They Do Exist.

Setting Boundaries In A Single Parent Home

Editor’s Note: Wanting to love our parents can easily take the form of wanting to care for their emotional needs, and learning to trust God with them can be so difficult. Today’s post is submitted by Anonymous, but if you’d like to be in contact with her, please send an email to trish[at]goodwomenproject.com & Trish will connect you. – Lauren

When you come from a single parent family, its very easy for boundary lines to blur. The older brother tries to be the dad, the big sister mothers the little sister, and the Mum treats the big sister as her friend and not her daughter. All the kids rely heavily on the one parent, because she is all they’ve got in the world. Everyone buckles under the pressure.

I grew up in a version of the above family, and I know many other people who did too. Kids from single parent families are often very close with the parent that raised them. It’s only natural and it makes sense, but often, it’s not right and it’s not healthy. So many children thrive from the love and care of one amazing parent; I know I have. But the difficult part is the crippling co-dependency that can result from single parenting, because both parent and child struggle to let go when it’s time.

Photo by Laura Pett / / Design by Lauren Dubinsky

It breaks my heart that my Mum doesn’t have a husband to talk to and lean on. She’s a confident and capable woman that is moving forward with her life, but she still needs TLC like everyone else. However, I have had to learn that her happiness is not my responsibility and I have to live my life. I cannot fill the gap of a husband or friend in her life. Because I’m mature and grew up fast, she talked to me and confided in me as a friend from a young age. Eventually, I resented it – because I would carry all her pain on my shoulders. As I got older, our relationship grew sour. The boundaries were blurred – and as a result, we couldn’t flourish as mother and daughter.

So I put the boundary line back in place by moving away. I needed to become my own person without my family’s issues weighing me down.

It was the hardest thing to do, but also the best thing I’ve ever done for my own emotional health. In saying that, it’s taken time, and the progress didn’t happen immediately. I soon realized that even after leaving the country, I was still heavily burdened by my broken and hurting family. You can leave the situation, but your problems often go with you. I cared so much it hurt – and that is where it went wrong.

I couldn’t move on with my exciting new life if I continued to spend every waking second worrying about my family’s choices. It would break me every time bad news crossed seas and landed at my doorstep. I wanted to save them so badly that I wouldn’t and couldn’t trust God with them. I didn’t pray because I thought that somehow, in another world or life, I could save them. I held them tightly in my fist, stubborn and angry, sure that I could change them or their situation if I held on tight enough. And from half a world away, it affected every area of my life. It had to stop.

I had to learn and re-learn multiple times that yes, they are my family and I love them, but I cannot change them and I cannot save them. We all love our families; we all hate to see them go through hard times and that’s entirely natural. But for each of us to have healthy futures and relationships, there has to be boundaries within our families. This is especially important in highly dysfunctional and/or single parent families.

Four years on, there are still times when it all gets too much and I want to snatch back that empty control. That’s when I turn to this scripture:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

These days if my Mum ever calls me in tears, I answer knowing ahead of time that I can’t change anything and she just needs a listening ear. If it gets too much to handle, I end the conversation. If I know that I’m not in the right space to cope with the call, I don’t answer the phone. Yes, it may seem harsh, but it is necessary.

I can listen to them, pray for them and cheer them on. I will help my Mum when she’s elderly, I will support my siblings through every season in their lives and I will never turn my back on them. But my heart can no longer take their burden, that’s God’s job alone. I’ve let go.

This weekend, I’ll be fasting for my family. They need persistent and faith filled prayer, but I won’t be worrying about their current situation because God’s got it. He’s their saviour, not me. Their burden is not mine to carry, their happiness is not my responsibility, and that’s where the boundary is.


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15 Responses

  1. Riley

    I cannot be thankful enough with you and God for this article. He definitely knows what we need to hear. I've been praying to God about setting healthy standards in my relationship with my mom (who raised me by herself since I was 10). For years, I had been behaving as the parent, the mature one, the know-it-all one and the friend and confidant. What a mistake. It wasn't until now -my 26s- that God showed me that her comfort, her answers, her needs could only be satisfied in Him. And I had persmission to be the daughter I hadn't been. It's still hard because my mom doesn't quite understand why I don't give her anymore solutions or advice to her problems. But I know her life depends on God's love for her. He will take care of her while he restores my pattern for a healthy relationship with my future husband and children, when I will finally be entitled to act like a mom.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm

  2. Stacy

    Thanks for sharing this. I love how God uses this blog at the moments I most need to read about certain specific topics. The need to have boundaries with my family is something that God has been opening my eyes to and challenging me with lately, and it's good to know I'm not alone in dealing with that.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm

  3. I recently just went through this with my mom. I'm actually seeing a therapist for this and I was recommended the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Patricia Love. Weird title, but such an excellent book for those who grew up in a similar situation. It also covers "complete" homes that have favoritism for one child/parent.
    Throughout this journey, one of the things I'm thankful for is the fact that I'm not going through it alone. Such a timely blog post.

    My mom and I are slowly healing as individuals and finding who we are apart from each other.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm

  4. I recently just went through this with my mom. I'm actually seeing a therapist for this and I was recommended the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Patricia Love. Weird title, but such an excellent book for those who grew up in a similar situation. It also covers "complete" homes that have favoritism for one child/parent.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm

  5. Lisa

    Wow, I so desperately need that one though I just don't think I'm ready to let go. Maybe, one day I'll be able to. Thank you so much for sharing

    April 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm

  6. This was my story. Although married, my parents had a dysfunctional relationship growing up, which meant that my mom was the primary caregiver. I have ALWAYS carried the weight of her pain, her happiness on my shoulders, and so your words that you "had to learn that her happiness is not my responsibility and I have to live my life. I cannot fill the gap of a husband or friend in her life." struck a cord with me. I need to hear that. I need to create boundaries because that burden is not mine.
    Thank you thank you thank you for that reminder.

    April 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm

  7. Annie

    This is like seeing someone else write about my life. Thank you.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:29 pm

  8. I constantly find myself in this situation. I feel as if I’m supposed to care for my family when in reality is not my duty to do so. It’s gods but gosh it’s hard. Thank you GWP for being such a blessing in my life<3

    April 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm

  9. Susanna

    Wow, this is really good. I don't come from a single parent family, but I come from a very broken family. Particularly with my sister, whom I am closest to, I can fall into the trap of feeling like *I* need to save her. To heal her. To rescue her from her bad decisions. I can't. I can be there, I can be a listening ear, I can offer counsel, I can pray. But I can't save her or any of my other family members.

    More pertinently right now, it also speaks to me in another situation in my life. It's so hard letting go of control, trusting God with someone, knowing you can't be their saviour, and knowing in some ways your over-involvement actually may be getting in their way. However, getting there is extremely freeing. I still care just as much and I still pray just as much, but I know God is far more capable than I am of taking care of them and I can leave them with him. I think it actually frees me to pray more effectively because I'm praying from a position of faith, not control and mistrust.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    • meegsx

      I can completely relate to the second part of your comment. You come to a point when you have to go "that person is a child of God and HE has control. God doesn't need us trying to save them, he's just fine. It's not easy but I pray that you will continue to allow God to work in his life and live your life. I don't know your situation but there may be a point where you need to completely let go for your own sake. Again, I don't know what your exact situation is but it might be relevant. lots of love to you x

      April 18, 2012 at 5:17 am

  10. Guest

    I definitely know what you mean. I have always been close to both my parents and they are still together. But since they are not believers and there was a lot of dysfunction in the past involving my sister and my parents themselves, I just always feel like now I am judging them. For me they are impossible to be straight with because I don’t want to hurt their feelings and I love them a lot, but at the same time they are always trying to push me in certain directions I don’t want to go. I was always in the unfortunate position of being labeled both the nice one and the dumb one between me and my sister. And though they never say it, I know that my parents kind of wish I was more of a go getter like them. Yeah I definitely know what it is like to be unnaturally close to both of my parents. Ultimately this article has me doing a lot of thinking. I really need to find a way to listen for God and follow his calling for me in life, but I also need to find a way to forgive my parents for the past and let go of my old bitter self, so we can have a healthy relationship and I can live my own life.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:36 pm

  11. michelle

    wow. this is literally my life. thank you so much for sharing. i needed to be reminded that my mother's burdens are not mine to bear. i needed to be reminded where to find rest.

    April 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  12. corislepp

    oh my GOSH. this is so perfect for me. and so perfectly timed. i'm about to move out of state and i currently live with my mom (moved back into her house 10 months ago and it's been hell) she's been single (except when she was re-married and divorced within 6 months about five years ago) since my father and has dated a lot. it's been so difficult to explain to her why i can't talk about her issues or why i resent her for leaning on me when i was younger. i'm debating sending her a link to this article, just because it will validate my feelings and show her that i am not the only one, and that i am certainly not being selfish. thank you SO much for writing this. so well said.

    March 22, 2013 at 12:34 am

  13. I regularly find myself in this scenario. I experience as if I'm expected to proper take proper my loved ones members when actually is not my responsibility to do so. It's gods but jeeze it's difficult. Thank you GWP for being such a advantage in my life.

    June 17, 2013 at 4:11 am

  14. I'm actually seeing a therapist for this and I was recommended the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Patricia Love. Weird title, but such an excellent book for those who grew up in a similar situation. It also covers "complete" homes that have favoritism for one child/parent.

    August 18, 2013 at 4:04 am

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