How to Set Boundaries That Work in Your Family


The holiday season has just passed, and you’ve likely experienced ups and downs throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Perhaps your Christmas celebration looks just like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  But maybe (like most people) there’s at least a little family drama that always unfolds around the holidays.  As you reflect on your interactions with family, in-laws, or even friends this past holiday season, you may see some patterns of dysfunction in the ways in which you relate.

It might be time to start looking at some boundaries.

How do we define boundaries? Imagine sheep surrounded by a white picket fence on a spring afternoon.  (Makes you wish it were warmer outside, doesn’t it?)  This fence provides a physical boundary between the sheep and the outside world.  If there were a huge hole in the fence, or worse yet, no fence at all, the sheep would be vulnerable to attack from wolves or other animals that think a little mutton would make a tasty lunch.

At the same time, this fence has to let the sheep in and out of the pen.  If the sheep aren’t able to leave their pen, they will eventually eat all of the grass in their enclosure and starve.  They need to be able to leave the pen to get the nutrients they need.

Basically, boundaries keep the bad things out while still allowing good things in.  In relationships, boundaries allow us to take control over our own actions and feelings, and leave the responsibility for others’ actions and feelings to themselves.  Boundaries keep us safe, and rather than distancing us from others, they allow us to more freedom to connect with others.

How do you know you might need boundaries?

Check in with yourself and your emotions.  Common emotional responses to a lack of boundaries include feeling taken advantage of, resentment, discomfort, pressure, or trapped.  If you find yourself saying “yes” to everything even when it means taking on extra stress or tasks you don’t have time to do, you might need to look at your boundaries.  Feelings of being guilt-tripped by relatives that force you to comply even when you don’t want to can be another indicator of a need for boundaries.  Maybe you constantly find yourself bailing one of your relatives out of trouble they’ve gotten themselves in, and you feel annoyed with them as a result.

It is normal to realize you need better boundaries, especially if you come from a family where boundaries were not taught or enforced.  It could be that your family communicates with passive aggressive undertones, which influences your behavior without directly communicating a need.  You also might have felt a vague sense of unrest with your family, but you’ve so long accepted this style of relating as “normal” that you wouldn’t think to set boundaries unless someone else suggested it.

How do I start to implement these boundaries in my family?

Pay attention to your emotions.

As mentioned above, if you feel trapped, hopeless, and annoyed with others, that might be a sign that you’re in need of establishing some boundaries.   Notice the relatives who inspire a vague sense of guilt in you every time you speak with them.  To practice boundaries within yourself, take ownership of your own emotional response rather than blaming them with a “They made me feel this way.”  Instead, take responsibility for how you feel and make informed choices about what boundaries you need to set in order to control that response in yourself.

Begin to say “no.”

For every “yes” you say, you are also saying “no” to something else, even if you don’t realize it.  If you say “yes” to the extra project at work that leads to long hours, you’re saying “no” to time spent with your spouse and children.  If you say “yes” to helping your family with a last minute Christmas project, you say “no” to getting enough sleep to be functional during your work meetings the next day.  Incorporate the word “no” into your vocabulary.  Practice saying it aloud in front of a mirror.  Rehearse it with a trusted friend.

Ask yourself the question: “what do I want?”

Slow down and ask yourself what you would like to see change in your relationships.  Imagine that you could wave a magic wand and make everything the way you want it to be.  What would change?  Once you realize what you want, you can make changes in your boundaries to relate to others in a way that benefits both of you.

Set physical, mental, and emotional boundaries.

Let’s say you make an emotional boundary to remind yourself about your success and happiness in life when that pesky aunt always implies that you’ve not really achieved anything until you’re married with kids.  That may be helpful for a time, but if she makes those comments every time you are together, you may eventually need to start setting a physical boundary of spending less time with her.  Looking at the aspects of physical, mental, and emotional boundaries comprehensively helps you to address all fronts where those boundary violations can happen.

Identify consequences that will play out if the boundary is violated.

In order to make sure that you set boundaries that others will respect, the boundary needs to come with an appropriate consequence when it is violated.  For example, let’s say every time you get together with your sister over the holidays, she constantly compares how much she’s spending on gifts with you.  You may set a boundary with her that you don’t talk about money while you’re shopping, and the corresponding consequence could be that you won’t shop with her if it continues. 

Communicate your boundaries clearly and stick to them.

Once you have an idea of what you need to feel comfortable and safe in relationship, communicate your boundary.  Use “I statements” that describe how you feel, rather than accusing the family member of doing something wrong, which may cause them to become defensive.  Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Imagine that they do not know how you feel, and by directly communicating this boundary, you are giving them the opportunity to respond in love.  Once you set this boundary and communicate the consequence if it is violated, be sure to enforce the boundary and consequences.

If you don’t follow through on a boundary, examine why.

It is inevitable that we’ll find ourselves slipping on our boundaries every once in a while.  It may be that circumstances change and therefore the boundary has to change too, or that we didn’t realize we needed to establish a boundary in a certain area until after we’re triggered.  When this takes place, give yourself grace and use it as a learning opportunity.  Identify what went wrong this time around and put a plan in place to be able to enforce that boundary in the future.  See it as a practice – even starting to do some work on boundaries will increase our feelings of confidence over time.

Expect and prepare for a negative response.

When you first set a boundary, it is extremely common to get a negative response.  Humans are resistant to change, and especially if you’re attempting to shift a dysfunctional relational pattern, that can stir up extra backlash.  When this happens, practice a grounding exercise.  Choose not to engage in an argument or be convinced out of enforcing your boundary.  Instead, remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing and follow through in the ways you need.


Do you always leave the holidays feeling overstressed and depressed?  Are you sick of getting guilt-tripped by your family members for all the things you seem to do wrong?  Have you tried to set boundaries with family before, just to see them fail miserably?  At Restored Hope, I’d love to help you learn how to effectively set and communicate boundaries that will be respected.  I offer counseling services at my Ann Arbor therapy office to offer support and help to break your problematic relationship patterns.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form to schedule an appointment today.