Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
Some time ago one of our readers, an adult male living independently, sent an E. Mail to Dr. Dombeck complaining about his mother and how she is ruining his life. Since that time, many people have responded, complaining that they are going through the same problem. The initial E. Mail, Dr. Dombeck’s response and the follow up E. Mails can all be read at this URL:
Its important to make clear the fact that the mothers portrayed in this and all of the cases, were behaving in ways that were not only intrusive but harassing and outright outrageous. It is also important to refrain from demonizing these people.
We can speculate about what is wrong with these mothers to cause them to interfere in the personal lives of their adult children. The range of problems these women have may be fall along a spectrum from suffering from the “empty nest syndrome, where they are having difficulty letting go of their adult children, all the way to Borderline Personality Disorder. Regardless of the problems they are facing, why is it that these E. Mailers continue to struggle with their parent?
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Clearly, there are boundary issues between these parents and their children. These mothers cannot prevent themselves from invading the personal space of their adult children. However, it is possible that some of these adult children are experiencing their own boundary issues.
Even for adults, it can be very difficult to interact with a parent because parent-child relationships are often filled with ambivalent feelings. After all, adults sometimes harbor resentful feelings about the ways they were raised. The more authoritarian and strict the environment was, while growing up, the greater the likelihood there will be a well-spring of bitter memories and angry feelings left over from childhood. Then, too, there is the biblical commandment to “honor thy mother and father.” In other words, it can be very guilt provoking to deal with a difficult parent.
From the moment we are born a process of growth and separation begins that ultimately results in the individual becoming independent and separate from the family of origin. There are times during this process where conflict takes place as the child struggles to gain autonomy from parents. In other words, the child is an active participant during the years of growth from birth to adulthood, sometimes fighting for separation.
When guilt is involved it can be very challenging for an adult child to maintain boundaries from an intrusive parent. Adult children are capable of establishing strong boundary lines if it is needed. In many of the cases that readers described actions such as changing phone numbers, using call waiting to screen incoming calls, prohibiting phone calls while at work, etc. can be used when a parent refuses to listen to reason and continues to harass. It is even possible to go so far as to take out a restraining order against such a parent.
Another difficulty some people have is if their parent, particularly their mother, is single as a result of divorce or death. Sometimes, adult children have feelings of responsibility to this parent. Those single mothers can be manipulative, use their single status to play upon the guilt and worry of their child as a way of keeping them tied to home.
The bottom line is that, even after having reached adulthood it is sometimes necessary for a person to fight for their right to be treated and respected as an individual free form family meddling.
When I was a very young man, many decades ago, and, for the first time, rented my own apartment, my mother decided to pay me a visit, unannounced, one fine morning. Without getting into an argument with her, I made it clear that she could not just drop by whenever she felt like it. To reinforce that fact, I told her I was going out and the visit was ended. I felt terrible because she was not a meddling person and she was my mother. Yet, I sensed that we were at a cross roads with her visit and that boundaries needed to be established. It never happened again.
All of you who have written in about this and all of you who will do so in the future, be reminded that you have a right to your private lives.
If you are having difficulties setting boundaries it might be a good idea to seek psychotherapy.
What are your experiences and opinions about this issue. Your comments are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
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