Learning How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Family

Blurred family boundaries have repercussions. At best, they can be annoying, at worst they’re completely soul-crushing. We’ve all seen examples—the siblings who constantly pester each other; the helicopter parent; the grandparents who take control from the parents.

Setting healthy boundaries on the other hand creates a dynamic, thriving relationship where both parties can be genuine and grow together. That’s the ideal; and it is not always (hardly ever) an easy one to achieve. Establishing limits in family life is worth the work, though.

Setting boundaries with family does not mean a brick wall

Boundaries are not brick walls.

A common mistake is to think that taking space in a relationship means holding someone off at arm’s distance, pushing them away. Instead of a fortress wall, a constructive limit will be more like a sliding door—a two-way partition that’s easily implemented when necessary. The key to protecting your space and sanity is to communicate your limits. A boundary is not a barrier; it is a way to take care of yourself.

Open communication lays the groundwork for stronger relationships.

Start small. Begin the conversation in a clear, simple way. No mind games here. If something is bothering you, speak up in some way. Write a note; ask for some time to talk; open the door to communication. Once you’re talking it is so much easier to establish clear, consensual boundaries.  

TIP for Success: Avoid explosive confrontations

Bottling up frustrations and pushing a family member away may seem like it separates you from them, but it is not a healthy separation. Instead, this sets you both up for an overwhelming deluge later when you eventually reach your fill and all the frustrations boil over. The more open you can be about your limits, the easier it is for someone else to understand them (and hopefully honor them).

Define what you need.

“I need space.” That request can mean something different to everyone who hears it, and everyone who says it. In order to ask for what you need, you need to understand your own needs. This is where Emotional Intelligence is key. Check out our post What is Emotional Intelligence? for more on that. Space could be physical (your own part of the home), personal (less delving questions), emotional (less intimacy) or any number of things. To have your needs fulfilled, explain what your needs are.

TIP for Success: Not every conversation needs to happen NOW

Before delving into a discussion about your limits or confronting a loved one about your space, take time to reflect internally. Not only will this give you time to cool down if you feel upset, it will also help you get clear on your needs. Reflect first and it will be easier to know your needs, and then communicae them.

Find common ground when it comes to drawing a line.

The strongest borders are protected by both sides. If a limit is imposed against one person’s will, it’s unlikely to stand the test of time and relationship turmoil. For example, if a child needs space of their own, locking the parents out is less constructive in the long run than agreeing to certain privacies. If a partner wants more autonomy, discussing those needs will likely serve both better than just withdrawing from the relationship.

When resolving conflict and setting boundaries with family, find common ground for increased understanding. 

TIP for Success: Healthy Boundaries Require Engagement from Both Sides

Like a dance or a tightrope walk, creating working boundaries takes both sides. If one person moves in, infringing on that line, the other person is forced to move back to maintain healthy distance. This is where communicating in relationships is especially vital to boundaries. As you both navigate your lives and relationships it’s natural for the space between you to fluctuate a bit, but if distance is important, both parties must adapt and openly communicate to maintain that space. Balancing on a tightrope doesn’t work without support from both sides.

New habits take time.

Once you’ve started the conversation, expressed your needs, found common ground, and established a limit that both parties can honor—it takes practice.

Especially in families, which usually spend a lot of time together, it is hard to break learned habits. We have written some tips on How to Build Healthy Brain Habits and Keys to Breaking Bad Habits, and perhaps the best advice is daily practice.

TIP for Success: Be understanding of yourself and others

When my mom and I moved back in together during my Sophomore year at college, there were some definite boundaries that needed to be erected. We’d lived together my entire childhood life though, so we had our habits and our ways. For us, creating a code word of sorts—a simple phrase or sign for when our limits were being pushed—made a huge difference. When slips inevitably happened, we practiced using our code word as a kind reminder. Slip-ups happen; boundaries get pushed; and emotions can run high. Remember, there is a reason you cared enough to set up a limit with this person—you want the relationship to work for you both.

Match your actions to your words.

“The grass is not greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it.” In a recent conversation with a College of Charleston psychology professor Jennifer Brown, the counselor’s words about building healthy relationships struck me. What metaphorical grass in your family life are you watering? Open communication doesn’t mean much if you don’t honor it in practice.

Family life can easily feel like a labyrinth. Without healthy, mutually-beneficial limits, it could easily become a frustrating maze or entrapment. But with careful communication, compromise and practice, those same limits can create a beautiful safe space where everyone’s needs are met. Setting boundaries in family life takes time. Why not start now with some self-inquiry and a simple call for communication? 

For a step-by-step process in setting boundaries, check out our emotional intelligence course and Return to Serenity programs. 

Enid SEnidRSpitz.jpgpitz is a writer and yoga instructor based in Charleston, SC. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for traumatic brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social well-being, neuroscience and yoga. When not writing or on the yoga mat, she is an avid traveller, enjoys a good whiskey, and loves being outdoors. Twitter: @enidrosalyn, Instagram: @littleyogibird.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness