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3 Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries with Disrespectful Parents

From my perspective, there’s nothing more precious than the child-parent relationship. Yet, recently, I’ve seen a disturbing trend of disrespect and uncaring behavior disrupting this vital, foundational relationship.

The overwhelming response to my article, “How to Deal with a Disrespectful Grown Child,” opened a window into just how deep the wounds and disconnection are in our present culture. I’ve received scores of emails, numerous requests for parent coaching, and phone calls with pleas for help. And more recently, I’m receiving comments and emails from children burdened by emotionally immature parents—wondering how to deal with “toxic parents” or parents who demand respect but don’t give it!

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Young woman arguing with her mother.There seems to be a growing trend of adult children cutting off contact with their parents, which is tragic. Sure, it’s easy to cut them off, but typically, the disconnection eats away at us. Social media and pop culture provide quick-fix advice telling you that “toxic people” should be cut out of your life. And it may feel like the only solution, but cut-offs don’t build understanding or healthier relationships.


Cutting Parents Out of Your Life

Cutting people out of our lives is, at times, necessary. Relationships are a two-way, give-and-take connection, so when loving and respectful behavior is absent, sometimes stronger boundaries are necessary. Setting a firm boundary and taking distance can be helpful, even critical at times, for instance, with a violent alcoholic unwilling to change or unable to control their behavior.

Related reading:When You Cut Your Parents Out of Your Life.”

However, when we cut people out of our life when we get hurt, we deny people the opportunity to increase awareness of how their behavior impacts us, and without that awareness, the opportunity to make changes that are reparative for their relationships is also diminished. Giving honest feedback is the bedrock of trust and genuine understanding, and it creates the possibility for our relationships to grow and mature.

Years ago, I had a client who had so many relationship cut-offs (including her parents) that her world had become small and lonely. Every time a person slighted her (often unknowingly), she would recoil, refusing to interact with them in the future. Each time, a thicker armor was formed that created barriers to authentic and meaningful connections in her life. When I asked her why she didn’t let them know how their behavior affected her, it was a completely foreign concept. No one can do better if they don’t know better.

Respect is nonnegotiable in relationships. Respect is earned, and trust is difficult to nurture when it’s lacking. Without listening to one another and honoring differing opinions and values, relationships cannot grow into mutual respect.

But it can be difficult to express hurt feelings appropriately or resolve conflict effectively if we didn’t have this modeled to us growing up and we’ve never learned how. So, what do you do if you’re an adult child who feels hurt or disrespected by your parents? How do you set healthy boundaries for your parents when you feel disregarded, judged, or mistreated? And what recourse do you have rather than cutting them off?

If you’d like to stay in communication with your parents and their behavior does not constitute a lack of safety for you, below are three ways you can care for yourself while flexing new relational muscles that hold the potential for change.

Related reading: "Aching to Feel Heard? Crucial Skills for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents."

Yes, help me set better boundaries
Father and adult son not talking to each other.

Ways to Deal with Disrespectful Parents for a Healthy Relationship

1) Know what parental behaviors require firm boundaries.

Everyone, at times, can react when triggered. And sometimes, the history in a parent-child relationship has emotional mines that can get set off quickly. Knowing what situations you are able to handle successfully and what kind of behaviors or patterns only create more hurt is vital. Know where that line is for you; otherwise, knee-jerk reactions can contribute to more damage to the relationship.

There are certain behaviors in a parent-child relationship that should not be allowed. When we tolerate unloving behaviors without communicating or setting boundaries, we are consenting to that treatment. Of course, they’re your parents, so it’s understandable it can be hard to know how to show your love while also refusing to accept hurtful behaviors. However, when we allow a person to lash out at us, we train them to repeat the same behavior in the future. As adult children, allowing inappropriate behaviors from yourself or your parents will only perpetuate problems in the relationship.

Below are harmful behaviors in the adult-child parent relationship:

  • Physical harm of any kind
  • Violation of physical, emotional, or sexual boundaries
  • Angry yelling or rage directed at you
  • Accusations and blaming
  • Name-calling and vindictive sarcasm
  • Distortion of facts and lying
  • Shaming and guilting
  • Denying your right to feel or express yourself
  • Stealing money; borrowing money without repayment
  • Verbally agreeing, but not keeping the agreement

None of these behaviors result in positive outcomes and create unpleasant experiences at best and unsafe circumstances at worst.

Therefore, know your parents’ specific, hurtful behaviors and do not allow or engage in them. Remove yourself from the situation when necessary. Sometimes it may be required to seek professional support; an objective mediator can help create a bridge of understanding between you, or a therapist could help you explore and identify your triggers and what boundaries could be helpful for you.

Related reading:People Who Lash Out in Anger Need Compassion—and Boundaries! 
Extended family cooking in the kitchen.

2) Build emotional intelligence skills to navigate difficult conversations and negative or harmful interactions.

The common denominator in all healthy relationships is emotional intelligence regardless of personality differences or conflicting opinions. Sometimes learning a simple but powerful skill is key to resolving conflict and building more wholesome relationships.

Here are a few tools that go a long way to creating meaningful dialogue and resolution:

3) Set consistent limits for behaviors.

Even though it might feel like your parent “should know better,” the quality of the relationship also falls on you. We can’t change other people, but our responses can compel new behaviors from others. Consistency is crucial. If you set a boundary one day and allow the same behavior the next, the contradiction will cause your limit not to be taken seriously.

Of course, your first priority is to be safe and take care of yourself.

Let your parents know what’s okay with you and what’s not. You might think they are aware of their hurtful behavior, but many times behaviors that have been practiced for a long time can become so familiar and unconscious that the person may not realize their impact. It’s been my experience in scores of mediations with family members that often people don’t know just how distressing a comment or behavior is. And they feel helpless to change a relationship’s dynamic or respond differently.

I once did a mediation between a fourteen-year-old boy and his father. When I acted as a bridge to help them truly hear one another, the son told his father how scared he was whenever his dad got angry and yelled at him. The father had zero awareness or understanding of what the yelling was like for his son before hearing from his son. When the father opened up to his son’s pain, he broke down in tears and apologized. Then, to ensure future success, the father committed to practice self-calming skills to regulate himself better and shift his angry behavior.

Disrespect prevents love from growing.If it feels too uncomfortable or scary to set a limit in person with your parents, consider getting a professional to support you. Or another great way to stay safe while expressing yourself is to journal or write a letter to your parents. Let them know how you feel disrespected or hurt without any accusatory language. This exercise might be challenging, especially if past injuries are long-term or repetitive. If that’s the case, it’s helpful to do a series of mind/feeling dumps by writing uncensored letters to your parents. When we know there won’t be any repercussions, many times, we can access our hurt or anger more easily.

Writing helps to process feelings so we can express what we really need to say, which can be healing in itself. This action can act as a huge release of the hurt you feel. Write until you feel a release and some relief—then burn it. While burning your letter, practice letting go and setting a new intention for the relationship.

Deep Dive:The Writing Cure

After you’ve cleared some emotional debris, consider writing an email or a letter you mail to your parents. This time, let your parents know what you want different, not just what they’re doing that feels unkind. For example, “I feel unheard and disregarded when I am interrupted. What I need is for you to listen without interrupting.” Or “It is hurtful when I am criticized in front of my children. I am willing to hear your constructive feedback regarding my parenting when the children are not present.”

To decrease the likelihood of receiving a defensive response, focus on describing your emotional experience in reaction to their specific behavior without using judgmental or accusatory language (even if they are acting inappropriately).

Related reading: "How to Set Healthy Boundaries for a Happy Life."

Parents are human and, therefore, imperfect. Of course, they’re going to make many mistakes, but most desire to be in a loving relationship with their children when they grow up. And parents can also be an immense source of support, wisdom, and enjoyment. The parent-child relationship is worth working to keep and nurture.

Learn to care for yourself first. Define what you’d like your relationship with your parents to look and feel like. Then help them to respect and love you better by advocating for yourself. By giving voice to your feelings and needs, you give your parents an opportunity to become their better selves. Change is possible.

Related reading: "7 Symptoms of Emotionally Immature Parents and Practical Advice for their Grown Children."

To learn more about emotional intelligence or to receive personalized coaching, contact us at support@Heartmanity.com.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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