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How can I set up healthy boundaries with my parents?

Our agony aunt Mary Fenwick offers a new perspective on whatever is troubling you

by Psychologies

After a series of traumatic relationships in my twenties, I’ve evolved into a happy, successful, confident and independent individual – but my parents still treat me the same way they did when I was a child. For example, I had an argument with my mother last year when I found out she’d been opening my mail for the last 28 years and reading it all. They’ve always suffered from lack of empathy. I rely on a large group of supportive friends, as I know I won’t get much from my family. There was a time when I would choose to ignore their actions and comments, but now I feel I need to do something about it. I’m trying to set up some healthy boundaries between us to stop the situation getting out of hand but it’s difficult as every time I try, my parents get negative and withdraw. I get the impression they’re not fully aware of their behaviour. How I can move forward and resolve this before it gets worse? Name supplied

If we imagine a perfect parental relationship scale of zero to 10, it sounds as if you are around a two or three. This is tough for you, but somehow you’ve developed amazing qualities of resilience, determination and self-care – in spite of, or in response to, that background.

If your parents still receive any of your official mail, please cut that cord: arrange a rolling redirection notice at the post office.

With that out of the way, I suggest you write to your parents along similar lines to how you have written to me.

If you can find it in your heart to start by thanking them for whatever good they have contributed to your life, that will probably enable them to ‘hear’ your words more easily. If you can set out the boundaries you want, and stick to them, despite negativity or withdrawal, you’ll know you’ve done your best to nudge the scale towards a four. I will hold in my heart the hope that your parents do their bit and you can achieve a liveable five.

Thank you for sharing this challenge, which is probably more common than we care to imagine.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line

Photograph: Corbis