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How to Set Boundaries with a Parent

Dear Joseph,

Your advice for dealing with conflict often involves trying to see the other person as “reasonable and rational.” But what if this person is clearly not reasonable and rational. What if they are simply unable to listen, to reason, and to carry out any kind of agreement on how to “get along”? What if they can neither conceive of nor agree to “ground rules”?

After many years of struggle to build a relationship with one of my parents, it has become clear to me and my siblings that this parent is heavily narcissistic and unable to make changes in their behavior. Because this is a parent, I would like to still maintain some kind of contact, but any time I try it is very painful. It is especially hard being manipulated and feeling I have to agree with their unreasonable opinions and behaviors. After listening to this parent’s non-stop harangues, I’m totally depleted. Help!

Sadly Clear

Dear Sadly Clear,

I’m sorry. It’s not easy to come to the conclusion you’ve come to. Especially about a parent. But the fact that you’ve come to that conclusion is the answer to your question. The reason you’re depleted is that you’re in denial. You have all the information you need to make a decision, but you’re not making it. I hope my suggestions help you to take that next step.

You’re correct that I often encourage people to resolve conflict, in part, by challenging their stories about others. But there comes a point when you’ve examined your own role long enough and attempted healthy approaches to improving your relationship, and nothing changes, that you must conclude, “This will never work.”

I’m going to use your own words to help you understand what this means.

“Because this is a parent, I would like to still maintain some kind of contact, but any time I try it is very painful.”

You must set a boundary about how much contact you will have. You say you want to maintain contact but it’s painful. Why is it painful? Is it painful because you keep hoping they will be different than your entire life experience has told you they are? If so, this is your problem. Your parent keeps showing you who she/he is, but you are imposing expectations for them to be different. Drop the expectations. Accept them as they are. Then ask yourself, “How much time do I choose to spend with a person who is like this?” You apparently feel some obligation to care for your parent’s needs. Good for you. But you are a person, too. You have an obligation to care for your needs. How can you discharge the duty you feel to your parent while still protecting your emotional wellbeing? Set a boundary that reflects this balance. If guilt is driving you to spend more time than your boundary would dictate, get yourself some emotional support to help you confront that guilt.

“It is especially hard being manipulated and feeling I have to agree with their unreasonable opinions and behaviors.”

You’ve got some work to do here. Please don’t hear my advice as judgmental. It’s not. Everyone struggles with codependence with various people in their lives. And you clearly are struggling with this parent. If you’ve truly concluded that they are “heavily narcissistic” and incapable of changing, you would be immune to their manipulation and would find it easy to shrug off their unreasonable opinions. The fact that their games are working on you is something you need to work on. And, while you’re developing the emotional independence to do so, you should minimize or eliminate contact with them. As long as your contact is enabling their bad behavior and causing you suffering, it is doing neither of you any good.

But be prepared. As you attempt to set boundaries, they will use every trick in their book to challenge them. So, set a boundary about how you’ll respond when they challenge your boundaries. For example, if you say you will only visit with them on the phone and for no more than 15 minutes a week, they may leave you voice mails calling you names and accusing you of crimes against humanity. If you’re still struggling not to personalize those voice mails, decide how you’ll deal with those shenanigans. Perhaps you let them know you will not listen to voice mails. Perhaps you let them know you’ll block their calls other than the 15 minutes a week you are allowing. Decide how you’ll deal with the manipulation. Then stick with it.

“After listening to this parent’s non-stop harangues, I’m totally depleted. Help!”

Here’s the help: The way you’ll know you are keeping the right boundaries is that you will no longer feel depleted. You will feel empowered, centered and strong. Anything less than peace means you are taking unhealthy responsibility for your parent’s needs at the cost of your own.

Again, I’m sorry you don’t have the parent you want. And I assure you that what’s wearing you out is burning energy hoping for someone to show up the way you want rather than the way they are. Accept reality, make the right decisions, and you’ll be on your way to greater peace.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

8 thoughts on “How to Set Boundaries with a Parent”

  1. Chris Hogg

    What an intriguing and helpful dialogue. Thank you for putting it up.

    So much in here it’s hard to choose the main thing, but one thing I took away is that we need to distinguish between what we want things to be like versus what things are actually like.

  2. Allison

    Your response to this issue was great Joe! Short and informative. As adult children of aging parents, we do have a large amount of responsibilities of our own for maintaining relationships and caring for our children, grandchildren, homes, and to maintain a healthy lifestyle balancing still working fulltime with personal lives. Helping take care of aging parents if part of what we feel responsible for as well, especially if parents may still be living in their homes but not able to take care of the home, yard, vehicles, etc anymore. We love our parents, and guilt sets in when we feel resentful of all their demands of us to help them when it seems they are not able to understand how much easier life could be for them and us if they weren’t so needy because they insist on continuing stay in a home they can’t take care of anymore instead of downsizing or assisted living. Thank you for your insight, my brothers and sister will be grateful.

  3. RPM

    Dear Sadly,

    Having experienced NPD with a family member I love, I’d like to share what works for me. Whenever I interact with her I picture her alone on a stage as a puppet master. She has to be in control or she will mentally fall apart – I have seen this with her and it’s incredibly unsettling.

    She determines who is allowed to be in the audience, backstage, or who is permitted to join her onstage. You are not a cast member or even a crew member. You are an audience member. Sometimes she pulls you onstage with her. Everyone has strings attached and she is in control. You do too. A key point to remember is that you are the only one who can remove your strings. Do you do so before you walk into the building? Before you are seated? Before you’re onstage with her?

    Sometimes you will find that you have handed her your strings. That’s okay, it’s habit. Just gently take them back. The key is while you are in her world (which she perceives is the entire world) BE GENTLE. No matter what she does or says, wait a full 2 seconds before you respond repeating to yourself “be gentle”. Get in the habit of waiting. It will be awkward, uncomfortable, and you will seem odd. It is odd to learn the habit of self-control while practicing self-awareness when we aren’t used to doing so.
    Let her say and do everything she wants to say and do short of physical harm. Picture her talking to another puppet that looks exactly like you. Practice having compassion for her. She has a classified mental illness and is the last person who realizes it. Everyone else sees it but her. That’s what happens to NPD personalities. The only way to respond to them is to enjoy them when they are being charming, and gently set boundaries with compassion when something does not feel okay knowing that they will likely cross that same boundary another xxx times before they learn to respect it.

    When you walk outside of the building, you’ll see the sign on it, probably for the first time. Metal Health Asylum. She did not choose to be there. She was born there and has no idea she lives there. You have the freedom to come and go. Show her the same compassion that you would someone who actually lives in an asylum. Mental health patients should at least receive medical care and compassion from their caregivers, right? NPD individuals over time engender resentment when those around them are unaware of just how incapable an NPD is of true love.

    When we recognize and realize where they where they actually live, we can have true compassion for them and be kind. Unless I’m completely honest with myself about who she is and accept her exactly for who she is if I said I love her it would be a lie. I can only love someone if I accept them for who they are and love them exactly at that moment, faults or NPD and all.

    I hope this helps you.

  4. Diana

    Joseph thanks for your wise words. I observed this kind of dynamic with my husband and mother-in-law. He felt drained not knowing how to act when it seemed like everything was all about her and she would make blanket statements he disagreed with — should he say nothing and feel like he was agreeing and supporting her point, or disagree with her out loud, or avoid being together? His first instinct was to avoid being around. Finally he took an approach of saying, “Hmmm. I see it differently.” and “It sounds like you feel really strongly about that.” Those phrases helped him feel like he could listen and support her without having to agree with something he didn’t, or be disagreeable. Sometimes it led to her being curious about his perspective, often not.
    He also felt disappointed that she didn’t seem that interested in him – being with her was rarely a two-way real conversation. But when he zoomed out, he could see she was doing the best she could, that she showed she loved him through her actions over the years, and that she was really needing confirmation and attention because of her own self doubts and insecurities.
    He chose to make time to visit with her and pay attention to her without trying to get his own need for attention or conversation or rightness met in those interactions. That made him feel good about their interactions and allowed him to show her love, which is what she was looking for.

  5. Clare

    I cannot put to words how wise this column is. After years of ineffectually coping with a narcissistic parent, feeling exhausted, sad, mentally and emotionally worn down, I decided to take a break for a thousand days. The thousand years extended to a decade and during that time I discovered each point of wisdom in this article. Accepting my parent as they were and not wishing them to be a parent was very difficult and took time. All children have needs and hopes and wishes. It took time to address this lack and become my own parent, acknowledge the deep neglect and sadness. But then, after time, it simply became fine. I found my own inner resources, and started to feel peaceful often, most of the time. Setting boundaries also became an area of inquiry. With such a lifetime of eroded boundaries, in the name of love, and other relationships echoing this dynamic, this took resolve, patience, self-love and recommitting. In the end, I took a break for 10 years. And one day, I felt ready to engage again. Now, our conversations are often 15 to 30 minutes. I interrupt when I feel a ‘deluge’ coming. I come prepared with topics to share because if I don’t share them, no questions will come. However, I have found that this parent delights to hear my offerings. I can see their story, their lack of social orientation AND that doesn’t change their woeful lack of social grace or parenting skills. Joseph Grenny, thank you for so warmly and concisely putting clear words to this challenging dynamic. Lots of compassion and latitude to all finding their way through this.

  6. Patty

    I can’t thank you enough for putting this up.. I feel validated. I go through this ordeal on a weekly basis b/c my 90 yr old the parent lives with me. This parent is not my biological parent but is loved just the same. I had to learn to set limits in my interactions with my parent who has always been like what was described above. Setting limits was for my own sanity. Thankfully, my parent’s caregiver opened my eyes and showed me how much my parent had manipulated me my whole life. Now my parent angers quickly when i don’t give in to her shenanigans.. Unfortunately, my parent’s caregiver at times has to take the grunt of that. I’m so appreciative of the caregiver. I find ways to thank her all the time.

  7. SAS

    Thanks for pointing out that the frustration is that they don’t want to change. Growing up, my [Indian] mom yelled at me, criticized me, and often threatened suicide because of me, often related to food. As a result of the effect on my self-esteem, I was late beginning dating and sexual experiences, and went through lots of therapy. I felt I missed out a lot. Today, both my sister and I have families with 3 children each and good jobs. Yet my mom continues to criticize me on the phone or on visits, especially around food. She often claims that her life is over, that she is ready to die soon, and she is always suffering for and worrying about the children. Given the number of my peers whose parents have passed away, I think this is insulting. But that’s why I appreciate the point – I shouldn’t want to change them. This point is further reinforced by YouTube comedian Lilly Singh. In her videos, she makes audiences LAUGH by acting EXACTLY like my mom. And if Lilly Singh can do that, without ever knowing my mom, then it shows how ingrained it is to Indian culture, and how my efforts to change her will be futile.

  8. SAS

    Thank you for sharing this. My parents are Indian and it’s a struggle with them, even today when I’m grown with my own family. But I realize the issue is that I want them to change, which they won’t

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