How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Family

Isn’t it incredibly frustrating that — all at the same time — your family can be a source of unconditional love and support, but also a source of constant conflict? It seems like the people whom you love the most also annoy you the most. 

Or, perhaps your family is more a source of hurt and stress than it is a place of love. Whether you are spending a few hours with them or an extended period of time (holidays, vacations, living at home), every conversation carries the potential to spark conflict. When this happens, it can deepen the divisions and hurt that already exist in your family and can leave you feeling like you never want to see them again.

In my work as a therapist, many of my clients have shared their painful stories with me as they struggle to find some kind of balance in their relationship with their family. They ask themselves, “How do I maintain a relationship with my family without being a human doormat with them taking advantage of me?” 

And it’s a challenging question to answer. Letting your family members know what kind of treatment you are okay and not okay with can be tricky, especially if there is a lot of tension in your household dynamics.

By far, boundaries are the best strategy to help you make positive changes in your relationship with your family. Not only do boundaries create a healthy kind of space in your relationship with those you love, but they also help you protect your emotional and mental health, which is even more important. Think of them as a set of personal guidelines you use to help you discern what type of interactions you are okay and not okay with when you’re interacting with your family.

No matter what your family dynamic looks like, knowing how to set boundaries can make interacting with your family much easier and much less stressful. Here are three tips for helping you set boundaries that can help you make a positive difference in your relationship with them.

Be clear

When you’re setting boundaries with your family (or really anyone, for that matter), it’s important to be very clear about what you are doing. Be very specific about the boundary you are setting and why you are setting that boundary. 

Drawing these lines can take on a different look depending on the situation. For example, if you are struggling with a nosy relative, setting a clear boundary might be saying something like, “Thank you for asking but I’m not comfortable sharing any more information on that right now.” If a sibling or parent is engaging in behavior that you don’t agree with (drinking to get drunk, being emotionally abusive, etc.), setting a boundary might look like saying, “I’m not okay with what you are doing right now, so I’m leaving.” 

While it might seem a little awkward at first to say something like this, it makes it very clear to everyone involved that you are setting a firm boundary.

Be consistent

When you were younger, did your parents threaten to take away privileges when you misbehaved but never actually followed through? You probably learned that their threats were empty and kept doing what you wanted to because there were no real consequences to your behavior. 

The same thing can happen if you aren’t consistent with setting your boundaries. If you say that you are going to remove yourself from the situation if your sister tries to start yet another heated political argument that will never be resolved, be consistent and leave instead of stumbling into yet another argument. 

When you’re consistent, it sends the message to your family that you are serious about setting boundaries.

Be open

Setting boundaries is not the same as completely checking out and never interacting with your family. Instead, it’s about being intentional about the way you interact with your family to promote a positive relationship as much as possible given the circumstances. 

That being said, if a family member asks you about why you are suddenly setting boundaries, be open to having an honest but kind conversation with them about it. It’s common for family members to be surprised and a little bit confused when another family member makes sudden changes that affect the family dynamic (even if those are positive changes). Instead of getting defensive, appreciate your family’s inquisitiveness and open up a dialogue about what you are trying to do and why.

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