How to Set Boundaries With Parents: A Therapist’s Guide

Published on: 04 Feb 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
mother speaking to daughter while she looks on her phone

Sometimes our relationship with our parents evolves into an unhealthy place that can result in a dysfunctional family. This can be in large part because it’s difficult to let go, for both of you. Family boundaries can help. Understanding how to set boundaries with parents, however, can be challenging. To set healthy boundaries with anyone in your life, even your parents, you must learn to be direct and firm about your needs, while maintaining respect. 

Healthy boundaries in a relationship are important, whether it’s romantic or familial. They encourage mutual respect and foster a mature understanding between two people. Though it can seem incredibly difficult to do, establishing boundaries with your parents can help you get to a healthy, positive, productive place in your relationship. 

Keep reading to explore how setting boundaries with parents can protect your personal life and space, while helping cultivate a mutually respectful relationship with some of the most important people in your life.

What Are Examples of Boundaries to Set with Parents?

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Your parents will always be your parents, but you are no longer a child. You’re an adult now, and it’s natural — and healthy — that the dynamics of your relationship should change.

Some parents continue trying to influence their children’s life long after they’re grown. Although their over-involvement typically stems from good intentions, rarely does it benefit anyone.

In a way, it’s understandable. They love you, and they devoted many years to protecting and teaching you. Now, they worry about you being independent of them — but your needs have changed, and you’re a more independent person. They’ve done their job. 

How can you make them understand that it’s time to let go? This is where learning how to set boundaries with parents is critical.

“Setting boundaries with parents is one of the most important and most challenging relationship situations to navigate. You may have spent your whole life being expected to act, think, or feel a certain way. Once you are able to set fair and firm boundaries, your relationship with your parents has the opportunity to actually thrive.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, CDBT

Examples of boundaries 

Keep in mind, it’s not disrespectful to set boundaries with your parents. While it may seem as though it may start family drama, it’s actually healthy for them (even if they can’t see it at first). When you state your boundaries politely and then expect them to be respected, you’re helping both sides grow as people and in your relationship.

Be thoughtful before you express boundaries to your parents. Try to understand that it might be difficult for them to see your relationship evolving. Show appreciation and respect for their love and dedication.

There are endless examples of boundaries to set with parents. Some classic situations — and how you can respectfully respond — include:

  • Your parents bring you a cheeseburger meal from a local restaurant that you enjoyed before becoming vegan. 
  • You can say: “It’s so thoughtful of you to bring me food! However, remember when I mentioned that I no longer eat meat? I’m sorry, but I can’t eat it. Please bring me all the plant-based foods you care to, though!”
  • Your parents keep letting themselves into your apartment with the key you gave them for emergency-only use. They could walk in at any moment — and often do! 
  • You can say: “It’s good to see you both, but this apartment is my personal space, and I didn’t know you were planning on stopping by. It’s not a good time for me right now. Can you please give me a quick call in the future before just stopping in? That way we can choose a time that works for all of us.”
  • Your parents repeatedly give you advice on your diet, work habits, social activities, or love life…even when you don’t ask for it.
  • You can say: “Thank you for always being so concerned about me. I love you and value your advice and I really do appreciate it, but I’ve got this under control. I promise that I’ll let you know if I need your help.”

Remember to scan your thoughts before having a healthy boundary-setting conversation with your parents. Scope out what’s bothering you about their behavior and keep your words sincere, direct, and clearly defined. You want to represent your needs politely, but firmly.

5 Tips for Setting Boundaries with Your Parents

Let’s look at some expert tips about setting boundaries with parents. We understand it can feel awkward and even frightening, but when it gets really tough, remind yourself of this: it’s necessary, healthy, and natural to have boundaries in my life. 

1: Consider professional help from a therapist

Sometimes, it can be difficult to communicate your adult needs and wants to your parents if it’s the first time you’re doing it, or if you’re learning how to set boundaries with toxic parents or even friends. It can be hard to articulate and clearly define what your wants and needs truly are. The entire process can feel very intimidating.

A professional online therapist or other mental health expert can prepare you for challenging healthy boundary-setting conversations with your parents. Of course, your parents can join you in a session to discuss your needs in a group setting if you think that the additional support will help.

Studies suggest that therapists can also help you and your parents identify any toxic behaviors that are hurting your relationship long-term. So, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your parents directly, consider seeking professional guidance from a therapist.

2: Keep it positive

Keeping things positive, lighthearted even, can help you get through the conversation and begin to move forward with your new roles in place. This doesn’t have to be a knockdown, drag-out fight between you and your parents. 

Reinforcing that you love and respect them might help your parents take the news and internalize your needs without feeling threatened or hurt. Be open to the idea that it may take them some time to adjust and accept what you’re saying, but if you can steer the conversation in a way that’s not angry or argumentative, you’ll have a better chance of walking away with both parties feeling OK and hopeful about the future of the relationship.

3: Have an open conversation

It’s good and healthy for people to communicate their needs and wants, and then be respected and honored for that courage. After all, we all want to be heard and understood.

One of the best methods for communicating boundaries clearly is to simply state your desires openly and without reservation. Use I statements “I feel like you’re…” — that aren’t directing blame. Talking about emotional boundaries really doesn’t have to be combative. To accomplish your goal, try:

  • Speaking with your parents to discern what they want and need from you as your relationship changes. 
  • Asking your parents why they’re still trying to manage your life and what they think it will bring.
  • Checking in to see if your parents are feeling lonely since you moved out of the home. 
  • Inquiring about your parents’ personal life and health. 

In general, it might help to approach the conversation with a sense of being concerned about how they’re doing, too. A continual meddling in your affairs could simply be a misled way they’re expressing a desire to spend a little more time with you.

4: Don’t feel guilty

It’s perfectly normal (and OK) to have some anxiety when you’re setting boundaries with toxic parents. After all, you do love them, and you definitely don’t want to hurt them. The relationship can be taxing at times, and course-correcting can be a tough process.

However, it’s good to remember that appropriate boundaries are good, for all people, in every type of relationship. The lessons you’ll learn setting boundaries with your parents, even if they’re toxic, will carry over into so many aspects of your life and world. 

Without reasonable boundaries, or with flimsy boundaries that go unenforced, there will be continual confusion in your relationship. Feelings of anger and resentment can arise, and arguments may result. It’s so much better to express yourself clearly and firmly, without guilt. You’re doing nothing wrong. It’s OK for you to set family and friendship boundaries, and then insist your wishes are respected.

5: Stand your ground

If, after your open conversation where you express your clear limits, your parents continue their behaviors, you have choices.

  • You can back down, feel guilty about feeling weak, bite your tongue, accept their behaviors against your boundaries, and hope for the best in the future.
  • You can reinforce the boundaries you’ve set, let your parents know you’re sincere about them, and if needed, take some time away from the relationship and situation until things relax.

“Setting healthy boundaries is for your benefit AND theirs. The relationship may not always turn out the way that you dreamed, but you will be able to walk away with the confidence that you are choosing to love and respect yourself.”

Talkspace Therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, CDBT

Setting boundaries with parents can be scary, but you are strong enough to do it. Be firm, be kind, be thoughtful, and you’ll be fine. You’ll be so grateful you did it, especially when you can feel healthy and happy in your relationship, whatever that means. 

Sources:

1. Heid A, Zarit S, Fingerman K. Adult Children’s Responses to Parent “Stubbornness”. Gerontologist. 2016:gnv691. doi:10.1093/geront/gnv691. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26873033/. Accessed December 16, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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