My parents keep visiting me over the summer and living in my apartment on my couch. One of my parents is looking for a job both in my current state and in the state of my hometown (where she actually officially lives when she is not visiting me). She sometimes has interviews out here and I am her host.
My dad, meanwhile, stayed three weeks at my place over the summer. I repeat: three fucking weeks. I did not need his “help” (his reason for visiting), but I felt bad telling him because I know he is going through a difficult time in his life (unwanted retirement) and wants to feel useful. I know I don’t *have* to satisfy those feelings for him, and I’m in therapy to try to get over this thinking.
I feel like crying. I was (and still am) a “parentified child” (chaotic home, traumatized parents told me about their adult sexual and financial struggles as though I were a healthy confidant) and having to host my parents now in my early 20’s is really triggering the sad feelings of powerlessness and numbness I used to feel. The feeling that I have to care for and baby my parents rather than enjoy being young, being a kid and having a fun place to live *on my own*.
I was saying to my therapist yesterday that I need to balance what my parents want from me as a daughter, to what society thinks a daughter should reasonably do to help her struggling parents. I burst into tears because she said, “Well, and you also have to balance those things with what YOU want.” I hadn’t even considered my own desires in terms of my apartment and my boundaries with them.
Do you have any scripts on re-setting (or rather, setting for the first time) boundaries with my parents? I know that part of the process will probably involve my knowing what I actually WANT for boundaries–but frankly yesterday is the first time I have ever thought about it with such precision.
My mom still doesn’t have a job yet, and I know she is probably going to come back out for more interviews. I have suffered enough of my parents’ rage and regret over finances and lost jobs. I am so tired and fragile right now. I also am terrified of setting boundaries–I don’t know that I believe they can get on without my help. Plus, you know, I love them.
Any help or advice or scripts would be amazing.
–Healing from parentification
[Ed. note: Description/definition of parentification is here.]
I’m glad you have a smart therapist who can remind you that your needs matter on an ongoing basis.
My best suggestion is that you get a notebook or open a file on your computer and start writing. Finish these sentences:
- “In a perfect world, when I see my parents we would…”
- “My ideal houseguest would….”
- “I would be up for hosting my parents ____ times/year for no more than _____ days at a time with at least _____ of notice.” (Your ideal number can be zero, by the way: Zero times/year for Zero days at a time).
- “The things that really bother me the most about their visits are…”
- “If I talk to them about it and set a boundary, I am afraid they will…”
See what comes up when you write it all out, and bring it all to your therapist to process.
In the meantime, start practicing setting boundaries and stating preferences in small ways in your day-to-day life, both with your parents and with other people you interact with. Pay attention to how you assert yourself in lower-stakes situations that aren’t so emotionally charged.
- “Server, this sandwich isn’t what I ordered.”
- “Coworker, can you turn the music down please?”
- “Mom/Dad, this isn’t a good time. I’ll need to call you back.”
- “I’d prefer to sit closer to the front.”
- “That movie doesn’t interest me. Howabout this one, instead?”
- “Your party sounds lovely but I won’t make it this time.”
- “Please put me on your Do Not Call list.”
- “No beer for me, thanks. Do you have iced tea?”
- “No iced tea for me, thanks. Do you have a beer?”
- “No thank you, I’m not interested.”
- “Thanks for lending me that book, but I know I won’t get to it any time soon, so I’m going to give it back to you.”
- “That restaurant is out of my budget right now. Can we do something less expensive, or save it for another time?”
- “Excuse me, but I was next in line.”
- “It was really nice meeting you, but I don’t think I’m interested in another date.”
- “It’s awesome how much you love ____ (show, book, movie, band). I never could get into them, myself.”
- “Boss, I’d love to take that project on, but given x, y, and z projects I can’t make it a priority unless something else goes. What do you suggest?”
- “Whoa, TMI! Let’s change the subject.”
- “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive, that that comment was pretty racist.”
- “I’m going to have to reschedule our meeting.”
- “I wish I could stay but I have a busy day tomorrow, so I’m going to head out.”
- “Do you mind putting your phone down and not texting while we’re trying to talk?”
- “That’s all the time I have today, we’ll have to pick this up another time.”
- “I can’t do that favor this time, sorry.”
Practice not picking up the phone if you don’t want to take a call.
Practice not answering the door if you weren’t expecting visitors.
Practice cutting a conversation short when it’s going nowhere.
Practice asserting yourself positively, too. “You look great today!” “You did a good job on this.” “I really appreciate the ride.” “You made my drink just right.” “I am really happy to see you.” “Thank you for introducing me to that organization.” “I loved that book you recommended.” “I really liked going on a date with you, let’s do it again sometime.” It’s all part of not sitting on your feelings.
Pay attention to how it feels when you say “no” to someone. What are your anxieties? How does the other person react, relative to your anxieties? What’s hard about it? Does it get easier over time? Do you find yourself apologizing a lot? Negotiating an adult relationship with parental figures is rarely easy for anyone, but I think you have been particularly trained and groomed to never disappoint people (i.e. your parents), and that it’s unrealistic to go from “Sure, whatever you need” to “Have you considered the hotel?” with your family without some practice in realizing that disappointing someone is not the Worst Thing In The World. With a little practice, you can work up to:
- “Three weeks is just too long, Dad. Three days is more like it.”
- “Thanks for your offer of help! I’ve got it handled, though, so let’s plan a visit where I come home next month instead.”
- “Mom, I’m happy to put you up for a job interview for a day or two as long as I have x days’ notice.”
- “I love seeing you, but hosting somebody on short notice/for so long really stresses me out, and we need to figure out an alternate arrangement.”
- “I need you to ask me if you can stay, and sometimes I need to be able to say no if it’s not a good time.”
- “It’s just not a good time right now.”
- “Sorry, that won’t work for me.”
- “Parent, can you take your private financial/relationship stuff to a counselor or your friends? I’m not comfortable hearing about that stuff.”
The first time you set a boundary is the hardest time and when you will most likely get the strongest pushback of the “But we’re a faaaaaamily and families do ________” or “We’re not guests, we’re faaaaaamily” sort. You might get some guilt trips and cutting comments about ungrateful daughters and all kinds of cultural pressure. If you remain clear and stick by your boundaries, people mostly can and do learn to ask first and to take “no” for an answer. And you can be very direct about what you are doing, and why. “Mom, Dad, I love that we’re a close family and I do love seeing you. But now that we’re all adults, I want us to have more of an adult relationship, and I want to be able to balance being able to count on and support each other with adult behaviors, like, asking before you plan to come stay, setting limits on how long visits should be, and being respectful of each other’s limits and space. My tiny apartment isn’t built to have more than one person living in it for any length of time. I know money is tight right now, so I’m not saying you can’t crash here sometimes, I’m just saying we need to put some limits in place so that it can be a very pleasant, happy thing when you do come.”
Or “Mom, Dad, if you want to visit (city), please plan to stay in a hotel from now on. Hosting you won’t work for me anymore.” You are allowed to choose whatever honors your needs, your wants, and your safety and I don’t want to give the impression that you should somehow make short visits work if you don’t want to. FYI, my parents almost never stay with me when they visit, so don’t believe any “ALL families do this!” nonsense.
It also helps if you model the behavior back at them – ask if you can stay with them when you visit, ask if they can pick you up from the airport, thank them for hosting you, etc. They may say “You don’t have to ask!” (translate this is “You don’t really expect us to ask, do you?” h/t @brigidkeely) but keep asking. Some families really have a culture that says “manners are for OTHER people, families shouldn’t have to worry about them” and those families will keep me in letters until I am old and gray. I think manners & consideration in your close relationships are even more important than they are for casual social interactions. You’d probably laugh at how much my Gentleman Caller and I say “thank you” to each other – “thank you for breakfast,” “thank you for reading my resume,” “thank you for picking up groceries,” “thank you for coming with me” “Am I interrupting you?” “Do you have time to do x?”, etc. – but if we’re gonna share this 600 square feet for the forseeable future I think we gotta be gentle and considerate and not take things for granted.
Your parents can survive some limits around visiting. You can survive not being the most accommodating daughter. Your relationship and your love for each other can survive all of this. A new normal, where asking first/limiting visits is just the routine thing that y’all do, is possible.