Ask a Therapist: How Do I Set Boundaries With My Mother?

Empower Your Mother and Your Relationship

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Verywell / Catherine Song

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A Reader Asks

My mother asks me to do a lot of things for her that she could do for herself, like replace a light bulb. I want to help her but I don’t think I should have to do everything for her all the time. I feel resentful that she wastes so much of my time but if I say no, she gives me a guilt trip and I feel bad. What should I do?

Amy Answers

It’s tough to say no to a parent—especially when they try to make you feel guilty. But clearly, doing too much for your mother is causing hard feelings. To preserve the relationship, set healthy boundaries and empower your mother to take charge of getting things accomplished without your assistance.

Consider Your Mother’s Intentions

While it’s okay to say no to your mom regardless of her reasons for asking you to do things, understanding her behavior could help you decide how to support her without enabling her. Take a step back for a minute to think about why your mom might be insisting on your help.

You might discover that her insistence on getting help is really just a symptom of another problem. For example, is she asking for help because she’s lonely and wants you to visit? 

If that’s the case, her actions are backfiring. She may be unintentionally pushing you away in her attempts to draw you closer. Visiting her more often may help her feel less lonely.

If, however, your mother has seen herself as helpless her entire life, you may need a slightly different approach. You may need to set firm limits with her and encourage her to help herself.

Empower Your Mom

Doing things for your mom that she could do for herself enables her to stay helpless. Saying no and encouraging her to take action empowers her to do things for herself.

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

Any resistance you get might also give you some insight into what your mom is dealing with. Whether she says she can’t do it or she insists you should stop by just to check on things, her response to her encouragement may give you a glimpse into what she’s thinking.

You can also be direct with her and tell her that you think she’s more capable than she thinks. If she has any safety concerns about doing something on her own, talk to her about the concerns.

Establish Healthy Boundaries

It’s okay to say no to your mother’s requests for help. Just because you are her child, you’re not obligated to help her do things just because she asks you to do so.

If you do decide you want to help, set the rules on when you’ll do it. It’s okay to say you’ll do something next weekend. You don’t have to jump up right away just because she asks you to.

You might also set some limits on how much work you do or how often you do it. Asking your mother to create a list of odd jobs she wants done and then agree to spend a certain amount of time working on her task list—like two hours a month or one hour a week depending on how much time you want to devote to her jobs.

Offer Alternative Resources

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

If you have a family friend or relative might be able to assist with something, encourage her to reach out to them for their expertise at times too.

Manage Your Guilty Feelings

Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. Saying no to your mom doesn’t make you a bad person.

If your mom tries to lay on a guilt trip, point out what is going on. Say something like, “I know you feel bad I can’t come over today to help but trying to make me feel guilty won’t work.”

Don’t go back on your word just because your mother tugs at your heart strings. Doing so will only reinforce to her that she can manipulate you by causing you to feel guilty.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.