6 Steps To Setting Healthy Boundaries With Parents (And What That Looks Like)

Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW

Growing up, it’s expected for our parents to set rules around curfew, cleanliness, household chores, how to treat others, and establish routines. Parents also set boundaries with their kids in hopes to help them become independent. But things start to get complicated when children grow up into adults, yet the parent struggles with the balance between being a parent and letting their adult child have their own life. If this is an area of tension in your family, here’s what you need to know about setting healthy boundaries with parents.

Why setting boundaries with parents is so important.

Setting boundaries with your parents is important for various reasons: It prevents you from building resentment toward them and promotes healthy, enjoyable interactions, while also helping you further establish individuation—that is, having an identity outside of your relationship with your parents. Without proper boundaries, parents may believe and feel that it is OK for them to be imposing their beliefs and ways of living onto their adult children.

While these conversations can be difficult to have, they are necessary in developing a healthy relationship with them and with yourself. The end result of setting healthy boundaries with your parents can lead to a decrease in anxiety, resentment, improved ability to manage conflict, and healthy self-esteem.

What healthy boundaries with parents look like.

Healthy boundaries with parents involve mutual acknowledgment that you are an adult with your own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, experiences, and needs. It means owning your needs and being able to say no when you want to say no and yes when you want to say yes.

Examples of poor boundaries from a parent might look like:

  • Having unexpected and frequent visits from them
  • Unsolicited input about your partner
  • Unsolicited advice about how you’re raising your children
  • Having them buy things for your home without asking you
  • Frequent comments about your diet or body
  • Interfering in your personal life

Setting boundaries with parents look like:

  • Identifying what your own unique values are, some of which may be different from theirs
  • Being able to act in a way that is consistent with your values and beliefs
  • Being clear on what you need
  • Establishing rules on how you would like to be treated.

How to set boundaries with parents.

1. Be clear and concise.

Before coming to your parents with what you would like for them to adjust, first ask yourself what is bothering you and explore why. Conceptualize the issue. Identifying how their specific behavior makes you feel will help you feel more confident and secure in asking for what you want.

Being clear and concise means being straightforward and stating exactly what it is you need from them without apologizing. Make sure that your request is concrete, coherent, and measurable.

For example, this comment might not go over well: “Please stop dropping by unexpectedly all of the time, because it’s getting really annoying.”

Try this instead: “It is difficult for me when you drop by unexpectedly. Moving forward, can you call first? And remember I can only spend time with you on the weekends.”

The more you practice being concise, the easier it gets.

2. Be assertive and compassionate.

Being assertive involves stating how you feel and what you need without trying to hurt the other person. This includes maintaining eye contact, maintaining a sense of calm, being open to having a conversation, actively listening to the other person, monitoring your tone, having a straight posture, and being direct.

At the same time, being compassionate is also important. This means understanding where your parents may be coming from and understanding the difficulties they may be experiencing in letting go of the role they once had in your life, while also simultaneously honoring your needs. Practicing compassion helps us stay grounded and come from a place of love versus defensiveness.

3. Demonstrate appreciation.

When setting a boundary with your parent, it may help to show appreciation toward what you are grateful for in the relationship, and perhaps the intent behind their behaviors. For example, if you have a parent that ongoingly interferes in your relationship, you can state that you appreciate their concern for you or appreciate that they want what’s best for you, but you also would like for them to stop trying to get involved in your romances because you are capable of making your own decisions. Showing your parents appreciation tells them that you still value them showing up in your life. You just would like how they show up to look differently.

4. Practice the “broken record” technique.

If your parents combat your requests for healthier boundaries, try the “broken record” technique. This is a practice in assertive communication where you do not engage in tangents, arguments, or circular conversation. Rather, you continue to repeat your needs clearly and concisely over and over. This demonstrates that you are sticking to your boundaries and are not interested in engaging in an argument or negotiation about your boundaries.

An example of the broken record technique might look like saying “I am not engaging any further; stop making comments about how I am raising my children” and saying this as many times as you feel comfortable. This technique conveys and reinforces your message without getting into trying to justify why you want certain boundaries in place.

5. Know your limits.

Take the time to be clear about what you are willing to tolerate and not tolerate from them. Where will you draw the line? For example, can you only manage talking on the phone with your parents once a month? Every day? There is nothing wrong with you for wanting to set limits with your parents. This is a healthy part of individuation.

Additionally, if the conversation isn’t going in a direction that is helpful or productive, know when it is time for you to end the conversation. Pay attention to how you are feeling and how much discomfort is healthy for you to tolerate. If you feel like you need a break or walk away from the conversation, it’s important to do so to prevent yourself from getting angry and escalating the conversation.

6. Release any guilt about having boundaries.

Setting boundaries with parents can stir up feelings of doubt, fear, and guilt. In order for us to be able to practice assertive communication and compassion toward ourselves, we have to practice recognizing feelings of guilt around setting boundaries. Guilt can be an indicator that we feel like we are doing something wrong, and it’s important to fully know that setting boundaries with your parents is not wrong. It is just is. Boundaries are an important part in preserving the relationship and building your sense of self.

A practice in releasing guilt can be reciting affirmations like “I deserve to express myself” and “I am allowed to have my needs met.”

At the end of the day, you get to decide your boundaries and your terms. Remind yourself of why you are setting your boundaries, and practice self-validation and self-compassion before, during, and after the conversation with your parents.