Setting boundaries with the co-dependent mother
A recent client of mine was becoming increasingly frustrated with his mother. He felt angry, then ashamed of the feelings that he was having. He felt that he should respect his mother yet her constant presence in his life was beginning to take its toll.
I just wish she would let me sort things out myself. I’m a grown man yet she still thinks I’m a child. There’s no separation. She just really needs to get a life.
I noticed as he spoke, his hands were balled into fists and he looked down at his lap in misery.
Her constant ‘meddling’ in his concerns, to the extent of booking appointments for him without him knowing anything about it, was beginning to overwhelm him. He had no idea how to handle her and what to do to help her to see that this wasn’t a healthy way for either of them to live. He had tried various ways of being with her; explaining in great depth how it was impacting him and doing what he could to explain how he felt without hurting her feelings.
Parent as a victim
“If I explain to her that I can take responsibility for my own life she gets upset and accuses me of being horrible to her. I’ll get messages afterward where she is playing the victim.”
Playing the victim is one of the signs of a co-dependent parent. This is a way for the parent to keep control over the adult child. It makes the child feel guilty. A co-dependent parent will use guilt as a way to get what they want but will do so in a passive-aggressive way, using silent treatment or projection. This is usually because the emotions that the parent feels are too much for them to handle. It’s easier for them to slip into passive-aggressive language because it’s a way for the parent to avoid responsibility for how they feel.
"The last time we met up to ‘resolve’ our issues she told me about her childhood trauma and neglect. I felt unable to do anything else. I could not express how I felt because I felt too guilty. Nothing got resolved and everything just carries on the same. I feel like I am her project."
And on it goes. Round and round in circles. The adult child feels guilty, yet they are unsure what they have done wrong. The mother feels like a victim and yet feels justified in her behaviour. Above all, it keeps her child close, and she feels in control.
This is not to lay blame. Oftentimes, the co-dependent parent will have trauma from childhood that has never been explored or healed. The adult child of the co-dependent parent needs to understand that they are not their mother’s therapist. It is not the responsibility of the child to fix the parent.
As children, it may have meant that we were the parent’s helper, carer, or ‘therapist’ which leads to parentification. This then has a far-reaching impact on the child into adulthood. Parentification is defined as ‘a distortion or lack of boundaries.’ A child’s life will be disrupted because they have the role of carer. Instead of seeking therapy or healing, the parent will turn to the child. In the case of divorce, for instance, the parent might turn to the child for emotional support.
When the child becomes an adult, they might take on too many responsibilities, become people pleasers, lack assertion, and have trouble setting boundaries. This can be hugely detrimental to the person's self-esteem and self-worth since they are constantly putting other people’s needs first. Their own needs are non-existent.
How to take back your life
Boundaries are crucial
“A boundary is a cue to others about how to treat you.” Nedra Glover Tawwab from ‘Set Boundaries, Find Peace. A guide to reclaiming yourself.’
Chances are, boundaries between a co-dependent parent and their child will be non-existent and, once grown up, the adult child will find boundaries incredibly difficult to enforce. But not impossible. If you recognise yourself as a parentified adult-child or recognise yourself in a co-dependent parent/child role, then read on.
Setting boundaries is healthy in any relationship and though it might feel difficult, wrong, or disrespectful in trying to set boundaries with your parent it will send out the message that you are an individual adult in your own right.
Boundaries are assertive. You can be assertive in a nonaggressive manner and get your message across. The message being that you are allowed to say "no" and that you know what your needs are. When you know what you need you can communicate them in a clear way.
It will feel difficult at first and will take time. There may be some kickback from the parent. Stick with it because this is about you taking back control of your life.
You know that you need some boundaries with your parents if:
- Your parents have a lack of respect for your opinion.
- Your parents repeatedly violate your personal space boundaries.
- You feel like you have to say yes to everything that they ask you to do or every family invite.
- Your parents know too much intimate information about your partners/friendships.
Setting boundaries with your parents might look like:
- Asking them to call before they call by your house.
- Saying no to family events that you do not want to attend.
- Handling your own disputes/appointment/relationships.
- Saying "no".
- Being able to share your opinion with your parents.
- Not giving them information about relationships if you do not wish to.
Let’s take some examples first and look at ways to set boundaries.
Your mother calls you when you are in the middle of work. You tell her that you are busy and just about to go into a meeting. She guilts you by saying that you never have time for her and when you suggest that you will call her back at 6pm she tells you not to bother; you clearly don’t have the time for her. She does this kind of thing often.
Reinforce that you love her and try to keep the conversation positive, even light-hearted.
“I love that we chat on the phone together. It would be great for us to chat for slightly longer. I will call you at 6pm and we can arrange to meet up next week.” The thing is here to have a script and stick to it. Each time that it happens you say the same thing. No wiggle room.
Here’s another example:
Your mother repeatedly lets herself into your home and tidies the kitchen, moves things around telling you that “the lamp would be better in the corner.” You have asked her not to let herself in because at times your wife gets in from work early and does yoga and meditation. Your wife doesn’t like to be disturbed.
Your script might sound like:
“I really appreciate the help in the house from you. However, we have asked you before to not let yourself in unless we have arranged for it to happen for some reason. We have explained that Sarah needs alone time after work. If you let yourself in again then I will have to take the key back from you.”
This may sound harsh but remember, you are protecting your personal boundaries here. If you have asked before and have tried to put boundaries in place and she hasn’t heard, then you are not being firm enough. There must be no wiggle room with boundaries. If you are not firm, then you won’t be heard.
Your mother shuts you down when you speak about your feelings or opinions. Or she makes it about her so that the conversation suddenly isn’t about how you feel but about her life and emotions.
“I’d like to be able to express my feelings to you without feeling like you shut me down. It hurts when you tell me that I shouldn’t feel this way. I feel disregarded and unheard.”
- Boundaries are your way of telling people how you wish to be treated.
- Boundaries are an expression of self-care.
- It is absolutely ok to say no and be open and honest about how you feel.
- There may be feelings of guilt and unease but stick with this. You will find that putting boundaries in place becomes easier and, as they do, so will your life.
- Being assertive with your boundaries is not aggression. Being assertive means expressing your needs clearly and honestly.