How to Set Boundaries When You’re an Adult Living With Your Parents Again, According to a Family Therapist

Photo: Stocksy/Trinette Reed
My mom barges into my bedroom five times a day, usually with some kind of food. When I lived in Brooklyn ("You still live in Brooklyn," I repeat as my go-to meditation), it was hard enough to set boundaries with her. But since I'm living with my parents until this whole pandemic blows over, the barriers are even weaker. Literally. I haven't had a lock on my adolescent bedroom this entire time, so she'll charge in Full Italian Mom-style with, "Here, have some mutzarell."

"Mom," I shout with full teen angst emphasis. "I'm on a phone call, this can't keep happening."

Unfortunately, it will, and longer than anyone imagined. I'm just one of many New Yorkers who chose to isolate with family over the $1,200 bedroom I rent in a very small apartment; considering the growing unemployment rate, I'm sure I won't be the last. Fully regressing to high school mode like you would over Thanksgiving isn't a longterm sustainable option. Not if you're moving back in with your spouse, your children, your workload or even just your 28-year-old single self. We're all adults here, and healthy boundaries should be set to reflect that.

Hilariously enough, setting boundaries while living with parents as an adult is just about adhering to a lot of the guidelines you ignored while growing up.

1. Gratefully acknowledge you're under their roof

And ugh, I know you can autocomplete that line with, "so you have to follow their rules." That's the last thing anyone wants to hear when all their other freedoms taken away. The truth is that even if you grew up in this house and have the unicorn-themed bedroom to prove it, you're kinda-sorta a guest there now. That doesn't mean you have to instantly wave the white flag, but it does mean you should work with your family in creating rules. Ideally, as soon as you get there.

"It’s an incredibly difficult time for people who have fled the city and moved back in with parents, in-laws, or partners parents," says marriage and family therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. "They're finding a new normal and balancing work and family dynamics can be a lot. If possible, it’s important to set ground rules from the beginning. Remember, you're entering their space and living in their home."

2. Being on your best behavior will usually get you what you want

"You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar." I had this momism repeated to me when trying to convince my parents I should go to CBGBs as a teen—it didn't work because I was vinegary little POS. You live and you learn. Killing people with kindness (instead of neglectfully unwashed hands) tends to get you what you want more often than not. So whatever, chipping in and default to family activities once in a while if you're trying to get your way.

"Playing games, taking walks, or cooking together can help some structure that you are okay with," says Thompson. "Be proactive in making this happen, so you can also set boundaries elsewhere. In addition to leaning in to offer connection time and things to do to help out, it’s also important to be proactive with setting boundaries."

3. Act like a daughter, schedule like a boss

You also want to be proactive in setting up work from home guidelines, because otherwise you're messily left to troubleshoot after the fact. Trust me on this. Right now, you want to overcommunicate your schedule to the family so they know not to have full scale dialogues during your 10 a.m. pitch meeting. Book the kitchen between the hours of 10 and 10:30, note that on everyone's calendars. Be meticulous about including everything from one-on-ones with your boss to your daily walk break to uh, "me time" (you can probably leave out the details).

"Let your family or in-laws know you have work to do and usually from this time to that time, you won’t be available," says Thompson. "Setting up a routine can be helpful because then everyone will know what to expect. If you are isolating with your partner, it’s also important to share this with them. Setting up time for work, alone time, and family time is important. Take a walk, get some fresh air, work out, take some time just for you will allow you to be more available for those around you."

4. And act like an adult, so you can be treated like an adult

Because of COVID-19's precondition to impact the 65+ set, family dynamics are shifting fast. We're suddenly the caretakers of our parents and trying to keep them inside the house (it's for their own good). When it comes to communicating and quarreling, though, you want to do it as equals, with as much empathy as possible. Remember, your parent is a human being.

"In arguments, try to remember everyone is doing the best they can," says Thompson. "Go back to the point on gratitude, and try to put yourself in their shoes. Ask what they are needing before sharing what you need, this may help mitigate arguments."

5. Say no gracefully and sympathetically

I remember back when my mother would ask me to go to church or set the table, and I'd always challenge it. Shout "NO" or "WHY" or just slam my bedroom door and blast Marilyn Manson. God, I miss February.

These days, if my mother has a request for which I'm too legitimately exhausted, a "no, thank you" and a smile usually does the trick. Again, kindness is key when it comes to getting along.

"Anytime you can lead with vulnerability I would suggest that," says Thompson. "Perhaps say to your mom that you're noticing how exhausted you are, fielding all your work video conferences that you have no time to yourself. You notice that work bleeds over into personal times most days, and need a breather for yourself. Letting her in in that way will help her understand what's going on for you, and not to take it personally."

6. If you're dealing with your partners's family, let them be the mediator

Oh man, I don't envy you, my friend. Dealing with someone else's family brings a new veneer of awkwardness to the situation. It doesn't matter if it's your semi-serious significant other's parents that you're suddenly getting ultra-acquainted with, or if you're living a Full House situation with your spouse and children. When it's not-your-family, you feel like you have even less agency to voice complaints. That's why the quick and dirty solution there is to have someone else do the complaining.

"If you are in your in-laws home, ask your partner to be the one to communicate if you don’t feel comfortable being the one to share what you need to," says Thompson.

Before you do that, it might help to compose a script about what exactly should be said, especially if your partner has some issues with tact. Don't let them tell Debra that she needs to stop butting into your Zoom meetings and you hate her meatloaf, you'll be packing your bags in no time.

In closing, I would've finished this article earlier but my mother burst into my room asking me to put on the video for her Zumba Tone class. Good luck out there, folks.

Want to keep other good boundaries in the time of COVID-19? This is how to decline to that Zoom Happy Hour and why group chat etiquette is more important than ever.

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