4 Steps for Setting Boundaries With Parents After Divorce

Laying down healthy boundaries can feel hard, especially with your ex’s parents. Here’s how to navigate it calmly and confidently.
By:
Chelsea Williams
September 22, 2021
W

hen it involves co-parenting, divorce can be especially impactful for the children’s grandparents. If they’re part of your life after divorce, you’ll need to become adept at setting boundaries with parents — both yours and your former spouse’s.

This sounds tough. You may not be sure what healthy boundaries look like. Or you may think your situation is too complex for you to set boundaries at all. You’re not alone. I thought it was impossible to change anything about my relationship with my in-laws for a long time after my divorce.

But I learned there’s always room for positive change in family dynamics, even non-traditional ones.

Let’s talk about what you can do now to set boundaries with parents on both sides of the family:

1. Discover Your Own Needs

Setting boundaries with parents: little girl hugging her mom

Step one in the process of setting boundaries with parents is to get in touch with your own needs — emotional and physical — in relation to your parents and in-laws.

It’s helpful to ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I need regular child care or financial help from any of the grandparents?
  • How do I envision my parents or my ex’s parents being a part of my children’s lives?
  • Can they drop by whenever, or would I prefer some notice?
  • How much of the child-rearing responsibilities do I want them to help with?
  • How often am I comfortable talking to the parents on both sides of the family?

Some of the answers might already be obvious to you, or you may assume your parents know what you want. But it’s easy to get into a routine with family members and just keep doing what you’ve always done without considering your self-esteem and personal boundaries. Remember: You’re allowed to slow down and get clear about what you need.

Let’s say your in-laws have been picking your son up from school every day for years. Now that he’s getting older and you’re working from home, you’d like to pick him up a few days a week. Before discussing any changes to the schedule, it’s important to sit with your feelings. Focus on releasing any guilt about stating your needs so you can communicate clearly when the right moment arises.

Tempting as it is to jump into talking it out, don’t skip this step of emotionally preparing for potentially difficult conversations.

Key takeaway: Practice being honest with yourself so you’ll be able to extend that honesty to others.

2. Engage in Setting Boundaries With Parents

Setting boundaries with parents: two people talking

Once you know what you want, you’ll need to say it out loud. You don’t have to explain why, but you can state your personal boundaries in no uncertain terms to avoid confusion later. It’s possible to do so firmly, yet kindly.

The first time you attempt to set clear boundaries, it might help to have that talk outside of the context of your daily routine. You may want to broach the subject at a special event or moment to ease the transition into a conversation about what’s off-limits and what’s OK.

For example, imagine your daughter has a dance performance and you’d like to invite both sets of grandparents. If you feel there’s the potential for conflict, it would be appropriate to tell your parents ahead of time that you’d like to sit separately from your former spouse and their parents. That way, there aren’t any awkward moments or surprises when you arrive.

Even if they don’t like hearing about your newfound strong boundaries, it’s your communication style that matters most. Be as straightforward and vulnerable as possible, while staying aware of any heavy emotions you’re experiencing.

If you get overwhelmed trying to get your wishes across, ask yourself: “What’s the best possible scenario for the child here?”

I find that coming back to that question always helps me focus on the most important thing in all co-parenting circumstances. When it’s for the sake of the child’s well-being, you may find it easier to confront things you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable talking about.

Key takeaway: The only way to get better at setting boundaries with parents is to do it repeatedly, then refine them as the relationship evolves.

3. Recognize When Boundaries Are Crossed

Sad woman crouched on the floor

The toughest part of learning to set boundaries, in my experience, is having the confidence and courage to call out when another person violates them.

In many cases, boundary advice focuses on “toxic relationships,” which makes it seem like violations are inevitable in some scenarios. A label like this can make you feel defeated, which means you could have a hard time bringing it up when someone has crossed a line.

I recommend stepping back from what you can’t control and only paying attention to what you can. The secret to this phase of setting boundaries with parents: Choose to respond, rather than react.

Responding looks like:

  • Checking in with your own triggers first. Are you upset because of this interaction specifically, or a pattern in your life? Sometimes, knee-jerk reactions can be colored by our history with this person — or other people who bring up the same feelings.
  • Using that breathing room to determine which boundary they crossed. Had you made it explicitly clear beforehand?
  • Trying to imagine why they’ve done or said what they have. Chances are, it’s not because they don’t care about you or your wishes.
  • Ensuring you’re not lashing out without any forethought. If you need to think about how to tell your mother-in-law you’re upset because she ignored the kids’ bedtime, or your dad that you didn’t appreciate his communication with your former spouse, step away for a moment (or a day).

When you take a calm and compassionate approach, your parents or in-laws are likely to be much more receptive to what you say about their actions.

Let’s think of a possible scenario to make this more concrete.

Imagine you and your co-parent decide your teenage son should help pay for a car, but your in-laws have offered to buy him one. You feel frustrated and choose not to respond immediately. Instead, since it’s your co-parent’s family trying to help out, you express your discomfort to your co-parent and allow them to communicate with their parents privately. If you do have direct communication with your in-laws, say, in a neutral tone, “Thank you for this really generous offer, but we’re going to stick with our plan.”

It’s possible that you take all due care to give proper space and use a neutral tone but their response stays the same. With aging parents in particular, you could find yourself capitulating or avoiding confrontation just to avoid a guilt trip. After all, they’re your child’s grandparents. You’re supposed to feel grateful no matter what, right?

While that’s a common sentiment, it’s quite dismissive of your needs. You’re building your own life now, and you have the right to make it known when anyone interferes with your autonomy.

Key takeaway: People can only respect your boundaries when you make them known and call out when they’re violated.

4. Model Healthy Relationships for Your Kids

Happy family enjoying a meal

The harmonious relationships you want to foster with your kids’ grandparents should be an extension of the healthy boundaries you establish in your home.

The best way to teach your kids about setting good boundaries is to model the practice yourself. Just like you would teach a young child about personal space, you can show them how to maintain emotional and relational boundaries as they grow.

Aim to model a positive parent-child relationship by being conscious of the way you and your own parents (or your former spouse’s parents) relate.

Modeling includes:

  • Openly interacting with your parents in front of your children
  • Being honest, yet respectful, in the conversations they overhear
  • Allowing the kids to witness both positive and negative moments, and see how any conflict is resolved
  • Answering your children’s questions about their grandparents’ behavior or involvement from a neutral perspective

Your children should get the message that their emotional well-being is important, and that holding onto boundaries in a positive way is a form of self-care.

If you feel overwhelmed and unable to model setting boundaries with parents, it’s absolutely OK to seek outside help, too. Don’t stress it. No one expects you to know how to do this, especially if you’re newly divorced and navigating the ins and outs of co-parenting.

If you seek help from a family therapist or counselor, it’s not a sign of weakness. Believe it or not, from your children’s point of view, openly prioritizing your wellness makes you strong and courageous.

Key takeaway: It’s best to show — rather than tell — your kids what healthy boundaries between you and their grandparents look like.

Hold On to the Grandparent Experience — With Healthy Limits

Establishing new boundaries is an interpersonal skill that takes practice. But when you’re co-parenting and your kids have two homes to navigate, it’s an essential one to learn.

Making your own choices about parenting is much easier when you can process your thoughts and feelings independently. There could be lots of people looking to tell you how to communicate with your former spouse’s parents, but your instincts are better than any unsolicited advice. You don’t need validation to justify keeping your boundaries in place, whether anyone else approves of them or not.

Kids have a unique relationship with each grandparent and you can give space for that to develop independently, provided that it happens within the limits of the boundaries you’ve set. Sharing special moments with grandparents is a formative experience that kids will remember for years to come.

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.