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With Difficult Parents, Consider Boundaries Instead of Estrangement

With Difficult Parents, Consider Boundaries Instead of Estrangement

This Mother’s Day, you may have noticed a less cheery marketing tone emerging from your email inbox. American companies from Etsy to Milk Bar now allow people to opt out of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day promotions. These companies acknowledge the negative emotions the holidays can elicit for those who have lost their parent(s), lost a child, or are estranged from their family. Estrangement, especially, is becoming more common: As recently as 2015, 11% of 65- to 75-year-olds reported being estranged from at least one child.  Sometimes, estrangement is a healthy choice. But as a leadership expert focused on emotional intelligence and a family health communication scholar, we know that rejecting all contact with a difficult parent has its own unhealthy effects. In the wake of Mother’s Day and with Father’s Day approaching, adult children might consider boundary-setting as a key alternative to estrangement. Setting boundaries can help in unanticipated ways and support healing.

After decades of celebrating mothers as selfless saints, psychology—and the media—now realize that for some people, events like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day evoke bad memories. Emotional abuse, manipulation, and shame are all captured by the term “toxic mothers.” The same goes for toxic fathers: these negative relationships often originate in early feelings of abandonment due to a father distancing himself post-divorce. Often, this toxic behavior occurs when emotionally immature parents lack enough self-awareness to realize their actions hurt their child. This immaturity manifests itself in behaviors like silent treatment, blocking phone numbers, and using grandchildren as pawns. Toxic and emotionally immature parents often gaslight their adult children when confronted with childhood grievances, deflecting accountability and leaving the adult child to question their early experiences. This could be one reason why so many cut ties with their parents: Research shows that most estrangements are child-initiated, with adult children overwhelmingly citing toxic behavior by their parent(s) as the inciting factor.

One source of estrangement is a stark difference in parenting styles between Baby Boomers and their children. Whereas many Boomers criticized and punished children for expressing their feelings, today’s parenting wisdom (and a host of Instagram accounts) encourages riding out meltdowns and staying physically close to the child. Building positive relationships with our children presents a mirror that reflects our negative childhood experiences back. In raising our children respectfully, we can’t imagine intentionally causing them hurt by criticizing and punishing them. In navigating toxic relationships, we may feel forced to either placate the parent or cut off contact altogether to avoid the toxic behavior. But as estrangement becomes increasingly common, it is important to note that often neither choice leads to the inner peace adult children are seeking. An overwhelming percentage of estranged family members report finding the holidays, the whole month of December, social media posts about families, and even being around other families challenging.

But cutting off all ties is not the only option. Learning to set clear boundaries in a relationship may save years of heartache on future holidays like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. Writer and therapist Prentice Hemphill describes boundaries as “the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” That idea translates into tactics and strategies for protecting yourself from harm. For instance, if your mother or father fails to take accountability for her toxic behavior, you may limit time with them. Only call weekly or monthly to briefly check in and let them know you care. If you have plans to dine out, drive your own car so you are not cornered in a physical space. In short, limit the chaos and confusion.

Boundaries position us to stay true to ourselves while maintaining some degree of relationship. One longitudinal study reported that adults with a history of maltreatment found that boundaries promoted well-being. Learning to set boundaries is hard work, but that work pays off in overall happiness. One way to deal with a toxic parent is taking a leadership approach—work on your own emotional intelligence, which helps you become self-aware, manage your emotions, and be aware of others’ emotions. For example, if your toxic mother dismisses your experiences, state, “That’s not how I remember that happening.” Practice saying “I’m entitled to my emotions” if your toxic father regularly diminishes your feelings. Melanie Parker, author of Narcissistic Mothers, says to hold toxic people accountable for how they treat you, limit your time with them, and stick to the facts (don’t be defensive).

To be sure, there are circumstances that demand estrangement. Abusive parents, addictions, parents who endanger grandchildren: in these cases, cutting off a parent may be the best choice. But when a parent has mellowed out while still denying the past, the growth that comes from learning to set boundaries can yield peace of mind and set an example for others, especially children. Remember that they’re not going to change, but you can change your reactions. You can focus on healing for yourself and your children. Keeping a difficult parent at a comfortable distance avoids the ambiguous loss of estrangement while showing young children what good boundaries look like.

The learning process can be hard, but in the end, boundaries are blessings. If you choose to keep a toxic parent at a safe distance, authors like Melanie Parker, Terri Cole, Melody Beattie, and Lindsay C. Gibson have much to teach. No one should have to fear their relationship with an emotionally immature parent, nor should that relationship invoke stress and anxiety. Striking a balance with a difficult parent might be the best way to participate in Father’s Day or Mother’s Day while honoring your own feelings.

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