Ask the therapist: How do I set boundaries with my mother?

In the “Consulting Therapist” series, I will answer all your questions about mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about living conditions, or just seeking the insights of a therapist, you can submit a question. Please pay attention to my answers to your questions in the Healthy Mind newsletter every Friday.

A reader asked

My mother asked me to do many things for her that she could do, such as changing the light bulb. I want to help her, but I don’t think I should always do everything for her. I feel outraged that she wasted so much time, but if I refuse, she will make me feel guilty and I feel bad. what should I do?

Amy answered

It’s hard to say no to your parents—especially when they try to make you feel guilty. But obviously, doing too much for your mother can cause bad feelings. To maintain this relationship, set healthy boundaries and empower your mother to be responsible for getting things done without your help.

Consider your mother’s intentions

Although you can say no to her regardless of the reason for what she is asking you to do, knowing her behavior can help you decide how to support her without supporting her. Take a step back and think about why your mother might insist on your help.

You may find that her insistence on asking for help is actually just a symptom of another problem. For example, does she ask for help because she is lonely and wants you to visit?

If this is the case, her behavior will be counterproductive. She may accidentally push you away, trying to draw you closer. Visiting her more frequently may help her reduce her loneliness.

However, if your mother thinks she is helpless all her life, you may need a slightly different approach. You may need to set strict limits on her and encourage her to help herself.

Empower your mom

Do for your mother what she can do for herself and keep her helpless. Say no and encourage her to take action so that she can do things for herself.

When you know your mother is capable of doing something for yourself, tell her that you are confident that she can do it. Say, “Mom, I know you can change that light bulb. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.” A little encouragement can go a long way.

Any resistance you get may also give you some insight into what your mother is dealing with. Whether she says she can’t do it, or insists on letting you come over to see the situation, her response to encouragement may give you a glimpse of her thoughts.

You can also tell her directly that you think she is more capable than she thought. If she has any safety concerns about doing something, please discuss these concerns with her.

Establish healthy boundaries

You can refuse your mother’s request for help. Just because you are her child, you are not obligated just because she asks you to help her do things.

If you decide to help, please set when to help. It can be said that you will do something next weekend. You don’t have to jump up immediately just because she asks you.

You can also set some limits on your workload or frequency. Ask your mother to make a list of odd jobs she wants to complete, and then agree to spend a certain amount of time working on her task list-for example, two hours a month or one hour a week, depending on how much time you want to work for her .

Provide alternative resources

You can also give her other resources so that she can get help. For example, you can provide her with the phone number of a paid service provider who does odd jobs, or you can email a link to a website where you can hire someone to complete tasks for her.

If your family, friends or relatives might be able to help, please encourage her to ask them for expertise sometimes.

Manage your guilt

Just because you feel guilty does not mean you did something wrong. Saying no to your mother doesn’t make you a bad person.

If your mom tries to lie down on the guilt journey, point out what happened. You can say something like, “I know you are sad. I can’t come and help today, but trying to make me feel guilty won’t work.”

Don’t turn your back on your words just because your mother touched your heartstrings. Doing so will only make her feel that she can manipulate you by making you feel guilty.