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Setting boundaries with loved ones: why it is important and how to do it

  • December 22, 2021
Being able to set boundaries about topics you may or may not want to discuss is important during the holiday season. Learn more about how to guide these conversations.

Worried 70-year-old man is talking with his son in the living room.Being able to set boundaries about topics you may or may not want to discuss is important during the holiday season. Learn more about how to guide these conversations.The holiday season is often painted as the most cheerful and happy time of year. For some, though, visiting family, loved ones and friends can be a time that adds extra stress and anxiety and exposes vulnerabilities. Often loved ones ask well-intentioned — or even targeted — questions that can be triggering, invasive or uncomfortable, and dodging conversations can feel overwhelming to those affected.  

How can people prepare for these conversations and set boundaries for themselves and others? Dayna M. Watson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education’s Counseling program shares tips and insights that people can apply as they work to set meaningful and realistic boundaries.

Many people have a hard time setting healthy boundaries, and the holiday season exacerbates that. What professional advice do you have for people who are struggling with setting boundaries — be it taking a triggering conversation off the table, questions about relationship status, dealing with insecurities around food consumption at holiday meals, etc.?

Setting boundaries with loved ones can be difficult. Before attending an event where you think you might need to set a boundary, do some reflecting on what specific line you would like to draw and how you might go about doing so.   

You may want to write out and practice a few short statements that express your boundaries. While it may be tempting to try to beat around the bush or sugarcoat our attempts at establishing healthy boundaries to make it less upsetting for the other person, it really is best to keep boundary statements short, respectful and clear. 

For example, you can say something like “I can see this is important to you, but this topic is not something I am open to discussing at this time” or “I appreciate your concern for my health, but conversations about how much food I should or should not eat are for my doctor and me.” 

Guilt and boundary setting go hand in hand. How can a person absolve themselves of such feelings even when they know they are protecting their own interests?

It is important to remember that a person’s reaction to your boundary is not reflective of whether the boundary is healthy or needed — it reflects that person’s own emotional struggle in that moment.   

When someone reacts poorly to a boundary that you know is healthy, you can practice some positive self-talk by reminding yourself that it is brave and necessary to set healthy boundaries when needed: Healthy adults take care of their own needs.   

You can also practice empathy for the other person by reminding yourself that someone who is upset by healthy boundaries has most likely had some unhealthy and toxic relationships in their lives. They are likely managing their own emotional turmoil during the holidays, and their reaction to you is simply an illustration of their own pain.

How can people who struggle with setting boundaries and verbalizing their needs approach difficult conversations with loved ones?

Again, short and clear statements are best:

  • “That is not something I am open to discussing today.”
  • “Please do not say things like that to me or around my children.”

Phrases like these can go a long way in communicating where your boundary is. In some situations where repeated attempts to draw healthy boundaries are made and a loved one continues to cross that line, it may be best to plan ahead to limit the amount of time at events that include the individuals or to gracefully exit the event if it becomes an issue in the moment.