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Ask a Therapist: How do I talk to my parents about boundaries?

Family, Boundaries, Ask a Therapist
5 min read

Dear Therapist: I feel like my parents are giving me conflicting messaging because they emphasize how much they want me to be independent and successful but then also guilt me when I’m not spending time with them and sacrificing my plans to do family events. It’s almost like they tell me they want me to grow up and be independent but then treat me like I’m a child. How can I talk to them about this frustrating dynamic?

Frame therapist Sandra Shahrokh weighs in… 

I first want to say how confusing and frustrating it can be to receive mixed messages from family members. It happens often in families where family members say one thing but their actions say another. It makes sense that you want to talk to them and find a solution to this frustrating dynamic. 

Let's start here:

  • First, it's time to get curious about what your needs are. What are you needing from your family and from yourself? I bring this up because it can be helpful to get clear on your needs so you can communicate them effectively. If you walk into a situation having no idea what you need that’s okay AND it might make it difficult to communicate. 
  • Second, I'm a big believer in trying to communicate as assertively as possible.  Assertive communication is when you are clear and direct (I have provided some ideas below). We want to be careful to not be aggressive in the way we approach things which can look like placing blame solely on the other person and using hurtful words. This can sound like, “you’re crazy for always doing this!” You also want to try to stay away from communicating in a passive way. This can look like not saying what you really mean, and going against what you need to please the other person. Ultimately, you want to communicate in a way where you are being clear about your needs. 
  • Third, as someone who is Mexican-American it’s important for me to note that different cultural backgrounds have different ways of communicating. What one culture may view as aggressive, passive and/or assertive communication may be completely different for another culture. My idea to you is to use my suggestions in your own voice and in a way that works for you. 

For this situation I have two thoughts about how you could approach this using assertive communication. 

Option 1 seeks to get a little bit more clarity from your family. This may sound like, “I feel confused by the messages I'm receiving. Can you clarify what you mean by wanting me to have more independence? It feels like when I try to do this it’s upsetting to you both. Am I reading that right? What are you noticing?” 

Option 2 is really going for it and telling them what you need from them. This may sound like, "I'm hearing from you that I need to focus a bit more on my independence. I agree with this too. I’m going to start doing this and may not always be available to attend family events. This doesn't mean I don't care or you don't matter. This is important for me to work on and I'd value your support. Can you support me in making this change?” 

After you've had the talk there are some important things to keep in mind:

  • You may have to have several conversations with your family about this. People may need reminders when you're doing something new or changing it up.
  • They may have their own emotions come up as a result of this discussion and that's okay. You are not responsible for their emotions and it isn't your job to fix it. 
  • Lastly, assertive communication can take practice. It's okay if it feels uncomfortable at first. It means you’re taking care of yourself. Keep practicing and don't give up. You got this! 

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About the Author: Sandra Shahrokh is an associate marriage and family therapist in private practice in Calabasas, CA. Sandra works with OCD, anxiety, substance use, adult children of alcoholics/ dysfunctional families, and relational issues. Sandra is passionate about helping individuals create healthier relationships with themselves and others. Sandra is first gen Mexican-American and is attuned to the ways in which culture may play a role in family and relational dynamics. To learn more, view additional content Sandra has created, or to get in touch, visit her Frame profile here. 

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