How to Set Family Boundaries: A Therapist’s Guide

Published on: 04 Feb 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
multigenerational family on couch

Families can be tricky. They’re always there, you don’t get to choose them, and they can be the best, or the most challenging, parts of your life. Sometimes they’re both. Familial relationships can be difficult to navigate, especially if a relationship is overbearing, unhealthy, or causes family drama

Setting boundaries is an effective way you can maintain a healthy balance in your relationships with family members. From parents, to siblings, to extended family members, knowing how to set boundaries with family is something we should all learn to do. 

Read on to learn more about setting boundaries with family. We offer examples of the types of family boundaries that are reasonable and actionable tips on how to go about clear boundary setting that works for you. You might just learn how to save a difficult relationship with one of your family members. 

What Are Examples of Family Boundaries?

The thing to understand about setting clear boundaries with family — or anyone else in your life for that matter — is that your boundaries are just that…yours. Personal boundaries are the limits you set to establish what’s acceptable and within your comfort zone. 

You have every right to express yourself when things don’t feel appropriate. You’re allowed to tell family members about actions or words that you find intrusive or aggressive. Your boundaries could be regarding anything, including your desire for:

  • Time to yourself
  • Personal information to remain private
  • Respect about the feelings and emotions you experience
  • Freedom to change your mind
  • Respect regarding your principles and beliefs
  • Your physical and emotional needs being met
  • Freedom from negative, controlling energy
  • The ability to say no
  • Freedom from taking blame
  • The ability to share your feelings
  • Your own identity
  • The ability to ask for help
  • The ability to stand up for yourself
  • Your time managed as you see fit

“Setting boundaries with family may seem challenging at first, but remember, a clear boundary can help you feel safe and protected even if others don’t always like it or agree with you. For example, you may decide that you need time to yourself each day, and you have the right to take that time even if others think differently.”

Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH

11 Tips for Setting Boundaries with Your Family

Knowing how to set clear boundaries for your family can be difficult, but with the tips we share here, you can do it. Being prepared means you can be fully equipped with what you need to ensure you feel safe and respected in your family relationships.

1. Talk to a therapist before you talk to your family

An online therapist can help you identify the personal boundaries you want to set. They can also help you walk through what the process may look like. Preparing to have a potentially tense conversation with your family members can help you stay firm and strong along the way.

2. Practice

Chances are, if you’re getting to a place where you need to set clear boundaries, you’ve felt railroaded or disrespected by a toxic family member in the past. If it’s happened enough, you might tend to cower or feel weak in their presence. Practicing the simple act of saying no, or of standing up for yourself, can be a game-changer when you’re dealing with people who challenge your boundaries. This is also one of the most important steps on how to set boundaries with a person with narcissistic personality disorder. 

Maybe you’re the type of person who’s a people pleaser or who doesn’t want to disappoint others, but that doesn’t mean you can’t say no. Practice saying no or demanding that your boundaries are respected ahead of time. It can allow you to feel more ready, willing, and able to enforce your boundaries at the moment.

3. Accept that your needs are important

Before you can start setting boundaries with parents, siblings, or other family members, you need to believe that your needs are valid and important. It’s common to feel afraid to share boundaries because you’re worried about hurting a family member. Still, it’s important to truly understand that your needs are just as important as anyone else’s. 

Healthy boundary setting doesn’t mean you’re being hurtful. The opposite is actually true. The family boundaries you set can allow you to build a better, more respectful, mutually beneficial relationship with everyone in your family and friends. 

4. Be realistic

Be realistic about what will be healthy for you after setting boundaries. At that point, you’ve already taken a huge step towards self-care and doing what’s right for you. 

  • Think about what’s doable in terms of you feeling safe and your boundaries being respected. 
  • Think about time commitments before agreeing to attend a family event. 
  • Assess what spending time with someone in your family who has difficulty respecting your boundaries will really be like. 
  • Above all, remember — it’s OK for you to say no when you need to.

5. You can be both firm and kind

For your boundaries to be respected, you’ll need to be firm when you share them. That said, being firm doesn’t necessarily mean you must be unkind. Actually, that sentiment about getting more bees with honey rings true when you’re setting boundaries. Being kind, calm, and patient can often lead to greater results. Note: this does not mean you should waver about your boundaries. Firm is key here. 

6. Be direct

When you’re having a tough conversation about the boundaries you need others to respect, it might be uncomfortable. Being direct is the best way to approach things. Be firm and clear about your needs. Be as detailed as you can, so there’s no gray area or confusion at the end of the conversation. You want to explicitly state what is OK, and what is not OK.

7. Walk away when you need to

You never have to stay in a situation that feels dangerous or toxic. If your boundaries are not being respected, you can always leave. You can try to talk through things if you feel that’s the best route to go, but at a certain point, especially if it’s been difficult for any amount of time, you can always simply leave. 

You don’t need to apologize, and you don’t need to explain to anybody else unless you want to. You’ve set your boundaries, and if they’re not being respected, then you can remove yourself from the situation, guilt free.

8. Remember that you’re in charge

A big part of setting boundaries is believing that you’re in charge of your own life. Once you do the hard part — set the boundaries — you need to remember you have strength and power to enforce them. 

Tell yourself that nobody can make you feel anything. Nobody can make you do anything. You are in charge. You expect those around you — even family members — to respect your boundaries.

9. Be assertive

Being assertive can be difficult, especially when you’re trying to set family boundaries. We’re often taught to be respectful, especially when dealing with our elders, so it can feel strange to lay down the law with older family members. 

Being assertive, however, isn’t being disrespectful. That’s an important concept to understand when you’re setting boundaries with family. It’s OK, and probably necessary, for you to be very firm and to stand up for yourself.

10. Make a list 

If you’ve set boundaries and are now getting ready to face your first interaction where they’ll be put to the test, it might help to make a list of your coping strategies. Plan in advance what you’ll do if you’re faced with someone in your family not respecting you. You might decide to:

  • Remind them gently of the boundaries you agreed on
  • Remove yourself from the situation to take a short walk
  • Phone a friend — plan ahead of time to have an ally
  • Meditate or do deep breathing exercises
  • Leave the situation entirely

“Setting boundaries takes some practice. It’s like building a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Practicing ahead of time, writing down what is important to you, being clear, and most importantly knowing that you’re worth it all help in setting boundaries with family.”

Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH

11. Establish consequences

Unfortunately, setting boundaries isn’t enough. Yes, your loved ones need to know the consequences if they can’t respect your boundaries. You must also have a clear idea in your mind about what you’ll do if your loved one can’t live with the boundaries you establish. 

It might help to reassure someone that you’re not trying to punish them with a consequence. You’re simply letting them know that you’re not willing to tolerate a specific behavior any longer. Family boundaries can be really hard. You might feel scared or even question your right to draw lines in the sand, especially when it comes to your family. 

The truth is, though, knowing how to set boundaries with family can actually allow you to build deeper, stronger, healthier relationships. It’s a skill you’ll likely start to apply in other areas of your life as well. You’re a strong, independent person. You deserve to have boundaries in your life. Now, you have all this toolkit of tips to set and enforce them. 

Sources:

1. Heid A, Zarit S, Fingerman K. Adult Children’s Responses to Parent “Stubbornness”. Gerontologist. 2016:gnv691. doi:10.1093/geront/gnv691. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26873033/. Accessed December 28, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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