I’m in my late 20s, and have lived away from home for almost 10 years, while getting my undergraduate degree, going to graduate school, and beginning my career. I recently moved back to my hometown for a great job and to be closer to family. But now that I’m back, they’re driving me nuts! I love them to death, but they still treat me like I am 15 years old. They drop by my place unannounced and expect me to be at every family gathering, no matter what else I have going on. When I say I’m busy, they get upset and tell me I don’t have time for them. I’ve tried asking for space and boundaries, but their feelings get hurt when I do. Sometimes my sister even cries. I’m not sure what else to do. Help!
Too Close to Home
Dear Too Close,
Your situation is tough, but not uncommon. Many adult children struggle to redefine family relationships once they’ve left the nest. You want autonomy and for your family to respect it, but you’re frustrated they “just don’t get it.” While that’s a completely reasonable desire, you can’t control how people react. Families can also struggle with this transition. As we get older, our needs for our family will change, but some family members may be slower to catch on. It’s up to you to let them know by not just asking for boundaries, but maintaining them. First, a quick chat about why boundaries are crucial.
What is a boundary?
Personal boundaries declare who we are. They define our thoughts and feelings, likes and dislikes, values and beliefs, and they protect us from physical, emotional, and mental violations. “The concept of boundaries is rooted in God’s character,” says Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book Boundaries. Throughout scripture, God defines himself as a distinct and separate being from us. He tells us who he is and is not, what he thinks and feels, and what he will and will not tolerate. He confronts offenses and allows consequences for behavior. And he never forces us to accept his love or spend time with him.
The most basic boundary-setting tool is the word “no,” as it helps keep bad things out of our life and protect the good. The Bible tells us to be clear about our yeses and nos (Matthew 5:37). Otherwise, it’s difficult for others to know when their behavior is driving you nuts. So, let’s chat about some of those behaviors and how you can deal.
“They still treat me like I’m 15, and they drop by my place unannounced”
Yeah, that can be frustrating. There are a couple of things to consider. First, you left home a teenager and returned an adult. But even though the world recognizes you as such, it can be hard for Mom and Dad to see beyond their “little baby.” Drs. Cloud and Townsend call this “acting out of memory instead of growth.” In addition, your family probably missed you and want to make up for lost time. So, they resort to what they know: acting out old habits. Before you moved away, you likely lived at home and they only needed to knock on your bedroom door to find you. Now, your boundary has expanded and you’d like a little more notice than a knock.
If you’ve asked for boundaries and your wishes continue to be dissed, check yourself. Have you asked your family to contact you before coming over? And have you clearly stated what will happen the next time someone shows up uninvited? The conversation might look like this:
“Hey Mom! I love it when you visit, but from now on would you please call before you come over? Otherwise, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be home or available to spend time with you, and I want to make sure we get quality time together.”
Simple, right? If you’ve tried this, great! But now let’s get real: have you followed through? This. Is. Critical. If you’re having trouble, dig deeper. Are you afraid enforcing your boundaries will cause a family member to get angry or withdraw?
Boundary setting in relationships is an important, but difficult skill to develop, no matter the nature of the relationship. With family, however, this skill can seem almost impossible. It hurts to tell a parent or sibling no and, unfortunately, many relationships involve a tug-of-war of manipulation. This can look like outbursts of anger, guilt trips, or tears.
“They expect me to be at every family gathering…. When I say I am busy, they get upset and tell me I don’t have time for them. Sometimes my sister even cries.”
No one likes to be told no. But guilt, blame, or shame are not healthy responses to whatever emotions arise. Sure, Sister might feel disappointed you aren’t available for dinner, or Mom’s feelings might get hurt that she can’t visit you unannounced, but those feelings aren’t your responsibility. Galatians 6:5 says, “For each [person] will have to bear his own load.” You can have compassion, empathy, and understanding for how they feel, but ultimately their feelings are their “load” and their responsibility to take up with God and soothe, not yours.
The tough issue here is the guilt and pressure you feel because “they’re family” and because of the displays of guilt and anger you’ve experience. You may tell yourself “Time with family is more important” or “It’s not worth making someone upset” or “I’m being selfish” and begrudgingly break other commitments. The Bible tells us each of us should give what we have decided in our heart to give, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). While this verse is most often applied to giving financially, it also extends to being good managers of all the resources God has given us, which includes our time.
Boundaries aren’t rude, disrespectful, or unloving. If your “no” is consistently met with extreme phrases like “You always have something better to do,” “You never have time for me,” or any other effort to induce guilt or fear, it’s best to put some distance between you and this controlling behavior until you’re strong enough to enforce your boundaries. You may need to get yourself into a supportive community where it’s safe to set limits without the repercussion of guilt and anger. This could be your church community, friend group, significant other, or a counseling support group. Practice setting limits on smaller things, before deep-diving into a more difficult and sensitive situation.
And one more thing. Boundaries are also about keeping in positive, life-giving experiences. A friend once said to me, “You’re better at saying no, but are you better at saying yes?” We can get so wrapped up in throwing out our old baggage that we can lose sight of—even fail to recognize—the good waiting on our doorstep.
You can create balance by taking matters into your own hands. Instead of waiting for family to invite you, initiate your own gathering. Host a movie night, get a coffee, go to dinner, or any other place you feel comfortable. By setting a new dynamic, you help break old patterns and build new memories. Meeting on neutral ground helps you continue building your boundaries, while still filling your family’s need to connect. And you give them an opportunity to see you in a new way—the happy, healthy, confident, compassionate adult you’ve grown into.
Boundaries are something you will work through your entire life. And it will take time and patience to find the right groove with your family now. As you enter new chapters—marriage, children, moving, new jobs, making new friends—you will discover new boundary needs and renegotiate—or let go of—old ones. The more successful boundary conversations you have, the more your confidence will grow, and you’ll experience the freedom that comes with letting your “yes be yes and your no be no.” And, who knows? One day you may even find you no longer mind Mom or Dad popping over unannounced.
For more on boundaries, I recommend Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and Townsend, and for more on understanding healthy relational patterns, check out Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud and Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves by Dr. David Stoop.