of talking less often isn't necessarily going to address the issue at hand.
step 4: have the talk
Two things that soften the blow: Seeing each other's faces, and a hug.
Now's the time for you to use your words. You can say: “Mom, I love you and I'm thinking you're gonna be pissed, but I feel like I need to talk less. You didn't do anything wrong. In fact, its because you did a lot right. I want to see what my life's about now without checking in with you as much.” That's adult to adult.
Can you let your mom know that it's not about pushing her away, but about drawing closer to your own strong sense of yourself? If your mom isn't used to long pauses between connecting, and being loved with a “see ya when I see ya” attitude, she might worry about what these changes will mean long-term. You can explain that it isn't personal, but that you feel like in order to feel more confident in your own life, you might need to be a bit less in touch with her, or to have more control over when you're in touch. You can renegotiate the unspoken boundaries, e.g., that you'll call back within 48 hours, or that you'll be talking every other day.
Tell her a few times what you need, and give a realistic time frame for establishing new boundaries. Things won't change overnight, but they should begin to change over the course of a few months.
If you've moved away from home and can't talk in person, you might want to consider taking a pen and handwriting a letter to mom, explaining your thinking. I know it makes for more of a big deal, but it also says something powerful to a person who grew up with hand-written letters. Draw a little picture on the envelope, like you did when you were at camp. If this doesn't make your mom smile and cry, I don't know what will.
step 5: dealing with THE AFTERMATH
If you and your mom are getting into more conflict and she keeps violating the boundaries, you both might need help from a trusted person in your life. Sometimes we can hear things from others that we can't hear from someone really close to us. And you can always consider getting help from one of us therapist-types. We seem to be everywhere these days.
Another note: You didn't say whether your mom was a single parent, or whether she's struggling with an illness, or whether you were the last (or only) child to leave home. All of those things make you needing more autonomy a bit more threatening for mom, and a bit scarier to you. Be patient with that.
You might even find that you regret having told her that you'd rather talk less frequently or regularly. You might even miss the comfort of talking regularly, even though you know deep down you need to do what you're doing. You might feel even more like a kid, as you struggle to find your own boundaries.
Feeling pretty lost is just the right place to be. Talk to your close friends as you make these moves. Compare notes. Realize most of your friends are going through the same thing (or should be). Try not to beat yourself up too much. There's a different, deeper kind of love waiting for you and mom on the other side of all this figuring stuff out. And if you do the work now, you'll get there.
Disclaimer: The content in this column is offered for informational and educational purposes only, and is not intended in any way to be a substitute for psychological or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The content in this column is intended to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and professionally trained and licensed mental health professional.