The Key to Setting Healthy Boundaries with Your Parents
According to therapist Carder Stout, PhD, a healthy relationship between any grown adult and their parents should involve a shift around early adulthood when the parents step down from their position as caretakers and look their children in the eye as equals. That requires a change of perspective on both ends: Grown children recognizing that their parents are people—flawed and probably trying their best—and parents recognizing that their children aren’t children anymore.
When the relationship does not make this shift, the discrepancy between the way we see ourselves and the way our parents see us can rot the relationship, creating tension, lack of trust, and resentment. The most effective way to resolve the issue, says Stout, is one of the hardest things he asks his clients to do: Confront it. He says that facing our parents can prompt us to revert to old patterns from childhood, which makes finding the words that will demonstrate independence, set boundaries, and protect the relationship especially difficult. But with some planning and practice, many issues with overbearing parents can be solved.
Stout draws on his own experience: In his new memoir, Lost in Ghost Town, he details the way tumultuous relationships with his parents gave way to some heavy issues in his life. But he was able to heal, and now he helps other people do the same. We asked Stout for his advice on how to draw the line.
(While some relationships just need a bit of breathing room, other rifts are more serious. For advice about setting stricter boundaries, we asked family therapist Ashley Graber about how to handle family estrangement.)
A Q&A with Carder Stout, PhD
There are plenty of people who speak with their parents several times a week in a way that feels right to them—it continues to nurture them in some way. This kind of relationship should honor our independence as adults: At a certain point, our parents should look us in the eye as equals, as their children but not as children.
But not all of us are friends with our parents—and that’s okay, too. Maybe it was an unbalanced amount of love: Overbearing love can impede our ability to individuate, and lack of love can rob us of our self-esteem. Or maybe something kept our parents from doing their best to raise us. If they were caught in an addictive cycle, had a narcissistic worldview, were overcome by depression, or were saddled with anxiety, there is a good possibility that they were not able to attend to our needs in a healthy way.
“At a certain point, our parents should look us in the eye as equals, as their children but not as children.”
I spend a lot of time working with my patients on their parental relationships, and in most cases, they are laden with anger and guilt. But usually there is a foundation of love underneath those negative emotions. We should evaluate where we are in our own healing process to determine a healthy level of contact with our parents. At the end of the day, it is our own decision.
Many parents have this idea that without their help, their children won’t be able to make good choices. This is not the case. First and foremost, create a foundation in your own life that feels solid and demonstrate to your parents that you are thriving in your own independent manner. If they are prone to controlling behavior, don’t ask for their assistance on a regular basis if you can help it—this may backfire for you.
Boundaries are a funny thing. Many of us have a hard time with them. We feel they will create confrontation or hurt someone’s feelings. And that may be the case initially, but I have found that boundaries usually lead to a new kind of respect between the parties involved. Even if your parents are consciously uncomfortable with these new boundaries, the fact that you’ve been strong enough to set them prompts a subconscious awareness of that strength. Eventually, hopefully, they’ll be able to recognize that.
Remember: Setting reasonable boundaries is an act of self-love. It is for your benefit, not anyone else’s. It’s something we should all practice on a regular basis.
The way you communicate with your parents is key. Be firm. Be direct. Be thoughtful.
These types of conversations are best had in person—or at least over the phone. Tone can be misconstrued in texts and emails. Let them know you have concerns and that you would like to move in a different direction. Ask them for their thoughts and opinions, and hear them out—but be clear and unwavering with your thoughts. It is possible your parents may not be aware there’s an issue, so educate them gracefully, always attempting to be optimistic and nonjudgmental. And when you are through, be sure to model the behavior that you want from them. Lead by example. Give them hints and nudges when they are off course.
“Remember: Setting reasonable boundaries is an act of self-love.”
Take some time to tailor your message and the language you will use. For example, if you feel like your parents always have their hands in your personal choices, you might make it clear that you have things covered and that you will reach out to them if you need help. This might sound something like “Mom, you know how much I love you, but I told you I am all set with this. Please respect my wishes. When I do need your help, I’ll reach out.”
If you’re in an unhealthy communication pattern already, this will need to be fixed. Although it may seem like the easiest solution and the path of least resistance, noncommunication is not the answer. Unless you’ve communicated it as a boundary, it is unhealthy to leave a text or email unanswered or a call unreturned for more than a day or two. It will only create a greater sense of grief and urgency. And avoid triangulating; your words and phrases may be lost in translation from one parent to the other.
“Although it may seem like the easiest solution and the path of least resistance, noncommunication is not the answer.”
Change takes time, concerted effort, tenacity, and patience. Take deep breaths and feel good about the path you are clearing for your relationship. It is a path of openness, mutual respect, and freedom.
We call this breaking the cycle—and it is one of the most important things we can do as parents. The way you were parented certainly affects who you are as a person, but it shouldn’t necessarily define how you raise your own children. We should put all the information, messages, emotional responses, and internalized beliefs that we inherited from our parents through a healthy filtration process before we pass them down to the next generation. Take a hard look at who you are, what you value, and how you communicate, and make it your mission to be the best version of yourself while parenting.
Awareness is the answer. Your dad may have lost his temper and yelled a lot, and you might recognize that voice coming out of you when you are frustrated with your own kids. Or it could be happening without your recognizing it. In those cases, our partners and friends can help—often those close to us are able to see things that we are unaware of, like when we’re repeating our parents’ and grandparents’ behavior patterns. It’s important to be open to what your partner and friends might say, even if it’s not what you want to hear. It’s okay to be confused or clueless about something. Don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong.
“Your children are great teachers, so be a student.”
You can also adopt certain values from your parents without repeating the toxic aspects. It’s likely that some values your parents wanted you to have were built on good foundations, even if the execution wasn’t right—maybe they wanted you to eat dinner together as a family most nights but often spent that time fighting. You can take the value of family dinners and correct the negative aspects. Find the joy, laughter, education, and inspiration in it.
Finally: Your children are great teachers, so be a student. You may not agree with what your kids are doing or saying every single time, but you can absolutely hear them out.
Carder Stout, PhD, is a Los Angeles–based therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners. He received his PhD in psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2015.