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7 Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries with Your Parents

By Stacey Feintuch
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
January 29, 2024

Your parents may drop by for yet another unannounced visit, or guilt-trip you if you don’t attend every family get-together. Maybe one of your parents is keen on setting you up with a friend’s son or daughter again, despite your disinterest. Sound familiar? Even though you’ve built your own life, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your parents won’t sometimes act as if you’re still a child who’s not ready to live life on their own terms.

And if the relationship is causing you stress, it may be time to set some healthy boundaries.

Boundaries aren’t about keeping your parents or anyone else at arm’s length—rather, boundaries are crucial for healthy relationships. They help you tell the other person what you want and need so that you can keep the relationship happy and ongoing.

“Setting a boundary may feel uncomfortable at first, but it is a healthy way to let others know what they can expect from you … in order to prevent conflict and reduce hurt feelings,” says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a licensed professional counselor based in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Keep in mind, the boundaries you establish with your parents depend on your relationship and your needs. Cultural factors may come into play, too. The more awareness you have about why your relationship is the way it is, the easier it may be to create the boundaries that work for you.

If you’re feeling like your relationship with a parent could benefit from some boundaries, consider these tips that may help you set them successfully.

1. Give It Careful Consideration

You can’t express what you want and need unless you have a clear idea yourself of what that is. Spend some time thinking about what your boundaries are so that you can communicate them clearly. “Figure out what you want first; then let the others know how you want to be treated,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist in Long Beach, California.

When thinking about your boundaries, try to be realistic. “Set up boundaries you know you can consistently keep,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York state. “Don't make huge drastic changes to the relationship. Look for small wins that will add up to big success over time.”

For instance, imagine that a parent drops by before you’ve even made your coffee on a holiday morning. They were invited over, but this is just too early! As a small win, you could suggest shifting their visit times in the future (starting at 10 a.m. versus 6 a.m., for example). Alternatively, you could say you’ve reached your limit with this behavior and ban visits altogether—a drastic change.

It may be an easier boundary for your parents to respect if you offer clear and consistent expectations. A drastic change can sometimes cause more damage than good, Hokemeyer says. So start small and decide what it is you’re really hoping for.

2. Be Appreciative and Grateful

Once you know what your boundaries are, find a compassionate way to share them with your parents.

Before you tell your parents what needs to change, tell them how much you appreciate all they do and all they’ve done in the past, if that’s appropriate and applicable. Explain to them that you value their role and presence in your life, and express gratitude for any well-intentioned thoughts and gestures. “If they know you appreciate them, they’ll have an easier time backing off and being more respectful,” Tessina says.

You’ll want to enforce your boundaries peacefully, too. For example, perhaps your parents dropped off a meat-heavy meal, even though you’ve told them several times that you’re a vegan now. Say something that shows your gratitude for the gift while acknowledging that it also doesn't work for you. For example: “That was so thoughtful for you to bring this over. I know you’re busy and have a lot on your mind, so you’ve probably forgotten that I’m now a vegan and can’t eat it.”

Expressing your feelings without anger can showcase your maturity. “This will go a long way in creating goodwill, and it will show your parents how much you’ve grown as a person,” says Tess Brigham, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. “You want them to see you as an adult. And seeing your parents as adult human beings with their own wants and needs will show them how much you’ve matured.”

3. Stay Clear and Specific

Aim to be specific in your communication, too. If you’re vague, confusing, or otherwise unclear, the other person may ignore what you want, Tessina says.

Don’t feel like you must explain why you act or feel the way you do when talking about your boundaries. “Just tell them what you want,” Brigham says. “It may feel uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean you need to rethink your boundaries.” Saying exactly what you want them to do or not to do is important so that your words can’t be misinterpreted.

For instance, if you say, “Please don’t feed my kids junk food,” your parent may have a different idea of what “junk food” refers to.

Instead, give specific examples of unacceptable behaviors. Then, give acceptable alternatives, being respectful yet direct about what you want.

For example: “We don’t let the kids drink soda or eat processed snacks. I can bring drinks and snacks the next time they visit you.” This way, your parent will clearly know your expectations.

4. Pass Their Tests

Hokemeyer says not to let your boundaries be stepped over. “At first, the boundaries you set will be tested and tested. Your task is to make sure you send a consistent message that the boundaries you’ve set need to be honored.”

To do that, politely reinforce the boundaries. Parents may have difficulty adapting to them, so keep giving them reminders.

“Boundaries require us to adopt new patterns of behavior that are challenging,” Brigham says. “Don’t assume your parents are ignoring your boundaries or breaking them out of spite. You’ve been their child for a long time, so it’s going to take them time to adapt.”

5. Know When to Compromise

Along those lines, sometimes it may make sense to meet in the middle. It’s a way of being respectful of one another, Tessina says. If a parent pops over unannounced yet again, you can tell them you can’t hang out right now—but suggest an alternative, like that you’ll call them later to set up a lunch date. When you work together, you can find a solution that maintains your boundaries while keeping everyone happy.

Just know your hard lines or deal breakers, says Brigham. “Don’t compromise so much that you’re not getting your needs met,” she says. “Know the issues that are a hard no for you that you shouldn’t compromise on, or you’ll feel resentful.”

6. Remain Calm

Setting boundaries with parents isn’t a punishment. It’s good for both you and them by bringing you closer together in a healthier way. So, discuss the boundary cheerfully and happily, if you can.

For example, when a parent invites you over to family dinner at the last minute again, you can say, “Wow, that dinner you’re inviting us to tonight sounds like so much fun. We have other plans and can’t make it, but thanks for thinking of us.” When you respond calmly and positively, it’s easier for your parents to honor your wishes, Tessina says.

Plus, you’ll get a better response if you frame your boundary in a positive way. “Negativity will only bring resistance,” Tessina says.

7. Consider Seeing a Professional

It’s normal to feel anxious about setting boundaries with parents. Even when you’re respectful about your boundaries, it’s possible not everyone will be happy with them. Consider seeing a mental health professional who can support you and help you identify strategies to try as you figure out what needs to change in your relationship.

You can meet with a therapist on your own to learn what healthy boundaries look like for you. Or you can go to therapy together with your parent or parents. It can be a safe space if you’re uncomfortable talking with them alone.

“A third party can do wonders,” Brigham says. “And if you’re struggling to communicate with your parents—or if every time you try to talk about these issues, things get heated—then finding a therapist to be a mediator is vital.”

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