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Adult Child Guilt: Quick Tips on Setting Boundaries With Your Capable Parents

What is your duty as a child to your capable parents? Is it your job to make them happy? What happens when you have guilt for wanting to lead your life your own way? How do you set boundaries with your capable parents?

As an adult, with my own family, I struggle with the duty and the guilt I have toward my capable parents. Boundaries have always been a problem with my parents, mostly my mother. Don’t get me wrong I love her dearly, but she has her own way of doing things and guilt is one of her favorite weapons.

I hear my mother’s voice in my head. Telling me I’m a bad, ungrateful child. This triggers a wave of guilt.

I have my own family to take care of. It’s not like my parents need help taking care of themselves. They are healthy and vibrant and in my face constantly.

“When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

Paulo Coelho

My parents used to live two hours away. It was perfect. We would see them once or twice a month for the weekend and then go back to our lives. No need to have any guilt. I put in the time and now I can get back to my own life, weekend over. That was until four years ago when they moved only twenty minutes away. The almost daily pop-ins began to really disrupt our family’s flow. I am a stay-at-home mom, but I write and have a schedule I keep. She thought that because I don’t work outside of the home I had nothing to do during the day.

In fact, I had a busy schedule with three kids and was trying to get a writing career off the ground. I got angry and resentful. I know this has much more to do with me than her, but still, I felt it.

What is My Duty to My Parents vs My Own Family?

Isn’t that a hard question? How do you answer it without guilt? I think my answer is, that depends. Right now, for me, my parents are healthy and functioning. They drive, they cook and they do everything for themselves. So what they need from me is purely emotional. Not that I’m downplaying that. I know they’re lonely, especially after moving to Ft Collins and leaving all their friends.

But does that mean I have to fill in? And if I don’t, do I need to have guilt about it?

First of all, I have my own family to take care of. Three teenagers with different schedules and needs of their own. How do I put my parents ahead of that?

Second, is my husband. We have made it a priority to take care of our marriage. That takes work. Am I able to give more to my parents than him?

Last, is myself. For far too long I have put my own needs aside. Over the last few years I have come to realize my health and happiness is just as important as my family’s needs. So I have begun the slow process of putting myself first. This is the most difficult for my parents to understand.

For these reasons, and not to justify myself, my time is limited. So how do I give more than I have to my parents? When my parents ask for more than I can give the guilt kicks in and I shut down. I’m not proud of this, but I tend to get mean under stress.

I needed to set some rules to keep my sanity and autonomy, not to mention the way I want to react. I am trying to be more calm and kind. But, my mom tends to be a steamroller.

What Could I Do Without Adding to My Guilt?

I knew I had to start setting some sort of boundaries. I also knew how this would be received by my parents. Naturally, I had to change my mindset. I had to let go of the guilt. I had to be gentle, but strong to make sure I would be heard by them. Not an easy task for the youngest child of a woman who was a Navy chief and the oldest of her entire family.

I began by calling her out. When she would show up unannounced, I would not let her intrusion interrupt my day. In the past, if she showed up unannounced I dropped what I was doing to have coffee with her or accept her lunch invitation. I didn’t want her to feel bad or like I didn’t care about her. So I would go along.

The new me pushed the guilt aside and as gently as possible explained to her I was in the middle of something and asked to reschedule to a time that would work for me.

Or if I had to run errands that is what I told her. I didn’t drop everything for her, but I didn’t leave her out completely either. I would ask if she wanted to along go with me in whatever I needed to get done.

My mom’s reaction was either unhidden aggression at the idea or a sad guilt trip-laden monologue about how I never had time for her or what a mean daughter I was. And like any change, I was successful about eighty percent of the time. Not a bad start. But the more I said no the more the anger from my mother showed its ugly head. Or she would use her most powerful tool, guilt.

How I Set Boundaries Without Guilt

As the process continued, I developed thicker armor. I was more adept at saying no, and the guilt began to fade. My mom tried many strategies to get me to comply with her wants, anger, mean comments, and even ignoring me when the anger and guilt stopped working. I learned how to combat her demands.

To begin with, when she would get angry I simply ignored it. I know it sounds simple, but I gave a sincere apology and said no. Her anger was not my problem. How I reacted to it was what I could control, so I didn’t react.

Some of the time she would say things like, “You don’t love me,” or “Why are you so ungrateful?” When she employed those remarks to make me feel guilty, I tried to explain how those words made me feel and, then again, I put the ball in her court. I didn’t need to justify myself or retaliate, I just let go.

I had to learn ways to say no that honored myself and my mother. So when I said no the strategy I used was to filter my “no” through a few questions. Be clear the no isn’t personal. Make your no as clear and simple as possible. There is no reason to give excuses. Last, this process takes time and practice. Stick with it!

In the End…a Quick List

I had to…

  1. Put myself in their shoes and understand where they were coming from.
  2. Choose my battles.
  3. Let go of the guilt and not beat myself up.
  4. Plan ahead.
  5. Find an outlet for my feelings so I could deal with my parents calmly and rationally.

It has been a couple of years of employing these techniques and for the most part, our life has gotten back to the smooth-running machine that it is with three teenagers. Well not smooth, but at least manageable. I had to decide what was most important to me and where my priorities were. I love my parents, and I want them to be happy, but I needed to set boundaries so that their happiness didn’t rely on me.

We are in a much better place now and only occasionally does she bark up a comment, which I can look at more objectively. The guilt is gone and now we can enjoy each other again.

Here are a couple of relates articles I think you’ll like:

People Pleasing: Set Yourself Free From the Lies You Tell Yourself

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, it’s employees, sponsors, or affiliates.

Riki Urban

Riki grew up in Colorado, enjoying the outdoors and the mountains. She is an openminded straight talker, sometimes to a fault, who is constantly striving to better understand herself and her family. She is mother of three teenagers, and a wife of 21 years, married to a Ft. Collins native. She is a fiction writer of three, soon to be, published books, she has been writing for five years. Riki and her family are making use of the pandemic and decided to buy a camper and travel around the U.S. with her family, expanding the pleasures of hiking and sleeping under the stars. She realizes this could be the most amazing thing she has ever done or a total disaster. Riki hopes to inspire and laugh along with you as she shares her struggles of growing up with ADHD and raising a child with ADD. Along with striving for more compassion and empathy for the world and herself. She is delighted, and a bit petrified, to be a part of the incredible We Spot Community.

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