Family Boundaries

Is it difficult for you to say “no” to your parents, draw a boundary with a sibling, or set a limit with a cousin, aunt, or uncle?

Do you struggle to share your preferences, limits, desires, or deal-breakers with some of the people in your family?

If the answer is “yes,” this episode is for you. I am talking about the different kinds of disordered boundaries we often have in our families of origin and giving you ideas on how to get proactive so you can release yourself from these frustrating situations.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Boundaries + Parents: What’s the Deal?

When I say “parents,” I am talking about your parental impactors- the adults who raised you. 

How are your boundaries with them? How is your communication with them?

When it comes to boundaries, our parental impactors are human, just like us. They have their own limitations and disordered relationships with boundaries. 

If your parental impactors do not respect your boundaries, it does not necessarily mean they have bad intentions. They may be oblivious or too caught up in their parenting role to realize their interactions with you are inappropriate. 

This is certainly not a justification for abuse, and it does not mean your parental impactors are allowed to trample all over your boundaries. But if you have not clearly communicated your boundaries to them, you cannot know for sure if they are open to respecting them. 

While it is not our job to teach our parents how to navigate their own boundaries, it is our responsibility to learn to effectively communicate and assert our boundaries with everyone, including our family of origin. 

There are many factors that influence how you approach boundaries with your parents. These include the culture and country you were raised in, plus societal norms and the norms within your family system.

There are numerous dynamics at play, so let’s dive in. 

Open and Closed Family Systems

One influential dynamic may have been whether your family system was open or closed. 

In an open system, there is an open-door policy. People are coming and going– you may have grown up around lots of family friends. A closed system typically only includes immediate family members and select extended family. 

My family system was open. There were lots of comings and goings. My friends often spent time at my house and slept over. My mother was welcoming and generous, and my friends considered my home a safe space. 

My husband grew up in a more closed family system. His extended family visited, but there weren’t many other people coming and going. Friends were not exactly welcome. 

Whether you had an open or closed family system can impact your relationship to boundaries. 

Downloaded Boundary Blueprint

Knowing where your beliefs around boundaries originate from can be a game changer. If you are curious to know your downloaded boundary blueprint, I included some questions in the guide (which you can download here) to give you an idea of what yours might be. 

5 Types of Disordered Family Systems + Boundaries

Are you wondering whether you grew up in a family system with disordered boundaries? Here are five common dynamics I’ve seen in my therapy practice. See if any of these sound familiar to you. 

#1: Perennial Parenting

Perennial parenting is where your parental impactor cannot stop treating you like you are 10 or 15 when you’re not. 

Some parents’ identity is so dependent upon parenting, they literally do not know how not to be a parent. 

I am not saying once you become a parent you can never go back, but you do not have to actively parent your kids when they are adults.

Active parenting takes place when our kids are young. It involves teaching them critical thinking skills and deductive reasoning, as well as supporting them and teaching them lessons when they make mistakes. If they have a stressful situation in their life, as a parent to minor kids, it’s in our life, too. 

As our kids graduate college, move out, travel alone, or get engaged, we no longer need to actively parent. The hope is that the skills and tools you gave them in childhood serve them well in adulthood. 

They can still talk to you about things, but you want your children to manage what happens in their lives without depending on you. 

There is a poem in The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran where he describes parents as bows and children as arrows. As parents, we want to be a solid foundation and inspire our children to pursue their dreams, interests and passions. 

It becomes about them, not us. 

When you are raising kids, a healthy family system is kid-focused. The child’s needs should come before everything else. 

(I don’t mean kid-obsessed, just kid-focused.) 

Disordered family systems are usually other-focused. The system organizes around a designated patient or someone who is abusive or has an addiction, rather than around the child. 

This creates disordered boundaries in all sorts of ways. 

Additionally, in a healthy family dynamic, parents relate to their kids differently at every stage of development. It doesn’t make sense to treat kids the same from infancy to adulthood; our expectations of them change across different stages of life. 

Once they are grown, the expectation switches to respecting them, their sovereignty, and their ability to make decisions. 

A parent treating their adult kids like they are 12 essentially sends the message, “I have a better idea of what you should do in your life than you do.” But this is not true.

Parenting means having faith your kids are not fragile. It means letting the chips fall where they may, especially when they are not your chips. 

Of course, parents should be supportive. I’m not saying we wish our kids good luck and abandon them. But we need to talk and listen to them with respect

#2: Using Money As Leverage

In my therapy practice, I have seen families with generational wealth use their money to exert covert control over children. 

Disordered parenting boundaries around money can look like threatening to withhold the money. Regarding an inheritance, it may seem like FREE money but in many cases, it is anything but “free”. 

There are many ways to share family wealth without manipulation. You can put it in a trust with where there is limited interaction needed. Or you can set the expectation the kids will need to work and won’t have access to the trust until a certain age. 

Taking money from family (even if they are coercing you) also creates a silent and/or spoken agreement about what it means to be financially supported as a grown adult. 

No judgment here, but money complicates boundaries because it leaves you dependent on others. 

#3: The “Bestie” Parent

A parent who wants to be their child’s best friend puts a lot of stress on the adult child. The mutuality inside an actual friendship is not an appropriate dynamic for a parent/child relationship, even if the kid is an adult. 

Of course, you can still have a very close relationship with your parental impactor. I am close with my mother, but I would not call her my “bestie” because it is inaccurate and, frankly, would be kind of weird (to me). 

#4: Parents Who Violate Personal Boundaries

Another common disordered behavior is parents violating personal boundaries. Perhaps they live nearby and come over without calling. If they have a key, they may use it without knocking. Or they may expect you to be available to them 24/7. 

Parents disregarding your personal boundaries can be both depersonalizing and infuriating. 

I have a friend who lives next to her parents, and I cannot tell you how many times she has told me about a personal boundary violation. She has gotten out of the shower and gone to the kitchen in a towel, only to find her dad showing a contractor around the house like it is his house. She has no privacy.

(If your parents violate your personal boundaries, check out this blog on setting consequences for repeat boundary offenses. There is an example where a client of mine had to change her locks.)  

#5: Parents Interfering In Your Life

Do your parents get involved with your friendships?

Do they tell your partner things you’ve asked them not to share?

Do they triangulate you with your siblings?

Do they not treat your kids the way you want them to?

These are all boundary issues. 

I had a vegetarian client who asked her mother-in-law to feed her kids accordingly, and she gave them hamburgers anyway. There was this power struggle between the carnivore and the vegetarian, despite my client being the mother of these children. 

Sometimes you have to go to extreme measures (to a degree) to assert your boundaries. But when it comes to the health and wellness of your children, I encourage you to have conversations with your family because it directly impacts your kids.

Dealing With Aging Parents

I know many of you are dealing with aging parents and the question of who will care for them. 

It is critical to have proactive conversations about what is happening as people age. What are your parent’s or paternal impactor’s wishes? What is their financial situation like?

These conversations need to happen long before they are necessary. Otherwise, you risk becoming a primary caregiver for your parents without talking it over with your siblings (if you have any). 

I recently heard someone say, “I do the primary caregiving for my aging mother because my siblings have kids. They told me I have to be the caregiver because I don’t have children.”

This is totally unfair. This person not having kids should not let the siblings off the hook for caregiving. 

In my therapy practice, I’ve seen natural caregivers fall into the role of primary caregiver for a relative more often than not. This can lead to a disordered boundary situation where they do more of the emotional labor and all of the labor. This doesn’t feel good, and it is avoidable. 

I give you some ideas on how to be proactive with aging parents in the guide, which you can download right here.

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