Dear Kiki: My parents are staying with us for three months. How do I set boundaries in a respectful way?

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Dear Kiki,

I have not seen my parents for a few years since the pandemic. They are currently visiting and are planning to stay with me and my partner for 3 months. While I missed them, I haven’t lived with them since university. We have different habits and routines – such as using the dishwasher as a drying rack instead of a washer and not composting properly. They also get into a lot of arguments and like to use us as buffers/mediators, and expect us to spend all the weekends with them.

How can I establish some clear boundaries in a respectful way so we can actually enjoy each other’s company?

– Preserving My Sanity

Setting boundaries with parents as an adult

Dear Preserving My Sanity,

Setting boundaries with parents can be tricky, especially when they are unaware of what they are. As you’ve pointed out, it’s necessary to establish clear and healthy limits so you can enhance your relationship and enjoy your time together.

As the child, you may feel obligated to give your parents a pass. After all, they raised and housed you for the early part of your life. You might feel inclined to fulfill your role as a respectful child and gracious host. However, as a grown-up, your needs are different and will have evolved.

Your home is not just a physical space shared by you and your partner, but is also an emotional sanctuary where you can decompress and recharge. Even when their actions are well-intentioned, they can still be disruptive to your lives. When your physical and emotional boundaries are crossed, it is time to set some house rules.

In many Asian cultures, family and respect for elders are valued over individual freedom. You may find that feelings of guilt may start to surface. If that happens, it’s important to remind yourself that sacrificing your privacy and comfort is not a sustainable long-term strategy. While it can feel overwhelming, clearly communicating boundaries is essential to maintaining a healthier and happier parent-child dynamic throughout adulthood.

Communicate your needs with clarity

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When setting boundaries with your parents, you can be clear and respectful at the same time. Be specific with what behaviors you’d like them to change and what is acceptable or not acceptable. 

Change is tough for everyone, so stay as calm and collected as possible. It’s possible your parents may be surprised by your request and react to your request negatively, feeling angry or hurt. Be gentle with them and allow them time to process your requests. If this is the first time they’ve come into your space, they will need to accept the fact that you are now an adult and have your own life.  

Regardless of their response, stay firm in your own needs and communicate why these boundaries are important to you. Like any behaviour modifications, consistency is key. Prepare them for the consequences that may occur. For example, if they keep bringing you into conflicts that make you uncomfortable, then excuse yourself and exit the conversation.

Eventually, bring it back to the main reason for initiating this conversation – that you genuinely care about them and want to build a long-lasting and positive parent-child relationship going forward.  

Sharing your adult life with your parents

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As an adult, you have your own identity and lifestyle. Now that they’re in your space, setting boundaries with your parents also provides an opportunity to show them what kind of life you’ve built for yourself and your partner.

If they’re receptive, take the time to go over your daily routines and describe the systems you and your partner have set up. For example, explain that you prefer to use the dishwasher to wash your dishes to save time and water. Educate them on what goes into the compost and what does not. This can be a daunting task for someone who is not used to sorting waste or following sustainable practices. Putting together a chart or notes for them to refer to can help ease the transition. Alternatively, you can also come up with a new system together. Creating a sign for the dishwasher to indicate whether the dishes are clean or dirty can be a helpful compromise.

Take a moment to remind them that this is not just your space, but also a home you share with your partner. With multiple parties involved, everyone needs to do their part in adjusting from their usual routines. This will allow everyone to cohabit in harmony and with respect. What might have been acceptable in the past might now be a violation of your personal boundaries. When you were living with them, you might have had more time to spend with them in the evenings. But now, your parents shouldn’t expect that you and your partner will dedicate all your down-time to entertaining them.

At the end of the day, focus on what your major needs are instead of trying to fix all of your parents’ habits. Using a dishwasher as a drying rack for three months might be more tolerable than having to constantly break up fights and console your parents. Change takes time, so take baby steps instead of expecting major shifts to take place. Channel your efforts towards the areas that will affect your overall wellbeing and what would have the most influence on your family bond.   

Helping your parents find a new routine

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Other than setting boundaries with your parents and re-negotiating expectations, there are ways to help them establish a new routine and integrate into this new community.

Research local events or activities based on their interests that they can participate in and potentially meet other people. If this is the first time your parents are visiting the city you are living in, then treat it like a vacation! Book them on tours or make a list of local sights to visit.

If spending time with your bickering parents is becoming emotionally draining, you and your partner can split chauffeur duties and take your parents out separately. This is a great way for you to spend solo quality time with one parent and to do something that they enjoy individually rather than what the other spouse wants. Distance makes the heart fonder, even when it comes to family members. Hopefully some time apart will give everyone some breathing room and help resolve the tension.

The silver lining to all of this is that your parents’ stay will be over in three months. While your time can be stress-inducing at times, focus on the positive and savour the pleasant memories whenever you can.

As we get older and our lives become ridden with other obligations and responsibilities, the time we spend together with our family and loved ones become rarer. I hope your parents will eventually meet you in the middle as you work together to cultivate a healthy and fulfilling parent-child relationship in your adult life. 

That way, next time you visit, you can simply pick up where you left off and truly cherish the limited time you have together.

Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.

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