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Parents and Unconditional Everything: Where are the limits?

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

This post will resonate with some but may rub others the wrong way. That’s okay. Everyone has their take on an issue and without opposing views, we get nowhere.

So why the topic of unconditional everything? As the parent of a neurodivergent child I often come up against situations where unconditional love, patience, and giving are tested. Boy, do I mean tested. And for these kids, unconditional love is everything. But I have to say, my love comes with conditions and that may not sit well with everyone.

For many years I have seen the quote:

“The children who need love the most will always ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

I think any parent with a challenging child, any child in fact, is familiar with this quote. And while we are familiar with it, and many of us understand the meaning of it, the practical application of it can be challenging on a daily basis.

Why did I specifically direct this post to parents? Because while providing unconditional love, patience, giving, and support is something we all do, parents deal with the mega-whammy. Parents provide it for our spouses/partners, children, our own parents (if we still have them), close friends, and even for folks at work! But there are limits. How far do you go with unconditional everything before it becomes disrespect, neglect, and abuse to you. How much do you give up for the love, comfort, and nurturing of others to the detriment of your own well-being? I believe this is something that we all need to be very clear about. It is very important to internally set your limits, clearly state your boundaries, defend, and protect them.

As many of you know, more often than not my blog posts come about as a result of a thought, interaction or experience I’ve had. The topic of unconditional everything comes as a result of an interaction with my son (as always 😊).

On a random Wednesday night before a Thursday Spanish quiz, I gently encourage my son to study. He has had a very busy week with school, a field trip, soccer practice, and playing with friends and I know that studying is not the highest priority on his list at 7:00 PM. However, as a parent and doing as parents do, I make the suggestion that he take a look at the notes and try his best to prepare for the next day. This request is met with a barrage of angry statements, dirty looks, and flat-out refusal followed by a less than enthusiastic look through a few papers that seem to burn his fingers as he holds them!

At times like this I try to embrace some key reminders for parents with neurodivergent children:

Don't tell me I'm behind.

Don't tell me I need to try harder.

Don't tell me I need to stay longer.

Don't tell me I'm lazy.

Tell me I can do it.

Tell me you'll help me.

Tell me you believe in me.

Tell me we'll do it together.

Yours sincerely,

Every child that struggles at school.

So, as I take a deep breath and I work extremely hard to wash those dishes without slamming them and keep it all together, I try to think about that statement. I try to think about what's wrong. He's tired, he's had a long day and he doesn't want to study. I get it. My thoughts form around this interaction and what I keep coming back to is, do I deserve to be yelled at for trying to support you? Is it fair for you to have an angry meltdown when asked to complete a simple task and be able to just move on with your life? No, it's not fair to me, and it's not wrong because it's not him, it's his ADHD diagnosis which is driving this behavior. So, this standoff is not helpful to him or me. Do I let it go and abandon what I see as my responsibility to support him and provide a chance for him to do well or do I push him to do it, take the heat and have him dig in more? Rock, meet hard place, hard place, rock.

The larger, most important piece was our interaction. His yelling, his unkind words. How do I respond to that. From the unconditional love perspective, I’ve gotta take it. Well, some of it.

I lower my voice, calm my body, take deep breaths, let him know I understand and sit with him until we can bring down the temperature in the room. All the things I would recommend to one of my clients. I did them. However, when it turns the corner into flat out verbal abuse, that is when the line needs to be drawn. I know sometimes people say things out of complete anger and for neurodivergent children, it’s also to get a reaction and the stimulation they get from it. As a mother and coach, I did everything I needed to do. However, he persisted, and I drew the line. I let him know he had crossed it and transitioned into self-care for me.

There is a point at which you need to consider how something will impact you personally long-term. Continuing down this path would have sent me into a swirl of anger, regret, and self-doubt that would weigh on me long after this episode had passed. So, I took a step back. I let him know that his behavior was inappropriate, unnecessary and that he could count on me for the basics that evening, but further interaction with me would be limited. I loved him, but we both needed some space.

As a parent, taking a self-care step back ensures you will have the strength to stay in the fight another day. It also helps you avoid getting to the place where you can’t tap into the compassion and concern you will surely need for your child in future situations. Continued, repeated negative interactions not only have an impact on your child, but they also impact you as a parent. It chips away bit by bit at the sometimes-fragile conference you have in your ability to parent at all. You don’t want to harden yourself to that child. Self-care helps you remember you are doing the best you can, it helps you stay open and remember to love that child for who they are and not how they acted. It preserves the delicate light between you and your child that you never want to extinguish.

The lessons of mindful unconditional love, support, giving, and effort apply in all areas of life. Learning to activate the self-care step works in our closest relationships including marriage, friendships, and work. We want to be the best spouse, partner, friend, and employee we can, but limits should be set in these areas.

In marriage or domestic partnerships, just like parenting, nowhere is it more important to give all that you can but to also get clear on the limits of unconditional love. You may love someone with all your heart but never is physical, emotional, verbal, mental, or any other type of abuse acceptable. That’s not love and once one of those lines is crossed, attention should be paid and decisions should be made, by you!

In friendships, beware the "taker" and don’t be one yourself. We all have that friend that needs you all the time. Their issues are always a five-alarm fire, and your concerns are barely a burning candle. For them, you counsel, encourage, support, go places you don't want to go and do things you don’t want to do. It’s enough. Stop giving this person unconditional time and support without the benefit of the same. It’s draining you and enabling them. And, if you are leaning too hard on a friend in the same manner, try and take notice before you lose someone important in your life. It works both ways.

At work, don’t give until it hurts. Yes, work hard, provide a quality effort and result, be a team player but don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to say yes to everything and pick up the slack for everyone. You have a job description, set boundaries around the task, “Other Duties as Assigned.” Unconditional servitude is not necessary.

In all these areas, it’s important to protect your boundaries, this is how you do it:

  • Respect and love yourself first; by doing this, you can do the same for others.

  • Be clear on your limits and communicate them to those that need to respect them.

  • Speak up when something pushes your boundaries, or you feel taken advantage of.

  • Set expectations and be an example to others in defining what you will and won’t tolerate.

  • Remove yourself from a situation that no longer serves you.

  • Seek help in learning to set limits and keep them if you struggle with doing so.

As parents, from the moment a child is conceived, laid in your arms, shown to you in an adoption profile or fostered by you, you can feel unconditional love. Love for a person you have not met, touched, or smelled. It’s magical. But even your children have no right to have expectations that you will tolerate any less than respect. That is my condition. I don’t mean respect in a militant way either, I am referring to the general respect that anyone would give another human being on this planet. Even a stranger. That is the expectation. I would hope for more as the person that loves and supports them but it’s a good place to start and a tremendous life lesson for how you should live. Respect for others.

How did it end up with my son? The way it always does, a sheepish apology, a promise not to yell again and a tentative hug. I know he tries and that's all I ever ask of him. He is unique and highly capable in his own way. He knows I will always be there for him but he’s also learning there are limits to how far he can go with me and hopefully others that deserve respect. I never want him to feel like I’m pushing him away, but I certainly want him to know I’m not a pushover either. I'll let you know how the Spanish quiz turned out.

There’s power behind actions and words. Children, spouses, partners, friends, managers, and colleagues need to know there are limits to how we should be treated, what should be asked of us, what we can offer, and what can be expected.

Let others know, when it comes to you, Terms & Conditions Apply.

Are the lines blurring for you in the management of unconditional everything? Have you found ways to hold others accountable for respecting your limits? Leave a comment below and share your experiences to help others!

Take care and be well,



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