How to Keep Boundaries with an Emotionally Abusive Mother | #MyCounselorSays

Melanie Hart, MA, PLPC


“My elderly mother has always been verbally and mentally abusive. How do I keep boundaries with her when she doesn’t respect them?”

Read more to find out what counselor Melanie Hart has to say!

About the Author

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Melanie Hart, MA, LPCC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in marriage counseling, family therapy, and anxiety & depression in women. She sees clients online and in-person at our Denver, Colorado counseling center.

Video Transcript

(Transcript is generated by a software and may have discrepancies from the video.)


Welcome to My Counselor Online. I’m Cassie and this is My Counselor Says. My Counselor Says is where you submit a question, either for yourself, or for a friend, and one of our incredible therapists takes their time and answers your personal question. So let’s go find out what My Counselor Says.

Melanie Hart on Boundaries

Welcome to MyCounselor Online. I’m Melanie Heart and today I’m answering a question for Nancy about boundaries.

Nancy’s question is this: “My elderly mother has always been verbally and mentally abusive. How do I keep boundaries with her when she doesn’t respect them?”

That’s a great question, Nancy, and I thank you for asking it. Having parents who have been mentally and verbally abusive, as well as physically and emotionally abusive, is an unfortunate common occurrence and many people struggle with the results of that abuse.

Oftentimes, patterns with our parents from childhood continue well into adulthood until we’re able to recognize it and choose to do something about it.

It sounds like you’ve recognized that there is an unhealthy dynamic, so that’s a great first step. But then how do you address the dynamic to create a more healthy relationship and protect yourself as an adult?

Recognize & Communicate Your Boundaries

First, it’s important to recognize what your boundaries are, and articulate that clearly to your mom.

For example, if she seems to call you at work just to chat and that’s not okay with you, you should clearly tell mom you cannot talk when you’re at work unless it’s an emergency, and establish a time when it would be okay to talk.

Enforce Your Boundaries

Next, you have to enforce your boundary. If mom calls you again at work after you’ve had that conversation, enforce the boundary you’ve created.

You can say something like, “Mom, I’m at work and I can’t talk now. I’d appreciate it if you’d stop calling me at work.” And let her know when she can call you back.

When establishing and enforcing the boundaries, people, even moms, need to know you mean it.

When you’re clear about your boundary, other people will usually respect it. And when establishing new ways of being in a long term relationship, it may take a few times of enforcing your boundary before mom catches on that you really need it.

When Others Don’t Respect Our Boundaries

But what if mom just won’t respect the boundary, or what if you feel that you’re setting and enforcing boundaries, but other people keep crossing the lines?

If that seems to be the case, then you may need to explore your own process with boundaries. Working with a counselor can help you take a look at what’s happening beneath the surface, and what else might be going on for you.

Maybe the issue is coming to light with mom, but maybe there’s others in your life that are crossing boundaries or perhaps you too may be crossing boundaries for other people.

We all need boundaries to protect ourselves and to tell others that I value myself.

We should also be careful to ensure our boundaries don’t become walls with those we actually want and need in our lives.

But if mom is toxic, and it sounds like that really could be the case, then you may need to create a firm boundary by limiting your time with her and clearly establishing that it is unacceptable for her to verbally abuse you.

Doing this establishes that you value yourself and when evaluate yourself it exposes the inappropriateness of your mother’s actions. It’s like saying, “I’m a diamond and I’m not going to allow you to trample this diamond.”

Mom may not like that you’re holding your ground and let me assure you that that is not about you, it’s about her.

When you establish a boundary, you cannot control how other people will respond to your boundary, nor are you responsible for them if they choose to respond poorly.

Healthy adults respect one another and do not seek to control the thoughts or actions of others. If mom cannot or will not respect your boundaries, the mom may need to do some work herself.

Thanks again for the question. Nancy. I hope this response has been helpful for you. And if you need any additional help or support with your relationship with mom, please reach out to us and any of our counselors would be glad to help.


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