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Audio VideoRedefining any role in any relationship is always about doing what you can from your end – yep, boundaries.

Being boundaried with our parents (or caregivers – caregiver being anyone who had primary responsibility for raising you… or thinks that they did) is one of the hardest things that we can face as humans. It is one thing when our parent has healthy boundaries because whatever changes we make in order to be boundaried, they’re not going to take issue because they were not over our line in the first place and saw us as being a separate, individual entity, not an extension of them, but when our parent doesn’t have healthy boundaries and a pattern of us slotting in with their ways has developed, it can feel downright excruciating to even think about being more boundaried never mind being it.

When your parent has TFM issues, it is easy to feel helpless, to feel as if you’re caught between a rock and a hard place or to feel as if you will lose them if you are more boundaried but, it doesn’t have to be this way and if you don’t start setting boundaries in small yet when all gradually built up, very effective ways, your relationship will implode.

You are at this juncture because this relationship is too uncomfortable because it’s too unboundaried and you’re a grown-up that’s on a journey.

Here’s what you have to start taking on board:

  • You can love your parent(s) and hold them in high esteem without it being about you being inferior or it meaning that you have to obey them as if you are a child until the end of time.
  • Loving and honouring your parents does not mean obey – showing respect and love for your parents does not mean oppression through being guilted, obliged and coerced into sacrificing your mental, emotional and physical health.
  • Your relationship has been about a level of codependency – they feel as if you’re responsible for their feelings and behaviour, you take responsibility for it (and forget your own responsibilities to you) and also on some level keep looking to your parent to make you feel better about the discomfort you’re feeling from being enmeshed and not having healthy boundaries.
  • If you don’t know where you end and where someone else begins in any type of relationship, family or not, this is a code red alert that you have become emotionally reliant on this person for your self-esteem, which is actually being reliant on external esteem, which leaves you with little or no sense of self.
  • If you do not have healthier boundaries with your parent(s), you are guaranteed to end up in some form of unhealthy relationship that mirrors what is going on here, so if you desire a mutually fulfilling relationship with love, care, trust and respect, or you want to show up in a current relationship without feeling excessively emotionally reliant, being boundaried with your parent(s) is critical.

Accept from the outset that this isn’t a simple process but that it is necessary

Needing to evolve your boundaries with a parent highlights where you have been enmeshed, so that sense of feeling as if it can’t be a different way because it will hurt each others’ feelings while at the same time feeling hurt by engaging in the way that you are and the expectations that are being put upon you. You end up being entangled so disentangling isn’t going to take one action – it will be a series of actions over time. Accept that it will feel not so good before it will feel better. Accept that this is a process and that most humans don’t like change although that doesn’t mean that it’s not needed. It will take time for the consistency of new boundaries to settle in so give you and your parent time, with boundaries. This means, don’t go making an arrangement with yourself where you decide that you’re going to be unboundaried for another 90 days to give them time to get used to it – he-llo! What difference will that make?!


Acknowledge that some of the feelings that you think that they’re feeling are also about what you’re feeling

Rather than this being a bad thing, on the contrary, it’s quite liberating. This is not to say that your parent isn’t feeling (or won’t feel) uncomfortable from you having healthier boundaries but you only know your own feelings and can literally only take care of your own feelings. You could do everything your parent(s) ever instructs you to do and you will still feel these emotions and you won’t be able to control theirs either.

It’s not because you’re supposed to continue as is – it’s because of the way in which you’re each engaging why these feelings are there.

What does liberate you is recognising that some of the guilt and anxiety you feel is about your own perceptions and expectations of the relationship, not necessarily about something your parent actually feels. This is great because you can learn over time to handle those feelings of guilt and anxiety rather than treating the feelings as facts and then sliding into a pattern of behaviour that doesn’t work. And remember – you’re their child, not their feelings fluffer and buffer!


Don’t take on

If you tend to absorb their mood, you have to get grounded when you pick up that they’re angry, sad, depressed, anxious etc. Next thing, you’re whipping you up into these feelings. Recognising your own feelings but also empathising (recognising their position without seeing you as part of it or as needing to the solver of it – over-empathy), will help you to get grounded. When you feel as if you caught their mood, examine those feelings in your Feelings Diary and also try an Unsent Letter.

Also learn to say, “That’s not mine, that’s theirs and I’m sending it right back”.

Start small

The reason why my perception of ‘separating’ from my mother prior to me finally being more boundaried was so harsh, was because I was basing it on the extremes, normally stemming from major changes (moving away) or clashes. What I didn’t acknowledge were the other small and sometimes not-so-small and meaningful ways in which there were differences in our relationship – for instance, no longer looking for her opinion and validation about my career.

It’s very difficult to set boundaries about a conflict or a criticism that has not happened yet. By this I mean that there are other ways to be boundaried besides dealing with issues.

Look at the areas where you feel that you must do ________ or that is a habit – refer back to your journaling on obligations and the role you play.

There are small things that you can do on everything that you’ve put down there that set the stage for having a bit more confidence when you encounter an issue. Look at arrangements, ongoing obligations, phone calls, visits, favours.

How can you gently start to scale back or to say no or “Let me get back to you”?

Don’t go to extremes because it will just make you super anxious and add more tricky.

This means, instead of going, “Right, I don’t like going to visit my father so I’m not going to go at all”, you go, “Right, I find the visits with my father really overwhelming because he _______ and _______ and ______ and I tend to end up ______ and _______ and feeling _________. Instead of going around there 3 times a week, I’m going to drop down to 2 times and then down to a once a week”.

Gradually dropping things down feels less intense for both of you.

You do not need to justify why you cannot visit or call a parent but having some ready-made brief explanations also helps. To be fair, the likelihood when you have a TFM parent is that you’re dropping the ball somewhere – neglecting a romantic relationship, your own free time, friendships, or work.

You are allowed to have your own life and you don’t need to account for every minute of the day.

Saying that you have work commitments cover off a lot of things. As does saying that you’re right in the middle of something.

By no longer being available for long draining calls and situations where I got dragged into a drama or was expected to solve it, I changed the entire dynamic of our relationship. I limited the calls to 10-15 minutes, shorter if any of the keywords or phrases were used, and I’d spent my whole life reading signs of a change in the drama wind that I knew the, A Favour Request Is Coming, A Big Drama Story Is Coming, Some Blame Is Going To be Put On You etc tones and removed myself.

Set expectations from the outset

If your parent expects you to be on the phone for a long time and drop whatever you’re doing, try something like, “I’m only going to be able to talk for ten minutes”.

When it’s closing in on ten minutes, “Really sorry to have to cut you off but I’m gonna have to go”.

“Yes I know that I normally stay on the phone but I can’t this time. Let me call you back when I can properly listen”.

And then set a time limit in that call and only call back when you’re ready and wanting to have a chat rather than feeling obliged and trapped.

If the guilting starts….

“No I’m not a [ whatever they say, .eg. bad daughter] for not being able to stay on the call (or whatever it is). I have spoken to you on many calls and for much longer, I just can’t this time”.

“This isn’t a good time for me to talk. It doesn’t mean that I’m [repeat whatever they said] – I can call you back after work or [suggest another time]”


If they still guilt….

“OK then but I really have to go. Bye (or however you normally sign off)

If they make mention of it further down the line such as, “You never have time for anymore”

“I do have time for you – I’m just not able to always drop whatever I’m doing. I hold my hands up and recognise that in the past I’ve __________ [insert what you normally did e.g. given the impression that it’s OK to take time out of work to be on long calls /do errands / whatever it is] but I can’t do that anymore.”

Whatever it is that you typically do that has now become as expected, calmly let them know that you’re unable to do it this time.

“I can’t [whatever it is that they’re asking/expecting you to do] this time

And repeat these types of statement for each repeat of this type of situation. This is called Broken Record – you stick to the facts and don’t get drawn into any side arguments, put-downs etc and it works not just on all types of TFM but on any person who goes down the passive aggressive or aggressive route. 

Example in full:

Mother: You’re going to have to cancel your plans this weekend as I need your help with bla bla bla.

You: I understand {empathy} that you’re ______________ but I won’t be able to.

Mother: But I really need you to do this stuff!

You: I’m sorry mum but it can’t happen this weekend.

Mother: Maxine’s (her neighbour) daughter is always dropping whatever she’s doing to help her out. Why can’t you be like that?

You: Mother, I’ve dropped things on many occasions to help you out {clarification of the facts instead of drowning in guilt}. In fact, this is the first time I can ever recall saying no to you. I can’t help you out this weekend.

Mother: I bet what you’re doing isn’t even that important! I suppose I’ll have to ask your brother.

You: I’ve made plans mother and I’m not going to argue with you about how important they are. I think it’s a great idea that you ask him! {suggesting an alternative which is a form of negotiation – you will get to have your weekend and she will still get her objective met – getting those tasks done.}

What you’re doing is calmly setting healthier through actions which send repeated cues when you do them over time, to the other party (your parent) that you are not receptive.



If you know that an expectation already exists, e.g. going around for Sunday dinner each week, don’t leave it until Sunday morning to say that you cannot go just because you’re afraid of confrontation. It’s likely that you will change your mind and go, or that you will say that you can’t go and then backtrack out of guilt, or that you will go there grudgingly.

“I know that we usually have Sunday dinner but I’m not going to be able to make it this week.”

“Yes I know that I always come but on this occasion I can’t. I come every week and have not missed on before but I have an arrangement to go to / would really like to do [whatever it is that you’ve been turning down each week]. “

“I know that we spend every Christmas together but this year I’m spending it with [whoever you’re spending it with e.g. your partner’s family] or doing [whatever it is]”, this way you don’t neglect you, or for instance, your relationship with your partner or expect your partner to neglect his relationship with his/her family to appease your parent.

Journal PromptJOURNALING: How do you feel about making small changes to relieve some of this TFM situation tension? Has some of your reticence been about your own feelings about the relationship rather than the actual feelings of your parent? If so, explore what these feelings symbolise and why you, for instance, feel anxious about setting boundaries. What do will you have to accept about you or the relationship? Relationships with TFM parents are characterised by you each not seeing each other as individuals (or one of you not seeing it that way) and it instead being about a view of a relationship where one person does this for the other. E.g. Mom/dad is ______ so you have become the person who ________ {your role} and they know that you’re the one who will ______ and _____ for them. How has your parent consciously or unconsciously availed of this habit? Also acknowledge any good aspects of your relationship – these are what you can enjoy more of once you are more boundaried.

taskTASK: Decide on 3-5 regular go-to reasons that you can use when you’re in one of those situations where your parent is expecting something of you. Also have a go at rehearsing your own version of Broken Record – try in the mirror or yes, even with socks as puppets – very funny and adds humour to your role play.

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