A woman I’ll call Joan was visiting her father after her mother died. Each time she drove into the city in which she grew up, the same knot tightened in her stomach. Since her father had been widowed, he had begun making inappropriate comments about women’s physical appearance, often referring to their personal features. Sometimes these comments were fairly benign, with Joan simply letting them go. However, she had been experiencing more discomfort during the last few visits, with her father’s increasingly crude remarks. Getting angry with him didn’t make a bit of difference. A friend suggested he might be developing some form of dementia, which can manifest with the breakdown of respectful boundaries. However, her father was as sharp as ever, a retired attorney who still followed law reviews, wrote copious, lucid articles, seamlessly navigated social media platforms, as well as frequently entertaining friends and former colleagues at his home. Joan enjoyed listening to her father’s wonderful stories, sage counsel, and warm engagement at these parties, seeing no indication of any cognitive decline. Staying connected with her father was important to her, yet she realized by staying silent in the presence of his crude remarks, she wasn’t being fair to herself, to her father, or to their relationship. Anxious about speaking up, she sought some coaching, feeling better equipped to respond the next time he commented on a woman: “Dad, I feel really uncomfortable and upset when you make comments like that. Please don’t speak that way when I’m with you.” Although he didn’t change his behavior immediately, needing to test how seriously his daughter meant this, Joan continued holding that boundary, repeating the same request. To her surprise, her father eventually caught himself before making a comment and said: “I appreciate you telling me how you feel.” It’s important for Joan to be consistent with her request, if her father “relapses.”

Of course not all relationship dynamics will shift with a reasonable request. Whenever we make a change in how we behave or speak, even when positive, it inevitably raises anxiety in the other person. Joan’s father tested her resolve in sustaining that boundary; that’s a normal reaction to implementing changes. Consider children’s reactions when parents try a new way to relate to them; it’s as though their parents have been possessed by aliens!

When “well-intentioned” grandparents or relatives offer unsolicited advice, it’s challenging for parents to shake off the criticism while holding firm boundaries. Often those judgmental stares and comments undermine a parent’s resolve. A possible response: “I appreciate it’s hard not to react when she speaks to me that way. I’m doing the best I can and dealing with this in the way I feel most comfortable. It would be really helpful to have your support.” Or: “She has a hard time with transitions, of which we’ve had many today. There’s too much stimulation with all the changes, activity, and people here. I’m learning more about her temperament, which plays a big part in this. Parenting her is a work in progress.” Just as with Joan’s father, this doesn’t mean there won’t be testing, with family members or friends undermining even the most determined, confident parent. Sometimes all our authority can be silenced with their disapproval and humiliation. These changes in our parenting may raise questions with the older generation, as well as with others; our different way might translate to an implication that their parenting was somehow wrong. Holding a boundary, with compassion and patience, helps connect to the root of their unsolicited advice. Example: “I suspect her behavior is unsettling for you. I appreciate your support while I do things my way. Parenting today is quite different from when we were growing up, with so many new challenges children are experiencing.”

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be uncomfortable, often painful. Although the same guidelines apply to family, we may also have heightened needs with work relationships. It’s easier to be assertive in personal relationships for some, while the need to please, without hurting feelings, is a priority for others. It’s important to avoid pleasing others at the risk of compromising our own needs, our essential self-care. Validating the other person’s perspective first is helpful, such as: “I understand it’s hard to relinquish your former role. I know that position was important to you and now, with new initiatives, it must be quite an adjustment. How you’re approaching this might work for you and it doesn’t work for me. Let’s figure out a way to make this work for us both.” Should that person continue reacting to the changes by undermining our management, we can revisit our previous comments: “This still isn’t working. How do you think we can make this work better?”

The common thread of these examples is sustaining connection while caring for ourselves. Speaking up when we feel disrespected, holding firm boundaries when we’re being dismissed, making respectful requests when another’s behavior or words are inappropriate — that’s important work, our ongoing responsibility. What’s most important is recognizing that everyone’s needs are important, while ensuring we don’t compromise our own. Whether it’s personal or work challenges, post-divorce impasses or coparenting struggles, each of us deserves to be seen, heard, and understood.