Monday, June 3, 2019

In Grief: Setting Clear Boundaries

[Reviewed and updated August 9, 2023]

Boundaries in child-parent relationships basically establish that you're an adult with your own rights, choices, preferences and capacities.  ~ JR Thorpe

A reader writes: We lost our dad 5 months ago and my mother-in-law 3 months ago. My mom is constantly complaining that my 2 siblings and I are not doing more for her. I'm feeling very depressed with all the guilt she is putting on me.
A bit of history here - she has had a strained relationship with us for years, we were never good enough and were constantly criticized as children. She is emotionally reserved so we can't cry or express emotions or talk through things. In the past when I have tried to talk with her about how she treats us it has lead to a huge fight where we didn't talk for months. Then when we do finally see each other, she acts like nothing happened. 

Since my dad passed she has become very demanding she wants help immediately and then gets angry at us. Even when my mother-in-law died she asked my husband to come to the house and help her with some things. I had to call her and tell her he is not helping her when we are planning a funeral and she argued with me about how she needs help. We all help her a couple times a month, but it isn't enough the property is too big. On my birthday she sent mean messages to all of us that we hadn't done enough for her. Then she sent a text days later asking us over for dinner, no apology. I know she is grieving and lashing out more than usual but I don't know what to do, she won't talk about it.  

My siblings say they have put up a wall so what she says won't hurt them but I can't figure out how to do that.  I'm just so sad and hurt, I miss my dad and my mother-in-law so much.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the deaths of your father and your mother-in-law, both of whom you loved so dearly and now are missing so much.

You say that your relationship with your mom has been a strained one for years, and I'm sure the death of her spouse hasn't helped at all, and quite probably has made things worse. You also say that even though your siblings have found a way to cope with your mom's behavior, you can't figure out how to deal with her.

There seems to be a need here for you to establish clear boundaries between yourself and your mom ~ so that your relationship and whatever verbal exchanges you have with each other become less "parent-to-child" and more "adult-to-adult."

Setting a boundary with someone is like drawing a line around yourself to define where you end and where the other person begins. It's about self-love and self-respect ~ treating yourself with the same love and respect you would expect from others.

I encourage you to do some reading on this topic, so you'll have a better idea of how you might begin this process. See, for example,

Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward with Craig Buck

You might find this article helpful as well: Helping A Grieving Parent

Afterword: Thank you so much these resources are great. I am reading one of them now and I never really knew what was going on and how to deal with it, but now I do!  Thank you! 

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