Wright Foundation | November 19, 2019

Setting Boundaries with Your Parents as an Adult

Does your mother meddle? Do you feel like your dad is critical of the way you live your life?

You may be grown up, but do you find you're still setting boundaries with your parents? Here's how to address the challenges of an overbearing parent.


Do you find your parents offer up little comments and bits of advice whenever they’re around? Do they ever critique your parenting style?

Many of us think setting boundaries with our parents is something that happens when we’re teenagers. We see helicopter parenting as a playground occurrence, not something that will follow us around into midlife.

We may imagine when we move out of the house at 18, our parents will suddenly recognize us as an adult, capable of our own choices and lifestyle. Or maybe we think it happens when we graduate college? Get married? Have children of our own?

Yet, I’ve seen people who struggle with setting boundaries with their parents at age 60! Believe it or not, overbearing parents happen at every age. Here’s how to put a stop to the struggle.

Parents Inform Our Views

One of the most challenging aspects of growing up—for most human beings—is setting limits, boundaries, and expectations with their parents. It’s difficult at almost any age, and we may find trouble with boundaries well into midlife.

The origins of our struggle begin early on. As young children, we need our moms and dads to help us navigate the world around us. We look to our parents for cues on how we’re supposed to act, react, and feel in any given situation. Our parents inform our beliefs about the world around us.

Have you ever seen a child refuse to taste a vegetable because Mom or Dad doesn’t like it? Or have you seen a child look to their parents when they’re asked a question, to ensure they give the “right” response? If so, you realize the tremendous influence parents possess over their kids.

Now, it’s not to say this influence is wrong or harmful. In most cases, it’s entirely appropriate as children are learning about their environment. No matter how much parents scale their response to empower their children, there are still limitations we face as youngsters.

We grow up in a world that’s big when we’re small. As a child, you can’t drive a car, use the stove, or get a job. You’re dependent on your parents for nearly everything in life. You face limitations because of your age and size. These limitations come up as we’re forming our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.

Even in a “perfect” childhood (which doesn’t exist), we will form limiting beliefs. We carry these beliefs with us throughout our lives. They inform our future interactions and our views on the world.

If we believe the world is unsafe or we’re not good enough, we may carry those beliefs with us into adulthood. We may still view our world as a place of danger and insecurity, where we’re inadequately equipped to deal with our circumstances.

Compounding our limiting beliefs is falling into a self-fulfilling prophecy trap. We believe we’re not enough, so we act as though we aren’t enough when we walk in the room. People see us, shoulders hunched, head down, and assume we aren’t capable. They don’t call on us to rise to the occasion, which reaffirms our self-fulfilling prophecy, “I’m not enough.”

Now, as adults, when we’re working through this “unfinished business,” we may become aware of the role our parents play in empowering or disempowering us. So how do we repair the rift? How do we address the fact that we’re no longer a helpless child on the playground?

Parents Over-Control or Under-Control

At the Wright Foundation, we work with many families—parents and their children. Getting parents to set appropriate boundaries early in life is one of the biggest challenges. Almost all parents struggle to navigate limits, boundaries, and expectations.

Some parents over-control and some parents under-control their children. They never internalized expectations, limits, and boundaries themselves.

Failing to receive consistent boundaries, limits, and expectations when they have children, they struggle. If their parents were over-controlling, they tend to be under-controlling. Then they get frustrated and blow up. They’re inconsistent, which is confusing for their children.

When their kids grow up, they face the same challenges we’re addressing today. They don’t know how to set consistent boundaries, limits, and expectations with their parents…and the cycle goes on.

It becomes laughable to me when I meet people who are 30, 40, and even 50 years old, and still receiving unsolicited advice from their parents! They’re still allowing their parents to overstep and set the boundaries in their life, even as adults.

At a recent seminar, a man in his late-30s or early 40s stood up and shared what his mother said to him about what he should do and how he should act in the seminar.

I said, “Well, how did you feel about it?”

He said, “Actually, it REALLY pissed me off!”

So, as we discussed it further, I said to him, “Imagine saying to your mother, ‘Mom, if I want advice from you, I’ll ask for it. In the meantime, unsolicited advice will garner an unpleasant response from me until you learn to keep your advice to yourself. Furthermore, I don’t see you as such an exemplary human being I should take your advice in the first place! Why don’t you get help to become a human being who is a living model for me? Someone who doesn’t need to give advice, because she’s living her life so beautifully, I want to be like her?’”

“I know you are capable of keeping your advice to yourself. If you were visiting the President of the United States, I doubt you’d give him unsolicited advice.”

(As a side note: if your mother gives so much unsolicited advice, she would even offer it to the President, she may be deeply gone, and that’s a whole other issue.)

The main point is, share your feelings with openness and honesty. If you’ve had enough of your parents’ overbearing advice, say so! Let them know it needs to stop!

Even though we looked to our parents to lead us in setting boundaries as children, it’s within each of us to set appropriate boundaries as an adult. We don’t need to wait to take our cue from Mom or Dad.

What Does Unsolicited Advice Really Say to Us?

When we get unsolicited advice from a parent, it tells us they don’t believe we can do something correctly. This advice taps into those limiting beliefs and reinforces them.

If your mother says, “You’re not going to let your daughter go out without a coat, are you?” or, “You should get rid of the tree in your front yard,” the comments may seem off-the-cuff. But the underlying message is, “you don’t know how to keep your child warm,” or, “you don’t know how to take care of your yard.”

This critiquing reinforces our beliefs and keeps us in the trap of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Instead, one way to deal with unsolicited advice from family is to say, “Gee, I didn’t ask for advice. Are you criticizing me? Are you telling me I’m inadequate or something?”

Our world today talks a great deal about toxic and overbearing parents. But here’s the truth: They are only toxic because you allow it—you are not the victim!

Toxic parents and overbearing parents require victim-y, submissive children. When we choose to step out of the pattern of drama, stop taking on the role of victim, and stop letting our parents take on the part of persecutor or rescuer, we break the cycle.

Many of us are drawn to drama because it feels productive. It feels like something is happening and we’re making progress. Really, we’re trapped in the same patterns over and over. Instead of falling into the roles, we can empower ourselves to break free.

Remember, you are an adult, and you are 100% responsible for your own happiness. You don’t need to beat up on your parents, but you should stand up for yourself. Handle the situation with humor and honesty, but don’t fall into the same patterns.

For more ways to empower yourself, visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training seminar, where we’ll discuss new ways to address your unfinished business. We’re also happy to announce that many of our courses are now available online at a special introductory price. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about yourself!

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.