In Therapy, Setting Limits With Parents Can Be Especially Difficult
In my NYC therapy practice, setting limits with family members, especially parents, can be stressful and raise a variety of concerns. What makes setting limits with parents particularly difficult is that as children, we are supposed to learn limits and values from our parents and then, when we’re adults, they sometimes become the people we have to set limits with.
In these instances, you have to accept that, in this way at least, you’ve outgrown your parent(s). You have to step outside the relationship enough to see it, but also separate yourself from their moral views, which are likely skewed toward their needs. This isn’t easy and you often have to give up the hope of being properly parented, at least in this regard.
Setting Limits Becomes Necessary Not Only When The Behavior Is Abusive, But Also When It’s Uncool
When working with patients on setting limits with parents, the need for limits is often tied with other issues. Sometimes disagreements in values aren’t so benign. There may have been serious mistakes made or behaviors that you, as an adult, feel were abusive. As I’ve said many times before, we have to stop the abuse first and foremost. Many people come to our NYC therapy practice as adults with relationships with their adult parents that are effectively (or plainly) extensions of historical abuse. In this case, we have to stop it or their recovery will fail.
But there’s also behavior that, while not abusive, is uncool. It isn’t safe, okay, respectful and doesn’t support you to thrive in the world as an adult. This can include interfering with parenting or in a relationship, second-guessing decisions, putting you down, not listening, making decisions without including you, or ignoring previously stated objections or preferences. These behaviors need to be shut down just the same.
No Means No When Setting Good Limits
When setting good limits with parents, respect is key, as is respecting that when you say you don’t want to discuss a given issue or clarify when you’re open to advice and criticism (and not), you mean it. No means no is at the heart of setting good limits. Whether you tell your parents, “We’re just going to stay three days on this trip,” “We prefer that Oliver not have juice,” or “We’re excited for your visit but it really works better for us for you to stay at a hotel rather than our apartment,” it’s important to stick with the limits you’ve set.
Admittedly, this isn’t always simple. It’s hard to disappoint parents who tend to become more compelling objects of sympathy as they get older. Beyond that, it’s just difficult to say, “Hey Mom and/or Pops, I see things differently from you.” You have to come to accept that parents simply may not agree with a limit or value, voice their disagreements, blame your spouse, or judge your decisions. You have to decide that you’re going to allow your and your (new) family’s values to trump your parents’ values. That can be odd–after all, they were influential in helping you develop these values. But, this is also part of growing up. In all but the best circumstances, there’ll be some friction. In some cases, you have to simply say, “Let’s agree to disagree, but I’m going to have to insist.”
How Can You Set Good Limits? Have A Conversation From A Place Of Strength And Authority
When setting limits with parents or other family members, you don’t necessarily have to be the adult (though, often this is the case), but you do have to approach the relationship as an adult. The conversation should come from a place of strength or authority that may not be so familiar.
How do you have this type of conversation? Say hard things without being overly wrapped up in the outcome. Be tough and not afraid to disagree. Insist on being heard and repeating yourself, even more forcefully to the point of being firm or raising your voice. Provide emotional leadership when conversations are hard and assert yourself, allowing others to have difficult reactions while you stay the course. This helps keep the conversation from degrading further. But, it’s also important to stick up for your spouse or partner and kids if need be.
Having a conversation from a place of strength or authority also looks like being thoughtful in providing directorial leadership around the questions of when, where and how this conversation about setting limits is had. If it’s a bad moment, say so. Choose a better time and place and initiate the conversation under the right conditions.
Good Limits Can Create Space To Focus On What You And Your Family Do Well Together
Ultimately, setting good limits can be the very thing that helps prevent having to end a relationship entirely. Limits can help you create space to really focus on what you and your parent or parents do well together. For example, refraining from asking parenting advice can reduce conflict and creates more room for you to catch up on old friends from home. When you don’t set limits, you’re too angry, hurt and/or unsafe to talk about anything else.
Setting limits is not only a way to appreciate the good in your relationship, but it’s also about appreciating and building on what works. Maybe you enjoy talking about the Knicks, your kid’s ballet classes or sharing bad jokes. And perhaps, after setting limits, that’s what the relationship can look like.