Establishing healthy boundaries with parents as you get older is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health. Your parents don’t need to weigh in on your romantic life, your weight, your career path, your parenting style or any other segment of your adult life.
But for many people, the meddling continues well into adulthood, in spite of efforts to distance ourselves.
Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, said he hears about this issue quite often. Clients tell him of friendly enough conversations that slowly veer into critiques: “You should have done this instead.” “That will never work.” “Are you sure you’re with the right person?” “I think you may be out of your depth here.”
Why do some parents feel at liberty to weigh in on nearly every facet of their adult children’s lives?
“I think many parents of adults suffer with feelings of irrelevancy and uselessness, and as a result make a practice of offering unsolicited advice and instruction in an effort to stay important to their children and family,” Smith told HuffPost. “They may also have a genuine belief that their own experiences mean they truly do know what’s best.”
Parental criticism and overstepping may be well-intentioned (though certainly not always), but more times than not, such comments prove divisive and damaging to the relationship.
How do you politely tell a parent to put a lid on unnecessary commentary so your relationship with them doesn’t suffer? Below, Smith and other therapists share the advice they give clients dealing with this issue.
Clarify to yourself what your boundaries are before interacting with your parents.
What are you comfortable sharing with your parents and what would you rather keep under wraps? Give some thought to that question before your next conversation with them, and then establish those boundaries.
Setting an explicit boundary takes three steps, according to Sarah Joy Park, a psychologist in San Luis Obispo, California.
“First, be behaviorally specific about what you would like and the consequences if that boundary is crossed,” she said. “Maybe you tell your parent, ‘Look, your comments about my weight are hurtful. If you comment on my weight in any way, I don’t want to continue this conversation.’”
Second, be consistent with reinforcing boundaries. Park said it’s common for people to react poorly at first to newly established boundaries, but if you stay consistent, most people will adjust.
Thirdly, she said you have to “accept the fact that people will make their own choices about how to respond to a boundary.” In other words, unfortunately, you don’t get to choose how your parent reacts to your new rules.
Fill your parents in on why you made certain decisions (when you feel comfortable doing so).
Many parents argue with their grown children about life choices because deep down, they’re simply concerned and feel in the dark about their children’s lives. If the topic at hand is something you don’t mind delving into a little with your parent, talk them through why you made that particular judgment call: “I decided to take a pay cut at a new company in Seattle because that’s ultimately where my partner and I want to start a family.” That just may be enough to satisfy them, said Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a marriage and family therapist in Murrieta, California.
“Draw them into your world, so they can understand you better,” she said. “Once they understand that you’re making informed decisions, they are less likely to nag you.”
After you’ve offered your explanation, leave it at that. Do your best to steer the conversation away from an argument or a debate about whether your choice was the best choice.
“Help your parents understand that as an adult, you can take care of yourself and chart your own course,” Osibodu-Onyali said.
When they criticize, share what you need from them instead.
Don’t just sit back and roll your eyes when your parent makes yet another rude, imposing remark about your personal life. Use it as a cue to share with them what you need from them instead of criticism, said Alexis Bleich, the clinic director at Kip Therapy in New York City.
“Let’s say you just got a new outfit and are wearing it on a Zoom call with your parents. Before you even say hello, your dad says, ‘Well, it’s a good thing you’re social distancing so no one can see that get-up.’ You might feel like rolling your eyes or snapping back about his lack of style, but if you can take a deep breath and say, ‘Dad, I’m trying out something new and I feel comfortable and good about it! Please feel free to give me a compliment on my new outfit ― or if you don’t like it, I’ll definitely take a compliment on my hair or sparkling personality.’”
Ask for what you need ― moral support, recognition of a job well done, a compliment on your appearance ― and you might just get it, Bleich said.
Thank them and move on.
Another smart diversion tactic, according to Smith, is to thank your parent for doing such a good job raising you. Complimenting them may be the last thing that you want to do after they criticize you, but this compliment is a bit self-serving: By giving them credit for teaching you how to make your own decisions (and learn from any potential mistakes), you’re telling them they can relax and let you take the wheel.
“Parents generally want to feel like they’ve been successful in raising their children. They want to know they’ve been a good mom or dad,” Smith said. “One measure of this is seeing their children become independent and self-sufficient, with the ability to make good decisions. Remind them they’ve done all that.”
Remind yourself that a parent’s judgment says more about them than it does about you.
More often than not, undue criticism is a reflection of how someone feels about themself, not a reflection of you or your worth. That’s true in the case of judgmental parents, too, said Sean Davis, a marriage and family therapist and a professor at California’s Alliant International University.
“Their desires and timeline for your life probably stems in part from their insecurities and unlived life, but resolving that is their responsibility, not yours,” he said. “As long as you make it your responsibility, you’re delaying living your own authentic life.”
Remember that their view is just one opinion, one of many directions to take your life in. Just because they want something for you doesn’t mean it’s the right move.
“You do not have to sacrifice your standards or preferences just to win your parent’s approval,” Davis said.
If you’re feeling generous ― or, more importantly, want to lessen the resentment you may be feeling toward your parent ― try to understand some of the deeper reasons why they’ve encouraged what they’ve encouraged, Smith said. Maybe they always wanted to follow a certain career path and that’s why they’re pushing it on you. Or maybe they just want to feel that their opinion is worthy of respect.
“Many parents of adults simply want to feel useful. No one wants to feel irrelevant and unneeded,” he said. “Try to think about how you might feel when you’re their age and what it means to them to be still heard and respected.”
Finding empathy for them within yourself is likely to result in a more positive, compassionate response the next time you and your parents are at odds. That said, they should be approaching you with just as much empathy.
“Asking your parents for the same in return is completely reasonable and appropriate here,” Smith said.