Relationships between parents and children evolve as children grow up to be adolescents and adults. Conflicts often arise as children begin to develop their own identities and discover their need for independence. If parents do not adapt to the changing needs of their children, the relationship may suffer. Some parents refuse to accept the changes and may cross boundaries in an attempt to fight for the status quo. They may want to maintain as much control as they have had while their children were smaller. It is even harder for parents who are first-generation migrants from different cultures because they feel as though they are losing their children to the unknown culture of the country they have migrated to, and may also have fear of losing their connection to their children.
Setting boundaries with your parents can be difficult due to the guilt of hurting your parents, especially when they make comments about how much they have given you or sacrificed for you. However, not setting boundaries can mean that you build up resentments towards them that prevent you from having healthy and enjoyable interactions. Without proper boundaries, parents may believe and feel that it is OK for them to impose their beliefs and values onto you and not respect your decisions and opinions as an adult. The more consistent you are with your boundaries, the more they will adjust and learn to respect you as an individual even if they don’t agree with your choices. What you are adjusting to is being ok with not having their approval.
Healthy and effective conversations can be difficult if there is relational hurt from the past that makes it difficult for you to assert yourself. Therefore, it is important to first anchor yourself through self-acceptance, self-love and self-esteem. You need to first have a secure and loving relationship with yourself in order to be able to defend your position against your parents who may use criticism in an attempt to break through your boundaries.
Now that you have a roadmap of where you want to take the relationship, the next step is having the conversation. Here are some tips for effective communication. You may want to wait to discuss or role-play the conversation with your counsellor before moving forward.
Be clear and concise. Use “I” statements clearly stating the impact their words or actions have on you.
Try to stick to more neutral words instead of words like “I find it annoying”, say “I find it difficult when”… Also avoid commands. e.g. “Don’t talk to me like that. Listen to me.”
Example: (State feeling or impact it has on you) I find it difficult when you drop in unexpectedly. (State your needs) In the future, could you call first?
(Communicating feelings): I feel hurt when you say… Moving forward, could you focus more on my achievements and things to celebrate rather than my mistakes?
Be assertive and compassionate
Being assertive with our parents is hard. You are probably more used to them setting the rules and telling you how to behave rather than you making requests about how you would like to be treated. There may be some pushback and resentment from them at first. You can be compassionate, listen to them and empathise with them without feeling you have to back down. You may feel the need to rationalise your decision or to get their approval. When you feel this urge, take some deep breaths and simply give an empathetic response to show that you understand their side by reflecting back on what they have said. For example, you might say, “I understand you pointed out my faults thinking if you didn’t I wouldn’t try harder. I know you wanted me to be successful and believed that would make me happy…” Empathising with them doesn’t have to mean that you agree with them or will let them continue to do what they are doing. Behaviour change is more likely when they also feel they have been heard.
You may have to repeat yourself many times
Establishing new boundaries is bound to have some pushback. Your parents may try to convince you or reason with you to keep the status quo. You will feel frustrated and helpless when this happens and may even feel angry. However, the best way to respond to pushback is to not react but simply repeat the boundary needs over and over again. Just be simple and matter-of-fact in repeating the boundaries to them. If you keep doing this consistently, they will soon accept the new norm and adjust their behaviour.
Permit yourself to upset your parents and release the guilt
We often hold back from having important conversations because we worry about the response of the other party. You may have kept silent not wanting to upset your parents, and telling yourself they won’t listen anyway. However, not having healthy boundaries means that the relationship will continue to be a source of stress. When children grow up and become adults, they need to be able to live as their own person with their own identity. That also means that they separate themselves emotionally from their parents and allow their parents to deal with their own negative emotions without you having to soothe them. Allow your parents to feel upset and experience their grief. For a new balance to establish in a family system, there will initially be pushback and instability. Simply reassure them that you love them and wish to have a good relationship with them and that it was not possible to do so the way things were. Focus on the long-term benefits of having sound boundaries in place and be persistent.