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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: siblings who constantly bicker, helicopter parenting, in-laws stopping by unannounced, and grandparents who try to dictate how to parent. Difficult family members definitely can be challenging!

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

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Healthy boundaries with family are vital

Boundaries are not brick walls.

A common mistake is to think that taking space in a relationship means holding someone at arm’s distance, pushing them away, or cutting them off altogether. Instead of a fortress wall, a healthy limit will be more like a sliding door—a two-way partition that’s easily implemented when necessary.

The key to safeguarding your space and sanity is to communicate your limits clearly and BEFORE you are ready to build that wall! Here are seven reasons it's important to set loving and firm boundaries!

A boundary is not a barrier; it is a way to take care of yourself.

Ways to Build Open Communication and Lay the Groundwork for Healthy Relationships with  Family

Tip 1 for communicating healthy boundaries: start small.Start small. Begin the conversation in a clear, simple way.

No mind games. If something is bothering you in a relationship with a family member, speak up—don't bottle up!

Write a note, send an invitation to discuss a topic via text, and 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:
Approach a conversation sooner rather than later!

Bottling up frustrations and pushing a family member away may seem like an immediate solution, but resentment can build and delay resolution. Without information, the mind likes to tell stories—and they aren't always true.

A cut-off sets you up for an overwhelming deluge later when you eventually reach your fill and all the frustrations boil over. Repressing emotions detracts from our emotional and mental health as well as degrading our communication with those we love.

The more open you can be as disagreements arise, the better. When setting boundaries with a family member, communicate your limits as you go; it's easier for others to understand them (and hopefully honor them).

Related reading: "Using Boundaries and Empathy to Deal with People's Anger Effectively" 

Boundaries are needed in relational fightsTip 2 for communicating healthy boundaries: define what you need.Define what you need.

“I need space.” is a common boundary I've heard a lot lately. Many adult children are saying this to their parents.

A request for space can mean different things to everyone. The relationship, the history of trust, and the tone in which the boundary is set will determine how well the request for space is received.

When dealing with a difficult family member or a strained relationship, take extra time to connect with your heart and find an outcome that you desire. Defining what you need in your interchanges will assist you in determining the necessary boundary.

For instance, perhaps you get in arguments over phone texts that lead to deadends and hard feelings. A small boundary might be to discuss hard topics in person. This can be tricky with extended family, especially if they live in another state. Then, a phone call might be a better solution.

Defining what YOU need is critical in familial relaitonships and for your well being. Good boundaries begin with you! 

In order to ask for what you need, you need to first understand your own needs. Sometimes, being a people-pleaser makes it arduous to set emotional boundaries. This is where emotional literacy and emotional intelligence are key.

In the example of asking for space in a relationship, it can be a desire for:

  • physical space (a private spot in your home or office)
  • personal space (less delving questions or a need to be quiet and decompress)
  • emotional space (wanting less intimacy or simply craving more solitude to process emotions)

To have your needs fulfilled, first determine what they are.

TIP for Success:
Not every conversation needs to happen NOW.

Before diving into a discussion about setting boundaries or confronting a loved one about your needs, take time to reflect internally. Not only will this give you time to cool down if you feel upset, but it will also help you get clear on your needs. Reflecting first will help clarify your needs. Then communicate them.

It's also important to choose a time that works for both of you. The better the timing, the more likely you will have a great result.

Related reading: "How to Effectively Respond to Disrepectful Stepchildren in a Blended Family."

Tip 3 for communicating healthy boundaries: find common ground.Find common ground when it comes to drawing a line.

The strongest borders are well-defined and ratified by both parties. If a limit is imposed rather than agreed upon, it’s unlikely to withstand the test of time and will often collapse under relationship turmoil.

For example, if a child or teen needs space to be alone, locking the parents out of their bedroom (a short-term solution) will probably not go over well with their parents. It is also less constructive in the long run. To create a win-win that works for everyone, discussing their need for privacy and alone time might result in agreeing to assigned quieting spaces for the family or times of day of undisturbed privacy.

Or, if you want more autonomy in your marriage, sharing those needs with your partner will serve each other far better in the relationship than just withdrawing.

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, working boundaries require knowing where that line is.  If one person moves in, infringing on that line, the other person may feel the need to move back to maintain a 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, but they need space both parties must adapt and openly communicate to maintain that space. Sometimes, you may want more frequent communication; other times, you might not feel like conversation so often.

To learn how to set boundaries that will transform your life and relationships, try our mini-course on boundaries.

Yes, help me set better boundaries

Young couple connecting lovingly

Tip 4 for communicating healthy boundaries: remember new habits take time.New boundary 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 for a Happier Life and 8 Keys to Breaking Bad Habits that might help you accelerate disrupting unhelpful habits.

And perhaps the best advice is daily practice.

TIP for Success:
Be understanding of yourself and others.

My son moved back in with us for four months while he did a local practicum for his doctorate. New boundaries needed to be set up since my husband and I were used to having the place to ourselves. However, it took some thought because he was now an adult and expected the liberty to come and go, sometimes staying out late at night. We gave some serious thought and had to clarify what worked for us and what did not.

Turned out to be a precious time for us... played—and lost—a lot of Catan with him!

Setting up guidelines ahead of time is a HUGE help because everyone gets a say and a win-win can be achieved that prevents misunderstanding.

Of course, slip-ups happen.

Boundaries get pushed and emotions can run high.

Remember that the goal is to care for yourself while also honoring the other people in your family. You want each relationship to have a foundation of empathy, respect, and communication.

Many parents find the teenage years challenging, as their teens push limits and challenge family values. One key to smoothing the relationship tremendously is having a calm conversation about what is important to everyone and laying out a roadmap how to navigate this season successfully.

For instance, perhaps your teen can help with grocery shopping or pick up younger siblings from school in exchange for using the car on weekends. Or, have designated nights for hanging with family so that you can honor when your teen wants time alone in their room. Establishing healthy boundaries with teenagers BEFORE conflicts arise will eliminate frustration and difficulties.

Related reading: "Keys to a Peaceful Home: House Rules for Adult Children Living at Home."

Mother upset with teenage son on computer

Tip 1 for communicating healthy boundaries: find mutually beneficial limits.Find mutually beneficial limits.

Psychology Professor Jennifer Brown's comments about building healthy relationships are relevant here.

“The grass is not greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it.”

What metaphorical grass in your family life are you watering—or neglecting to water?

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.

Mindful communication while practicing setting 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?

Related reading: "Create a Healthy and Happy Life with Effective Boundaries" 

Check out our handy skill card for a step-by-step process for setting healthy boundaries that will improve your life!

I want to learn how to set boundaries!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity FounderJennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity Founder
Jennifer, as the Heartmanity Founder, has coached couples for over two decades. With her extensive experience and vast knowledge of emotional intelligence and brain science, Jennifer provides profound insights. She specializes in communication and teaches EQ skills needed to create healthy relationships. Jennifer is happily married and the mother of three grown children who are incredible human beings.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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