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Setting Limits: Tips For Striking A Balance With Parents
Dr. Dale V. Atkins, September 2009

For our aging parents, there is often a huge gap between what is perceived as a crucial "need" and what is a "want." Parents' demands can trigger elemental fears. - the looming specter of their mortality, the scary knowledge that a parent's decline brings us a step closer to our own old age. By facing these fears we can defuse them and put ourselves back in control, enabling us to negotiate and set necessary limits with our aging parents.

You can find the appropriate balance for you with doing too much and not doing enough for your parents. Consider the following tips:

Do Pack Your "Baggage" - Often parents' demands create extreme feelings of guilt about the times we've hurt them. We may also harbor resentment about the times they hurt us. Either or both can contribute to our misinterpretation of our parents' intentions.

Don't Settle Old Scores - No matter how neglectful or cruel your parents were when you were growing up, their dotage is not a time for payback. Show them compassion and respect, whether or not you feel they deserve it. This is a mark of your adulthood and depth of character.

Don't Mistake Money for Caring - People who confuse the two often come from families where money was a defining issue. Nobody is too old to change. It is possible that even those parents who valued money above all else will appreciate outward expressions of love.

Do Make Fun A Priority - Many people mistake quantity for quality when it comes to spending time with their parents. Consider spending less time with them and make sure those hours are truly satisfying. Or, if proximity allows, shorter amounts of time at more frequent intervals may work for you. Plan activities that will bring you together as human beings. If possible, hire people who can help with routine chores and save your time and energy for more meaningful interactions. This is not to imply that "routine chores" cannot be meaningful. They can be IF you have a positive attitude.

Do Say No Gently - It's not easy, especially when we're faced with a request we're not prepared to argue against. It can even take practice. Enlist a spouse or friend to role play a scenario in which your parents make an unreasonable demand. Write your dialogue in advance, supplying your helper with a list of your parents' usual responses and defenses.

Remember that our parents' aging is not easy, either for them or for us. Deal with the feelings you have and be available to discuss what some of the fears may be that get in the way of your being fully present for your parents in ways that are comfortable for both of you.

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