Setting Boundaries with Family: Five Tips to Stand Firm
Firm boundaries help you get what you need.
Posted October 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Being clear and direct when you set boundaries will help you maintain them.
- Seeing a situation from another's point of view can help you set boundaries in a kind but firm way.
- Compromising with others can lessen any fight over your boundaries. Is there something you can give to keep others off your toes?
- The feelings others have in response to you setting a boundary are not your responsibility.
Families are complicated. All families have a unique set of rules and dynamics. At times, the dynamics cause tension between members with competing needs. Some tension is completely normal and expected. For example, as children grow, they become more independent; parents, wanting to protect them, may respond with fear when children desire to make more of their own decisions. At other times, the conflicts can be more insidious.
Here are five tips you can use to set healthy boundaries with family members.
Be clear and direct in your communication.
Especially with family members we find intimidating or who hold power in the family, we can find it difficult to say what we mean. When we fail to be direct, we inject confusion into the situation and undermine our authority to make our own decisions and to have our needs met by the family or outside it.
Instead of floundering, be direct with your family member. “Mom, I will not be home for Christmas." You may or may not choose to add a reason. Do so if it helps you stand firm. "I have chosen to work, because I am saving money to buy a house.” This type of direct communication clearly states your position and why you are making your decision. While you don’t have to explain yourself, letting people in close relationship with you understand your decision-making process can sometimes help lessen opposition to your choices.
Remember, do what's best for you.
Try to see the situation from their point of view.
Before speaking with your family member, think about the situation from their perspective. Of course your parent is going to be disappointed that you’ve chosen not to come home for Christmas. You have shared the holiday since you were born. They want to see you and spend time together. You not being there could make them feel old and force them to experience how their lives are changing, or they may value family time more than you do. Whatever their reasons for feeling and acting as they do, if you can see the situation from their eyes, it will help you to be compassionate when you let them know what your boundaries are.
This exercise is not meant to change your mind. Rather, if you understand why they are upset, you can better stand firm without causing unnecessary pain. "Mom, I know you're disappointed, but I made this decision because it's what I need to do this year."
Compromise when you can.
There are situations in which compromise is possible. “Mom, I’m not going to be home for Christmas, but if you’re available, I would love to celebrate with you on the Saturday before the holiday. I have the day off and would love to have you come over to my place. I’ll even cook dinner for us.” This may not be exactly what your family member would like in an ideal world, but it is something that she can have. Offer something they want, if it's appropriate to do so.
You are under no obligation to compromise when doing so would harm you. If you are choosing not to attend a family event because someone who abused you when you were a child will be present, and you fear for the safety of the children, you need give no explanation nor compromise. However, relations with other family members might be appeased if you can still remain in connection with them in another way. “Mom, I am celebrating Christmas at home, and you are welcome to come over on Boxing Day if you’d like to see the kids. We’d love to make time for you.”
Recognize what you are responsible for and let the rest be.
If your family member is not understanding of your boundary and argues, manipulates, or throws an emotional tantrum, stand firm in your decision. You are responsible for being caring, thoughtful, and, if you can be, kind in your delivery. You are not responsible for their reaction or their feelings. Yes, Mom might be hurt that you are missing Christmas dinner. This situation might make her face the uncomfortable truth that her brother, who will also be at dinner, abused you relentlessly as a child and you get to choose not to see him. She can make choices, too. How others respond is not your responsibility. If you can feel that, it will be easier to deal with difficult reactions.
Let them have their feelings.
Setting a boundary is rarely met with relief or good wishes. If it was, we’d just inform our family of our decisions and move on. If, “I will not continue the conversation when you shout at me,” was met with “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I’d raised my voice” and a de-escalation of intensity, we wouldn’t need to set boundaries in the way that we do.
When your family member becomes upset over you setting a boundary, let them have space and time to feel their feelings. Let them process. You may have more psychological stability or experience in dealing with disappointment. Your loved one may not be accustomed to you stepping out of your de facto designated role in the family.
Your boundaries will change the family system. Give your family the opportunity to adjust to this change. Over time, you may find that the entire system is healthier and that setting your boundaries is less of a chore. Even if they don't change, you may find it easier to set healthy boundaries and not take on other people's dysfunctional or unhealthy responses.