Your Parents: 10 Signs You May Need Some Healthy Boundaries

Few would disagree that parents have the most difficult job in the world. And the huge majority of parents are doing the very best they can for their children.

As much empathy as I have for parents (being one myself), today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is challenging in some way.

There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.

Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.

6  Common Ways Adults Struggle With Their Parents

  1. You may feel guilty for not wanting to spend more time with them
  2. You may feel very loving toward them one minute, and angry the next
  3. You may look forward to seeing them, and then feel let down or disappointed when you’re actually with them
  4. You may find yourself snapping at them and confused about why you’re doing it
  5. You may get physically ill when you see them
  6. You may harbor anger at them, and feel there’s no reason for it

How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally? 

Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.

What is Individuation?

Individuation is the natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.

Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”

Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.

4 Ways Individuation Can Go Awry

  1. The parent does not know that the child’s individuation is natural and healthy, and discourages it. This parent may feel hurt by the child’s separation, or even be angered by it, making the child feel guilty for developing normally.
  2. The parent wants the child to stay close to take care of the parent’s needs, so actively discourages the child from separating.
  3. The parent is uncomfortable with the child’s needs, and so encourages the child to be excessively independent at too early an age (an example of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN).
  4. The child is held back from healthy individuation by some conflict or issue of his or her own, like anxiety, depression, a physical or medical ailment, or guilt.

When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.

So now the big question. 

How Do You Know if You Need Some Healthy Distance From Your Parents?

  1. Do you feel held back from growing, developing, or moving forward in your life by your parents?
  2. Is your relationship with your parents negatively affecting how you parent your own children?
  3. Are you afraid of surpassing your parents? Would they be hurt or upset if you become more successful in life than they?
  4. Are you plagued with guilt when it comes to your parents?
  5. Are your parents manipulating you in any way?
  6. Are their needs coming before your own (the exception is if they are elderly or ill)?
  7. Were/are your parents abusive to you in any way, however subtle?
  8. Have you tried to talk with them and solve things, to no avail?
  9. Do you feel that your parents don’t really know you?
  10. Do your parents stir up trouble in your life?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.

You and Your Parents

Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen properly through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.

So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you. I know this sounds difficult and complicated.

Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong. 

To learn more about how even loving parents can have a blind spot to their child’s feelings, disrupting individuation, and to find out what you can do about it now, see the books Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Sarah - April 13, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice,
Great article to identify the issues but the link
How to Get Healthy Distance From Your Parents
is broken.

Jewell - November 30, 2019 Reply

I’m 21 and I still live at home. I’m super ashamed to say that but it’s true. I’ve already made a plan to move out and I’m currently looking for work. I Just graduated beauty school. I feel like she’s trying to keep me from moving forward in life and trying to stunt my growth. I don’t know what to do.

B - April 7, 2017 Reply

Hi, this is such a good posting. Thank you, Dr. Webb! I was wondering if the next posting, “How to Get Healthy Distance From Your Parents” is now available? The link in the article does not work. Thank you!

    Jonice Webb PhD - April 8, 2017 Reply

    Hi B, I’m glad you found this article helpful. I’m afraid I never wrote the other article (actually it’s a topic that will be covered in my second book, which I’m writing now). Thanks for the reminder, I’ll try to write that article, so watch for it! Take care.

Renee - April 27, 2016 Reply

I would like to see an article on the other side of the coin. How to distance yourself from your children. I have a daughter who is 35. She’s been a trial since birth. Sounds horrible I know, but truthful. I was dropping 1 of my grandchildren off at their home, and unbeknownst to me, my daughter had been drinking. She came at me out of yhe blue, blaming me for every wrong or ill in her life. She has never taken responsibility for any of her behaviors. It’s always someone else’s fault. I really felt fearful, as she was in my face yelling and screaming all kinds of horrible names and insults. If I would of had to, I would of defended myself against her. We have never been physical, but I prepared myself psychologically just in case. I knew where my “weapon” was and decided that I would use it if I had too. It was NOT a firearm. I am 54, too old to take a butt whipping. I have not spoken to her since. She has been blocked as far as communication. It has been a month. I think I should just cut her out of my life. What do you think?

    peanutsmom - May 1, 2016 Reply

    I can somewhat relate to you.I’m 40 and my son is going to 21 this year and in June he’s having my first grandchild and I should be happy but I’m not. He hasn’t been a loving son for 7 1/2 yrs and last August after my DH was killed over at his place was the end of our relationship we once had. He never liked my DH and told the whole world that he didn’t so when this happened I and a number of friends felt he had something to do with it. Nobody could prove it but my gut tells me otherwise all the time. I also can’t be happy because when my DH and I were pregnant my son called me every name in the book and swore he’d not claim our baby as his little brother! Just last month I tried to invite him over to be with the baby for his 2nd birthday but that was a big mistake. He left but not before saying I was never there enough for him and he’s definitely not going to parent his child like me. So yes I’ve made the decision to cut him off for good as it’s affecting my ability to love/care for my husband’s and my baby. You have to do what is right for your well being! As I’ve even been told by his grandma, you’ve raised him as best you can. Good luck xx

    nan - May 5, 2016 Reply

    Hello Renee,
    Your daughters behavior seems to be more about alcohol addiction than any ill feeling toward you- even though she lashes out at you- or any available target. Do not take it personally, Renee- it’s not about you, it’s about her addiction. Please don’t cut her out of your life, addiction is an illness, and both she and your grandchildren need stability and support. You can get help and understanding of the problem through ALANON- an AA program for families who are affected by alcohol addiction. If she lashes out at you, her children may be at risk of abuse or neglect also. Stay connected if only for their sake. Learn all you can about alcoholics and their behaviors and do not take it personally. Your daughter is in pain, and that pain is equal to the amount of anger and dysfunction that you are witnessing. You must protect yourself at the same time, and learning about alcohol addiction is your best defense. Good Luck- I hope your daughter finds recovery. The nice person you used to know is still in there- buried under the pain of addiction. She needs your unconditional love, but that doesn’t mean you should let her abuse you. Alanon will help you be safe, create healthy boundaries and contribute to her eventual sobriety. Don’t give up. Many find their way out of the addiction trap, and your daughter can too. Help your grandchildren all you can- they will need you. I wish you the best- I am the Mother of an addicted son. Never give up.

    Colette - May 24, 2021 Reply

    Does she drink often?
    It is possible to find help creating boundaries with your daughter and support from those in similar situations through Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a free program for friends and family of alcoholics. When you work the program with a sponsor you can gain helpful relationship tools and insights that help grow healthy relationships. The support found in Al-Anon gives people the courage to make necessary changes and implement the healthy boundaries needed for changed relationships based in (hopefully eventual) mutual respect and love. After working the program for 3 years, it has allowed me to mature emotionally, take ownership over my part in things, listen better to my core being who helps me identify my needs and purpose, choose faith in the unknown over what is normal and comfortable out of fear, and gain enough trust to invest worthily in my life.
    We are waiting for beautiful, brave women like you. You are capable of affecting the world possitivly for your grand(s), and maybe even your daughter, but only when you change the world for the better for yourself first.
    Sending much hope and love,
    Colette

Rich DC - April 26, 2016 Reply

Love the suggested exercise of making two lists– one about what you resent in your parents and one about what you’ve appreciated about them. Such exercises can be really helpful if we actually do them!

MK - April 26, 2016 Reply

Perhaps the healthiest distance from parents comes in the form of time. Once your parents die and you go through their personal effects and old photos, it’s amazing how you begin to discover who your parent really was as an individual person – outside of who they were to YOU.

The process of finding photos, letters, awards, etc, that you’ve never seen before will reveal to you sides of a parent that perhaps you previously resented. That is, until you realize that they themselves struggled to achieve, or were hurting, or even that they were once very happy in their childhood. You might even find photos of your parents holding you as a child, beaming with love and joy for you, despite what later years brought emotionally.

When adult children have their own kids, they suddenly understand the truth about parenting and can hopefully come to grips with some of the mental, emotional and physical challenges their own parents endured. If you never have kids later, then at least understand that, just as much as you wish your parents really knew you as your own person – try to see that they too are/were a living, feeling individual, faults and all.

One more thing: Your parents actually succeeded if you’re better off than they are (economically, emotionally, mentally). Take credit for it or give some credit to your parents – but most of all BE HAPPY!

Justme - April 25, 2016 Reply

Looking forward for the next article. I’m an adolescent getting into a college this year. Read this article and I am, subtly, happy that it is not entirely my fault that caused so much strain in my relationship with my mother (directly) and my dad (indirectly) . It was my induviduation and my many symptoms for depression and OCD. Not diagnosed though. Unfortunately this started early in me. They have always criticized and have given me all that they considered important to them and my ideas and decisions were of no concern to them. It always hurt me. So I stab back with words with my mom. That hurts her too but I can’t help it. My dad has never been close enough to know me for who I am. He has always wanted me to be the person he wanted to be. No question about whether I like it. That hurt. But I can’t go with a verbal talk with him about anything he doesn’t trust. And he doesn,t trust me already. And it will be worsened. And I believe you will have just the remedy I need in your next article. Thank you.

happy lady - April 25, 2016 Reply

I am in college but I am applying for a job away from home rather than move back home this summer. My mom keeps coming up with new reasons why I shouldn’t. She is reluctant to bring my car back even though I need it for the job. I told her a friend is helping me move out of my dorm and she was very resentful that I didn’t need her help. And last time we talked she just got furious at me over something so trivial.. I feel like she is holding me back. I really need the job experience and she knows that but I feel like she is going to mess this up for me just because she is uncomfortable with my increased sense of independence.

Sam - April 24, 2016 Reply

Thanks. Looking forward to the next article.

Rae - April 24, 2016 Reply

I don’t have a problems with my mother mentioned in your article but another one. I recently moved back into my mothers home since leaving home at 19 years old. I’m 64 years and she’s 93 years. My husband and moved into her home after coming back from living overseas for 12 years. She is in fairly good health and independent but doesn’t want to live alone anymore for safety reasons. I am surprised at the negative feelings that have surfaced towards her. I feel depressed and angry living with her. She is very sweet and undemanding but was totally emotionally unavailable to my sisters and I growing up and still is, doesn’t have a clue. I don’t know what to do. I’m wondering if I get counseling it will help deal with living with her. Thank-you for any feedback.

    Rich DC - April 26, 2016 Reply

    Hi Rae, I have a similar experience of a mom who was very emotionally unavailable when I was a kid, but now is sweet and we have a pretty great relationship, although I must help her a lot because she’s 82 and needs it. I can get regularly depressed and resentful about “having” to go visit her. Therapy has helped a great deal! I’ve also done some Dialectical Behavioural Therapy around managing powerful emotions and found it super helpful. I took part in an online course for 12 weeks and would recommend it to anyone.

      Rae - April 26, 2016 Reply

      HI RICH DC,
      Thank-you for your reply and sharing what has helped you in dealing with your mom. I’m looking into getting a therapist. I have never heard of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy but will look into that as well. That’s great you have gotten help through therapy. Thanks again for your feedback.

Dave - April 24, 2016 Reply

Yes I can relate to my parents holding you back from growing. In my case it was my mother who was a very critical put down person. Both of my parents are dead. I remember looking at a picture of my dad after he passed and thinking to myself, I don`t know this person. they both were sick in there own way but I know growing up in that is why I don`t know what I feel or even what to do with myself. I`ll have to get that book. Thanks.
Dave

    Dorothy - April 25, 2016 Reply

    Like you both of my parents are dead. When I hear people mention how much they miss them I think “I don’t”. I’m ambivalent about it. I look at pictures and think “who are you”, never had a meaningful conversation with either one that I can recall. I’ve just accepted it; and I am okay. My siblings are a different story. I long for meaningful relationships, but they aren’t really capable of it so they are like acquaintances. They have not pursued healing so it’s a lost cause. Her book is great. You’ll understand more about yourself and that is a start.

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