4 Rules on How to Set Boundaries with Family

In this post you will learn how to define boundaries and how to set boundaries with family.

With the holiday season and family gatherings officially here, I felt this would be a helpful topic for everyone who get anxious about visiting family (and in-laws). Often this anxiety comes from a history of family members (including in-laws) breaking your boundaries.

Being with family can be fun, relaxing, and fulfilling, but families can also have disagreements and disputes.

Maybe you’re not excited to visit your parents this holiday season because you know your mom will gossip about your dad and siblings every time she has you alone. You may be nervous that two feuding family members will blow up at each other in front of your partner or your kids. You might be praying that your parents don’t make passive aggressive comments to your partner about his or her career path, or maybe your in-laws are hardcore pressuring you to move closer to them.

Whether it is in-laws or your own family, sometimes we come in contact with toxic people whose behavior hurts us and breaks our boundaries.

You and your partner’s mental and emotional health is not worth damaging for the sake of keeping a perceived obligation to show up at a family gathering.

4 Rules on How to Set Boundaries with Family
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Boundaries Definition

So, what are boundaries? To paint a better picture, I’ll first explain what a lack of boundaries looks like. An “enmeshed family” is a family lacking boundaries. You likely grew up in an enmeshed family if:

  • There was no privacy. If you told one family member something, they clued the entire family in on your business.
  • Growing up, your parent(s) confided secrets to you or a sibling.
  • Your parent(s) overly-involved themselves in your social/academic life. (Ex: They called your friend and asked them to apologize to you or called your teacher and begged them to let you retake your test).
  • Everyone’s emotions were extremely dependent on one another’s. If one family member wasn’t happy, no one could be.
  • Growing up, you felt guilty about spending time away from family or making choices for yourself.

If this was the case for you, setting boundaries may be more difficult for you as you likely have not had much practice doing so.

Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend say it best in their book, Boundaries, that healthy boundary setting in relationships is like property lines. If you never establish property lines, you’ll keep putting your sprinkler in your neighbor’s yard and their grass will get watered, but yours won’t. Plus, your neighbor will never realize that they need their own sprinkler because you’re doing all the work for them.

It’s important to start setting boundaries and taking ownership for your emotions, desires, limits, actions, and consequences, and encourage your family do the same.

Why Setting Boundaries is Important

You need to put yourself, your partner, and your children first. It’s not selfish to protect yourself and your family from toxic people.

Although the ultimate goal is for everyone to put their bad blood behind them, forgive, apologize, and be kind to each other, this is not always the reality. Healthy relationships with boundaries taks two people, and if one of you is unable to apologize, forgive, be kind, and clearly communicate, it makes things more difficult between you.

The best thing you can do is what’s best for you. Start setting boundaries and respecting them.

Knowing Your Boundaries Definition

How do I know what my boundaries are? Boundaries can be different for everyone. Silvy Khoucasian M.D., the most influential relationship and boundaries coach I have ever come across, gives us some helpful guidelines to know what things we might need boundary setting for:

4 Rules on How to Set Boundaries with Family
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  • How long we’re willing to listen to people vent or share their pain
  • The amount of details we share when revealing our wounds/trauma
  • Not sharing our vulnerabilities with those who continue to invalidate us
  • How much “new” information we’re willing to take in at any one time
  • How much of a “new idea” we want to share when it’s still fresh for us
  • When a family member tries to engage us in “gossip” of other family members
  • When a family member shames/criticizes our partner in front of us (or them)
  • If a family member calls at times that have been clarified as “off limits”
  • A family member continues to give advice that is unwanted or hurtful
  • If a family member tries to deny or minimize hurtful actions from the past

Head over to Silvy’s Instagram hub to learn more about boundary setting and healthy relationships, she has so much valuable knowledge and insight!

How to Set Boundaries

I’ve put together 4 rules for setting boundaries that will help you know how to set boundaries with family and in-laws with a little more confidence and a little less anxiety.

Rule #1: Use clear communication.

We cannot expect others to know our boundaries unless we directly and clearly say so.

Read more about clear communication on my post 10 Ways to Have Good Communication in Your Relationships.

4 Rules on How to Set Boundaries with Family
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Rule #2: Do not threaten or punish.

Healthy boundary setting is not threatening, giving ultimatums, or using power plays, and it surely should not disrespect other’s boundaries. Make sure your boundary comes from the right place.

Be clear with your family members that you are not threatening them when you say you will have to leave if your dad continues to belittle you, but rather you are protecting yourself from something that breaks your boundary and damages your emotional or mental health.

You’re doing what’s best for you, and that is okay.

Healthy boundaries set with good intent are not meant to hurt or punish anyone, but rather protect everyone and their boundaries. Just as Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend say in their book, Boundaries, we can’t control toxic people, but we can control our exposure to them.

Rule #3: Respect other’s boundaries too.

Just as you deserve to have your boundaries respected, your family and in-laws do too. Ask them what their boundaries are, and when they say, “I don’t like when you make jokes at my expense”, don’t get defensive, just respect them.

Rule #4: Respect your own boundaries by following through.

Setting and keeping healthy boundaries will always take two, and you can’t control other’s actions. So, if your family member breaks or disrespects your boundaries, follow through on doing what is best for you.

So, if you told your mom that if she tries to gossip about your dad, you will say, “I’m not going to talk about this with you. We can change the subject, or I can sit somewhere else”, then follow through. You will thank yourself later.

4 Rules on How to Set Boundaries with Family
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It’s too often that we continue to expose ourselves to toxic people and harmful behavior because “Well, they’re family”. Take care of your family by taking care of yourself. Letting a family member break your boundaries is not the way to maintain that relationship, no matter how much they might tell you it will.

Your best chance at a healthy relationship is respecting each other’s boundaries, and if they won’t do it, then at least you will.


Using these 4 rules, setting boundaries with a family member might look like this:

“Mom, I love how much fun we can have together, but when I come for the holidays, I often get criticized by you right in front of my husband and kids. Not only does it hurt me, it hurts them too. And I get nervous to be alone with you because you try to get me to gossip about my sisters, and I’m not comfortable with that. These two things break my boundaries. I want to spend time with you, but if these two things happen, we won’t be able to stay. I just want to set these boundaries in place to protect myself and my family, and I promise to respect your boundaries too.”

Ideally, we would all have healthy relationships with our family and in-laws and will have a great time this holiday season! But, chances are, if you read this whole post, you’re a little nervous for the upcoming family festivities. And that’s okay, no family is perfect, we’re all here just doing our best to make the most of it. I wish you good luck on setting boundaries this year and hope you have the happiest of holidays!