7 Tips for Setting Boundaries with Family Over the Holidays, According to Therapists
Though cheery commercials and sappy Hallmark movies would have everyone believe otherwise, the holidays can be a pretty fraught time for many people. Spending quality time with family members sounds great in theory, but in reality, it can be super stressful.
“The holidays often demand interactions with people we only see once or twice a year,” says licensed mental health counselor Alyssa Mairanz, who runs Empower Your Mind Therapy and created an “Adulting in the Real World” life skills course. “So, we’re not always used to the challenges of different personalities, needs, beliefs, and values.”
From backhanded compliments about your hair, to intrusive questions about your relationship status, to super-charged debates about politics, family gatherings can quickly become tense and unpleasant. One way to help protect your mental and emotional well-being through all of this? Setting boundaries.
“Setting boundaries refers to putting guidelines in place for how other people can access you, your energy, your time, your space, or your things,” says Laura Sgro, a licensed clinical social worker in California.
But setting boundaries is easier said than done, especially if you’re new to the concept. I checked in with several mental health experts for their tips on how to make spending the holidays with family successful this year — here’s what they had to say.
If you know a topic will be controversial, don’t bring it up.
You may be tempted to bring up a bit of juicy political news or family gossip at the dinner table, but if you know that your family can’t have a respectful, productive conversation, then it may be best to steer clear. Yes, in an ideal world, you should be able to talk about anything and everything with your family. But, unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and there are certain topics that usually cause more harm than good.
“The goal shouldn’t be to incite debate or strong feelings,” says Leigh McInnis, a licensed professional counselor and the executive director of Newport Academy in Virginia. “If you know a topic is going to stir things up, don’t go there.”
You can even take it a step further by letting your loved ones know ahead of time what you are and are not comfortable discussing, says Sgro. “Setting a boundary might sound like, ‘I’m really excited to see you this Thanksgiving, but I want to let you know I’m not willing to talk about politics this year. If we get into that discussion, I’ll have to excuse myself,’” Sgro recommends.
If a family member oversteps, consider the source of their comment.
Parents particularly have a hard time letting go of their children and want to feel involved in their lives, so they may unknowingly cling to the belief that they still know what’s best for you, says Mairanz. Often, this attachment manifests as offering unsolicited advice or asking intrusive questions, which can put you in an awkward spot.
But before you respond, stop for a moment and contemplate the motivation behind the person’s comment. Most likely, they’re speaking from a place of care. If you feel that’s the case, consider saying something that acknowledges and validates their concern for your well-being while also firmly setting limits. For instance, if a family member comments on your body, consider saying something along the lines of: “I appreciate your concern but I’m not comfortable discussing my body,” Mairanz says.
Also take into account that there may be cultural or generational gaps that affect how your loved ones communicate or respond to your boundaries. “This isn’t an excuse if they push back, but rather context for you to know how to set realistic expectations with your loved ones,” says Sgro.
If you know family gatherings will be tough on you, identify some self-care tools.
Long before you hop in the car to head to grandma’s house, make a list of healthy coping strategies for dealing with any boundary-violating behaviors that arise, says McInnis. “Maybe it’s going for a walk or journaling. Maybe it’s calling a trusted friend or watching a movie,” she says. “Have something healthy that you can turn to if a situation triggers you.”
If you can bring a friend or partner, lean on them for help.
While your spouse, partner, or friend can’t set boundaries for you, they can help support you in your boundary-setting efforts. They can also help you create some space for yourself throughout the gathering, says Sgro. “So-and-so and I are going to take a quick walk to get some air,” she recommends.
If too much togetherness creates problems, go your own way.
In that same vein, try to build breaks into your holiday schedule more broadly. Though families may insist on spending every waking moment together to maximize quality time, that’s not necessarily the best course of action, says Sgro.
“If some of you want to watch a holiday movie, but others would rather go for a hike, it’s fine to spend some time apart,” she says. “This helps to keep holiday gatherings manageable and to ensure that there’s something for everyone.”
If the conversation makes you uncomfortable, share that or leave the room.
One of the easiest ways to set a boundary at family gatherings is to simply share when a topic makes you uncomfortable and express your desire to move along. Say something like, “This isn’t something I feel comfortable talking about right now. Maybe we can find a topic that interests all of us,” suggests Sgro. Then, bring up a new topic.
And if all else fails, get up and leave the room. Excuse yourself to the restroom, offer to wash dishes, head out for a quick walk, or volunteer to make a run to the grocery store.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider sitting this year out.
Perhaps visiting your family fills you with so much dread and anxiety that you feel it’s best to opt out entirely — and that’s OK, too. “If you are concerned for your mental or emotional wellness related to attending a gathering, you are not obligated to go under any circumstances,” says McInnis. “You may feel pressure from others, but you have the right to respect what is best for you and put your needs first.”
However, before you fire off a text to your mom, consider asking yourself some tough questions, McInnis says. For example, are you missing out on quality time with loved ones because you feel uncomfortable setting other types of boundaries? Are you making assumptions about how family members will respond to specific boundaries because of actual past experiences, or because you just assume you know how they’ll react? Do the pros of sitting out this year actually outweigh the cons?
Of course, if you do decide not to attend family get-togethers, consider the range of possible responses — and keep your goals and motivations top of mind. “We can’t control their reactions to our boundaries, we can only control our communication and the choices we make in response to them,” says Sgro. “It’s also important to remember that you’re taking care of yourself and prioritizing your needs, which is an act of self-love. In many cases, setting more rigid boundaries like reducing contact can preserve the relationship because it helps you avoid feeling burnt out or resentful from repeated negative experiences.”