It doesn’t matter how old you are. Some parents will still try to parent you.
- offer advice you didn’t ask for and don’t want
- comment on your cluttered apartment every time they visit, even slipping in when you aren’t home to do some rearranging
- offer helpful “guidance” about your food choices, bedtime, or exercise habits — suggestions that seem an awful lot like household rules you’ve outgrown
Often, parental overinvolvement comes from a good place (though that doesn’t make it OK). Your parents may simply want to remain part of your life, now that you’ve established your independence and left home.
They could also have some trouble giving up control. Plenty of parents cling to the belief that they know what’s best for their children, well after those children have entered adulthood and had children of their own.
On the other hand, when parents repeatedly challenge the limits you set, or ignore them outright, this can suggest an unhealthy dynamic. Their disregard for your needs can easily contribute to tension and emotional distress and cause lasting damage in your relationship.
If you find the prospect of setting (and reinforcing) boundaries with your parents downright terrifying, we hear you. The 8 tips below can help this process happen a little more smoothly.
When it comes to navigating conflict or tension in any kind of relationship, an open conversation is nearly always the best place to start. Talking with your parents can help you get more insight on why they’re trying to manage your life.
If they feel excluded or lonely, calling at all hours or showing up without an invite might reflect their desire to spend more time with you. In other words, they’re afraid of missing out on your life, now that it’s happening somewhere else.
They might also be struggling with issues of their own, such as trouble at work or health concerns. Becoming more involved in your life could be one way of coping with feelings toward challenges they can’t control.
In any scenario, a clearer picture of what’s going on can help you navigate the situation productively. What’s more, simply listening can reassure them you do care about their feelings.
Setting limits with your parents isn’t disrespectful in the slightest.
On the contrary, it’s healthy to (politely) state your boundaries and expect your parents to respect those needs. That said, you’ll most likely have more success — not to mention fewer hurt feelings to deal with — when you choose your words carefully.
It usually doesn’t hurt to let them know just how much you appreciate them before getting into what needs to change.
If they brought you a takeout meal from a restaurant you loved before going vegan, you might say:
- “Your bringing me lunch was so thoughtful. But like I’ve mentioned a few times now, I’m sticking to a plant-based diet, so I can’t eat it. I don’t want you to waste your money, so please check before you pick up food for me next time.”
If they have a habit of letting themselves in with the key you gave them for emergencies, you might say:
- “It’s nice to see you. But this apartment is my space, and I’m not always ready for company. In the future, I need you to call or text before you drop by, and then knock instead of walking in. That way, we can visit when it’s a good time for both of us.”
Tip: Sort through your own feelings before the conversation. Identifying exactly what bothers you (from pointed remarks about your shopping list to suggestions about your love life) can help you enter the conversation prepared with some possible solutions.
Your parents probably still consider you their child, regardless of your actual age.
You might find it challenging enough to get them to recognize your independence when you maintain your own household. But what if you’ve temporarily returned to your parents’ house to weather the pandemic, or for any other reason? Well, you might realize they seem to think you’ve regressed several years in age, as well.
Telling yourself, “It’s just temporary” and resolving to avoid conflict by biting your tongue is one way to handle the situation. This could help keep the peace — if the tensions you’re dealing with are, in fact, only popping up due to theclose quarters you now share.
Usually, though, you’re better off addressing concerns as they come up instead of
If your parents have always had a hard time recognizing and respecting your needs for privacy and personal space, this problem isn’t going to magically disappear.
You’ll eventually have to set some limits, and waiting to establish boundaries usually only leads to more frustration, distress, and even resentment for everyone involved.
Like avoidance, vagueness generally doesn’t do you any favors. Unclear or confusing boundaries leave plenty of room for misinterpretation.
You might know exactly what you mean when you say things like:
- “Please don’t buy me junk I don’t need.”
- “Please only feed the kids healthy food.”
Your parents, however, may not. so it’s more helpful to give specific examples of unacceptable behaviors, along with acceptable alternatives, depending on the situation.
- “Your gifts are always so generous, and I appreciate the thought, but I don’t need new clothes or shoes. If you’d really like to help out, I can always use a gift card for groceries.”
- “We don’t give the kids soda or processed snacks, but they’d love baking cookies with you. I’m also happy to bring snacks and drinks when they visit.”
When your parents get a little too involved in your life, enforcing your boundaries can provide a gentle reminder that you can (and will) make your own choices.
Once you restate your boundaries, you can also meet them in the middle by offering a compromise.
If they want to spend more time together, for example, you might first emphasize your boundary:
- “Remember, we talked about you checking with me first before coming over. I have company, so I can’t visit with you right now.”
Then, suggest an alternative:
- “Why don’t we plan a weekly hike or lunch? That way we can get together at a time that works for both of us.”
Maybe you don’t want to talk about your sex life, but you’re perfectly happy to answer nonsexual questions about your dates. Discussing the details you’re willing to share (while firmly skipping over the ones you aren’t) can help them feel more included without compromising that boundary.
If you’re not sure what to offer, ask what they’re looking for:
- “I’m wondering if there’s a reason why you keep stopping by. If you want to spend more time together, we need to plan that out beforehand. What do you think?”
Collaborating to find a solution can leave you both satisfied, since it allows you to maintain your boundary while still involving them.
It’s normal to feel a little guilt when setting boundaries with parents. If you know they love you and believe they have good intentions, you probably want to avoid hurting their feelings.
Unfortunately, they could still feel hurt, even when you set boundaries with compassion and kind words. If you then feel guilty for offending them, you might end up yielding some ground when they push back against those limits.
Flimsy or nonexistent boundaries might make your parents feel better, but they’ll won’t do much to improve your situation. Instead of feeling loved and supported, you might feel:
Believing your parents don’t respect your ability to make your own choices can also damage your sense of self-worth and self-respect.
So, when those guilty feelings bubble up, reminding yourself that by standing firm and repeating your boundary politely, you’re supporting your own well-being.
Your parents may not always listen to what you have to say or respect the limits you set.
- persist in hurtful teasing
- attempt to guilt-trip you into easing up on your boundaries
- continue making pointed remarks about your partner’s profession
- bring up topics you’ve highlighted as off-limits in front of your kids
A good next step might involve creating some distance in the relationship.
You might say:
- “I’ve set clear boundaries around behavior that hurts me/my partner/the kids. If you’re not willing to respect those limits, I’m not willing to invite you into my home or spend time with you.”
Once you’ve outlined the consequences, stick to them. Doing so will show your parents you intend to enforce your boundaries, now and in the future.
If they want to rebuild your relationship, they’ll need to respect those boundaries.
Get more guidance on managing a relationship with toxic parents.
Finding it tough to communicate your needs to your parents? Still not entirely sure what kind of boundaries you need?
Setting limits with parents can feel intimidating, to say the least.
A mental health professional can offer support with preparing for these difficult conversations by helping you explore what you need from the relationship and identifying specific things that need to change.
Therapists can also offer more guidance on what healthy boundaries look like and help you recognize and address toxic relationship behaviors.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your parents directly, therapy also provides a safe space to have a therapist-mediated discussion about the importance of boundaries in your relationship.
Boundaries help you honor your physical and emotional needs and protect your personal space. In short, they’re essential in every relationship.
Keep in mind, though, that strong boundaries do more than protect you. They also have another important function: helping you cultivate a healthy adult relationship with your parents. After all, they’ll always be your parents, but you’re not a child any longer.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.