Dear Therapist: I Don’t Know How to Set Boundaries With My Parents

They say they’re trying to protect me and my brothers during the divorce process, but they’re dragging us into their problems.

A boy stands in the middle between his parents arguing
Bianca Bagnarelli / The Atlantic
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Dear Therapist,

I am 21, a college student, and the oldest of three boys. My parents have been going through a bitter divorce process for the past two years. They are at each other’s throats in court about financial matters that they refuse to disclose to us, supposedly to “protect us.”

We don’t feel protected though, because they blame each other constantly to us. Oftentimes, they’ll even ask us to mediate between them, sending messages to each other via us.

My mother, whom I’m closer with, says a lot of money is at stake, and if I don’t try to convince my father to settle, it will all be lost. It’s painful enough—the last thing my brothers and I want is to get even more involved. But we want to help. What should we do?

Boston, Mass.

Dear Anonymous,

Your parents are going through a painful experience, but please know that their issues belong to them and not to you or your siblings. Many divorcing parents, like yours, say they want to protect their children but instead end up placing a heavy burden on them—whether that’s oversharing information, disparaging the other parent, or putting their own sense of what feels fair above their children’s best interests when it comes to negotiations such as custody, finances, or where holidays are spent. They have trouble separating what’s happening between them from what their children need.

But each person in a family is affected by a divorce. Many parents of young children are aware of the toll a divorce can take on a child, and prioritize creating stability for their kids during the process—they might read books on how to help their little one through the divorce, get advice from a pediatrician or therapist, find a helpful therapist for the child, or be more attuned to emotional and behavioral indications that the child is struggling. What many people don’t realize is that teen and adult children can have an especially hard time with their parents’ divorce.

No matter their age, children want to love both of their parents, and that’s especially hard when they’re being forced into the middle of a war between them. When it comes to grown children, many parents—and even children themselves—assume that because they’re older and more independent, they shouldn’t be as affected by a divorce as younger children might be (even though older children can feel just as upset, angry, sad, or confused). As a result, parents don’t do the work of protecting their grown children from a divorce’s nasty edges, and the experience can be additionally painful as a result. To make matters worse, these older children tend to become their parents’ confidants, and whatever feelings they have about the dissolution of their family take a back seat to the overwhelming feelings their parents are experiencing.

So let’s look at how you can take yourself out of that position by talking to both of your parents separately, and by sharing a message that might go something like the following. (I’ll use your mom here for simplicity, but the conversation would be similar with your dad.)

Mom, I know you’re going through a lot with the divorce, but I can’t be the person you talk to about it, because it’s causing me a lot of pain. I love you and Dad, and while nobody’s perfect, I find it profoundly upsetting to hear negative things about either one of you from each other. I know that you both want to protect me, and one way to do so is to help protect my relationships with both of you and let me form my own opinions based on my direct experiences. Even before the divorce, I’ve always gotten different things from each of you—things that I need as your child and as I go through adulthood.

I’d then continue by assuring her that you understand that she’s going through a hard time, that you want to be supportive, but that you don’t want to have to take a side or act as a go-between. You might want to advise her to seek out someone better suited to helping her—an attorney, close friends, a therapist, or members of a divorce-support group. I’d close by telling her why all this matters so much, with something along these lines:

I may be in college, but please remember that I still need you both to be my parents. I’ll need that even when I have my own family—maybe especially then—because I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to figure out how to have my wedding or invite you to my child’s birthday or school play without the two of you ruining the experience. I hope that I’ll always be more important to you than the anger you have with each other. I hope that if I ever need both of you, you’ll be able to work together to be there for me—that while you may have lost your partner, I haven’t lost my parents. I’m not in a position to ask Dad to settle or suggest how he handle conflicts between you—that’s between you two. So from now on, let’s talk about something other than Dad and the divorce, and I’ll leave you two to work things out in private. I want to go back to being a college student, and having a mom I enjoy talking to.

I know this is a tremendously hard conversation to have, because you may feel like you aren’t offering help to someone you love. But that’s not your role here. The truth is that you can’t help your parents through this, and your involvement won’t only compromise your relationship with one or both of them, but it will also affect your ability to set boundaries in relationships to come. In preserving your relationships with your parents, you’ll also be giving yourself important practice for your future.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.