Our relationships with our mothers can be complicated. Even if you have a close relationship with your mum, you might have had thoughts like, “I wish she wouldn’t call everyday,” “I don’t like it when she makes me feel guilty for my choices,” or “I don’t like it when my mum meddles in my personal life.”
If you’ve experienced these feelings before, you’re not alone. Even as adults, it’s common to struggle with self-autonomy and detachment when it comes to how we interact with our mums. You might still look for her approval even while resenting it at the same time. Or you might struggle with communicating what you need from her. For example, you might prefer her to listen rather than give you advice and criticism but don’t know how to tell her how you feel.
This is where creating boundaries comes in.
“Boundaries are an important life skill that are essential for having healthy relationships. It includes communicating your needs through verbally asserting yourself, as well as various acts of setting limits through actions,” says Dr. Amelia Kelley, a trauma-informed therapist and co-author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship. “An example of a boundary set through action would be choosing not to pick up the phone during dinner time after previously communicating that you cannot talk at that time.”
When it comes to establishing boundaries with your mother, Kelley calls it “a complex endeavour” but “increasingly important” when trying to establish your own sense of self.
“Children are constantly figuring out boundaries with their mother, but in early adulthood, more dramatic boundaries start to be established,” she says. “Moving away from home and choosing life goals that are divergent from your mother are a crucial part in figuring out who you are. Other common instances where boundaries are necessary include choosing your life partner, deciding on your career or where you want to live, and choosing your individual values, such as spirituality or political affiliation.”
Depending on the dynamic between you and your mother growing up, Kelley says some of these choices will align with your mother while others may differ dramatically. “If this occurs, boundaries are necessary in order to ensure that you feel respected as the individual you have become.”
If things with your mother are not as balanced as you would like, and you’d like to start setting boundaries with her, here’s what you need to know, according to experts.
The benefits of boundaries
According to Dr. Carla Manly, a California-based psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend, there are many benefits to having boundaries on physical, mental, and emotional levels.
“When we have solid boundaries, we are able to express our own feelings and allow others to express their feelings. As well, clear boundaries allow us to express our individuality in healthy ways.”
When expressed clearly, Manly says healthy emotional boundaries help others know our needs; setting clear boundaries alleviates confusion and increases personal empowerment. “Good boundaries also provide us with the physical space that allows us to feel safe and secure.”
Why it’s important to have boundaries with your mother
It’s important to have clear boundaries with one’s mother in order to have a healthy relationship, Manly says: “When healthy boundaries are not present, enmeshment (an unhealthy emotional fusion that inhibits individuation) often occurs. When a mother and child do not have healthy boundaries between them, a lack of separation — emotional and even physical — can arise.”
For example, if a mother does not allow a child to have their own thoughts on relationships, they may grow up to model the mother’s relationship patterns rather than developing their own. In some cases, mothers and children do not have healthy boundaries when it comes to general beliefs, such as political or religious issues. If a mother does not allow her children to explore their own beliefs, the child will be limited to being a mirror image of their mother rather than their own person.
Another example, Manly says, is if a mother believes her child should be a people-pleaser and does not allow them to learn and state their own needs, the child will likely will be destined to become a people-pleaser. Additionally some mothers use their financial means to exert pressure over an adult child.
“In these cases,” Manly says, “the mother may invade an adult child’s boundaries and use finances as a way to coerce an adult child to engage in certain behaviours.”
Other instances might involve a mother becoming overly involved in child-rearing practices and becoming invasive and interfere with the ways in which her daughter parents her own children.
In more severe cases, specifically those who often come from adverse childhoods and do not have healthy bonds with their mothers, Kelley says more stringent boundaries are necessary in order to protect yourself from further emotional abuse or manipulation.
“Just because someone is your mother does not always mean they are healthy for you,” Kelley says, “and you do have the right to ask for distance or even at times practice radio silence, cutting the relationship off entirely.”
How to set boundaries with your mother
While setting boundaries with your mother might sound difficult and stressful, according to Kelley, there are ways to establish boundaries that will help sustain a positive dynamic and relationship.
“First begin with being open — she will not know what you do not tell her,” Kelly says. “Unless you express your wants and needs, she cannot adjust her behaviour. For some, it is difficult to speak directly to a person whose opinion means so much, so writing a letter or email can be a helpful way to start the conversation.”
She also recommends expressing gratitude for her input, effort, and what she has provided you in the past.
“Creating space between mother and child is healthy but can also result in intense emotions, so expressing gratitude helps to remind your mother how much you care for her and your relationship, even if you are openly disagreeing with her or distancing yourself.”
When it comes to establishing boundaries with a mother or anyone in your close circle, Manly recommends knowing your needs are first. Once you know your needs, you can express them calmly and clearly.
“In general, the best scripts for setting boundaries are very simple and straightforward,” she says. “As new boundaries are set, it may take some time for others to respect the clear, healthy boundaries.”
Here are a few examples of healthy scripts for boundary-setting.
1. “Please respect my boundaries around this issue. It is important for me and my personal well-being that you honour my needs.”
2. “I can appreciate that you are not used to me setting boundaries, but I know it is important for my well-being that my boundaries are respected. I know that you care about me, so please honour my wishes.”
3. “I feel very disrespected when my boundaries are disregarded. It is important for my personal well-being and the health of our relationship that you respect my needs.”
As well, adding a heartfelt “I love you” often makes boundary-setting easier for a mother to embrace.
Why establishing boundaries with your mother can feel so hard
It might be easier to set boundaries with a co-worker or even a good friend, but when it comes to setting them with our mum, it can feel difficult. Kelley says there’s a good reason for that.
“The closer we are with someone, the more difficult it can be to establish a boundary,” she says. “This is due to the investment in the relationship. The more invested we are, the more is at stake if the relationship suffers. While our mothers can be our biggest cheerleaders, they can also be our biggest critics. Oftentimes they know us more than anyone, and for that reason, they tend to have more opinions about how we live our lives.”
That’s why it is even more important to establish boundaries with your mum. Because, as Kelley puts it, when we have healthy boundaries with our mother, “We feel more at ease with sharing our individuality with her and the relationship becomes more honest and authentic. When boundaries are not respected, it can be difficult to feel safe to express yourself, and many individuals will find the relationship suffers.”