How to Actually, Finally, Truly Set Some Boundaries With Your Family This Holiday SeasonWhat? Like it’s hard?
If you’re dreading the holidays because they typically come with ~family drama~, I’d like to introduce you to the magical power of setting boundaries with family. You’ve probably scrolled past a TikTok or two about the importance of this powerful thing called a boundary (if not, get thee to TherapyTok for a damn treat), but what does it actually mean?
Turns out, setting boundaries is really just telling someone what you need in order to feel safe and comfortable in a relationship with them, explains licensed professional counselor Jeff Guenther, LPC, who often shares family-related advice with his TikTok followers. Yep, that’s pretty straightforward, but you’re not wrong if you feel like the process of all that is majorly intimidating—especially with your fam.
Since you’ve gone your whole life interacting with your family in a certain way, it can be hard to introduce a new mode of interacting (aka a boundary) because it feels like you’re messing with the status quo, says licensed therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT.
If you’re not used to expressing your needs with your parents or siblings or whomever, it’s easy to feel guilty about doing that now. You might think it’s just easier to go along with how your family typically operates to avoid a potential conflict. That’s what experts call self-abandoning, aka ignoring your own boundaries, and it’s not ideal. In fact, it can lead to anxiety, stress, and resentment, she explains. That’s why, in some ways, setting a boundary is more about protecting the good parts of your relationship than trying to change the bad.
OK, so now that we know why setting boundaries with family is So. Damn. Hard. (but important), let’s talk about how to do it successfully. Here’s a step-by-step guide that’ll make the process a little less scary and exhausting.
Step 1: Get clear on exactly what your boundaries are.
You can’t start setting boundaries if you don’t know where to draw the line. So take some time to consider what you want your boundaries with your family to be. Think about how you want to be treated and what behaviors or conversations you’d like to be off-limits, says Guenther.
Maybe it’s helpful to think about how past holidays have gone. Did your mom drop passive-aggressive comments about your political stance? Did your dad try to make you feel guilty for not visiting more often (even though he hasn’t come to your city in years)? Whatever pain points came up the last time you all got together, think about what could help those interactions go more smoothly.
If you’re drawing a total blank, try chatting with a friend or a therapist, journaling, taking a walk, meditating, or whatever helps you feel most connected to yourself. Spend that time thinking about or talking through what your needs are around the holidays and how you want your family interactions to go, says Thompson.
Your boundary could be anything from “I’m willing to fly out to see you for Thanksgiving, but I won’t fly out for Christmas too,” to “I don’t want to discuss abortion rights during this visit.”
Step 2: Think about how you’ll manage their reactions.
Sure, you can tell your mom that you’ve made the very adult decision of spending Thanksgiving with your partner’s family this year instead of trying to make it to both. And you can remind your grandma that you and your ex are never (ever) getting back together. But chances are they won’t respond the way you want them to. Cue the tears from your mom and silent treatment from your grandma.
So, it’s a good idea to anticipate the potential ~challenges~ that make setting a boundary more difficult, says Thompson. This way, you can come up with a plan for how to maintain your boundary despite their (not ideal) responses. That could mean recruiting your cousin to back you up in enforcing your boundaries or making a plan of action to leave the situation if your boundaries aren’t respected (like sitting at the kids table or just getting the heck out of there).
Even if you’re feeling super triggered in that moment, which you probably will, you’ll be able to move forward with your backup plan.
Step 3: Share your boundaries with your family in advance.
Telling your sister that you’re leaving her holiday party a few hours early probably won’t go down very well if you spring the news on her as you’re arriving. Instead, manage your family’s expectations for holiday gatherings by clearly communicating your boundaries in advance, says Thompson.
If you’re worried about how they might react, you can try to frame your boundary as “I can do X, but I can’t do Y,” so that it feels like more of a compromise. Thompson also recommends being straightforward and vulnerable about why the boundaries you’re setting are important to you. “If people understand your ‘why,’ they’re way more willing to help you with the boundary,” she says. That said, you don’t really owe your fam an explanation if you don’t want to give one.
Explaining your boundaries in advance while you’re in a calm, emotionally regulated place is much easier than doing it when you’re already feeling triggered, says Guenther. It’s easy to revert back to unhealthy patterns or find yourself in fight-or-flight mode when you’re surrounded by family.
Step 4: Be super clear about the consequences.
Listen, setting a boundary is basically requesting (or demanding) that people treat you the way you want to be treated. And that is your right as a human. Thing is, it’s also their right to say, “Yeah, thanks but no thanks to that boundary.”
That’s where the hard work of setting consequences comes in. Once you’ve laid out your ground rules, let your fam know what will happen if your requests aren’t met. And those consequences are totally up to you, says Guenther.
It could be something mild like “if you talk about politics, I will leave the room,” or something more drastic like “if you make rude comments about my partner, we won’t be spending the holidays with you anymore.”
You should choose whatever response feels appropriate to you and communicate it in advance so that your family knows what’s at stake and also so that you have an action plan.
But (and this is an important but) you also should think about how those consequences will impact you. For example, if you say that you’re going to leave if they don’t meet your expectations, it could mean that you’ll have to spend the holidays solo. (But, also, maybe that’s not such a bad alternative? Totally your call.)
Step 5: Enforce! Those! Boundaries!
Unfortunately, communicating your boundaries and the consequences still doesn’t guarantee that your family will actually behave accordingly (sigh). That’s why reminding them of your limits and committing to the consequences if they’re crossed is a key step in this process.
Depending on the situation, you can choose to remind your family what the boundary was and give them an opportunity to apologize if you’d like—but you definitely don’t have to. “You don’t have to baby them or give them chances,” says Guenther. If your needs aren’t being met, go ahead and enforce the consequences you discussed or just leave the situation altogether, if that’s what feels right.
The point of all of this is to show your family how you want to be treated in the relationship, and if they can’t get on board with that, you’re not wrong for showing yourself some love by sticking to your word.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.