How to Set Boundaries with Family

November 29, 2019

During my Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, I did a rotation on an inpatient unit treating patients struggling with suicidality and homicidal thoughts. The unit never seemed more full than it was during the holidays. Is there something about the holidays that brings people to the edge…?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates are actually *lowest* in December (CDC, 2013). However, homicide rates are higher on major holidays, particularly New Years (Baird et al, 2019), and research indicates that complaints about family and household disturbances are more prevalent on holidays (Rotton & Frey, 1985). Regardless, the challenges of navigating family dynamics are real, particularly during the holidays. Here’s a guide for setting healthy boundaries during intensive family-time so that you can maintain your sanity!

1. Value yourself and your time. You’re important and deserve to be treated well. Repeat this to yourself: “I am valuable and so is my time.” If the people around you don’t appreciate and respect you, family or otherwise, ask yourself whether you actually want to spend time with them, and how much. You get to choose what you do, with whom, and when. Your time is precious, and if you don’t value how you spend it, nobody else will, either. Actively opt to surround yourself with people who build you up instead of tearing you down. Imagine what your life would be like if you exclusively spent time with people who adored and valued you?

2. Give yourself permission to do what’s best for YOU. Cultural norms suggest that you’re supposed to spend holidays with family and that if you don’t, something is “wrong” with you. Ahhh, the joys of stigma! What if yours is a toxic family system, familial relationships are abusive, and your relatives hurt you? At the end of the day, YOU are your biggest advocate and supporter. It’s important to have healthy boundaries, even (especially!) during the holidays, regardless of whether or not others understand and accept them. Limiting time with toxic people is an act of self-love. No shame in this game!

3. Know your triggers and anticipate them. A “trigger” is a difficult situation or event. We all have them and they’re different for each of us. Triggers can range from your uncle nosing into your marriage, to watching your parents enable and coddle your unemployed brother, to your sister whispering about you to her husband, to your cousin Barbara sticking her fingers in the turkey.

Always be one step ahead of your triggers by knowing: a) what they are, b) the emotions that arise, c) how you can best take care of yourself (see #6), and d) how you plan to respond. If you suspect that a conversation or boundary-drawing will be required, you can even role-play with a friend in advance to find the most appropriate, least inflammatory language and tone. Being prepared for a stressful situation can make it less stressful.

4. Be clear about your needs and communicate them. Identify your needs and boundaries in advance. For example: do you need your mother-in-law to come over only after all preparations are complete? Would you prefer that she leave her yappy little dog at home? How much time do you want to spend with family? With friends? Alone? (Don’t forget alone-time, friends.)

You may not want to be with family at all this holiday season, and instead, spend time with friends. Guess what? That’s 100% okay. Every human has different limits and every right to set them. Once you’ve identified your limits, communicate them, clearly and kindly.

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