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Setting Family Boundaries during the Holidays

As we wrap up spooky season, we are headed straight for the holidays! Holidays can be both exciting and stressful as you prepare for family gatherings, traveling out of town, and balancing life while having the kids home from school. While this is typically a joyous occasion, the holidays bring together people with different opinions, personalities, and parenting styles. Sometimes these differing opinions can lead to discomfort and conflict, especially if you talk about the “big three”: politics, money, and religion. Here at WellNest, believe that boundaries are key to having a very merry holiday season. In this blog, we will give you a strategy for setting boundaries in a peaceful way followed by a few examples of what this might look like for a family.

Setting boundaries, particularly with family members, does not always come easily. It can be awkward or frustrating, and may even upset someone. There is always that family member who feels entitled to impose their opinions on your family — It could be a well-meaning grandparent, an outspoken auntie, or a different relative demanding certain behaviors of your children due to generational differences. What’s more, you never know how people are going to respond to you setting a boundary, especially if the boundary is new or different from past expectations. There are many blog posts about what to do and how to phrase boundaries, but an often-forgotten key element is how you can expect people to respond. In a perfect world, people respond reasonably and with understanding. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Let’s go over a few stereotypical responses that might be more negative.

The toxic negotiator:

This person might respond to your boundary with unreasonable reactions. You might experience this person trying to argue with you, blame you, or turn the tables on you. You may also feel like they are trying to gaslight, manipulate, or threaten you into doing what they want. This person might yell, “I can’t believe you would say that. What are you trying to say about me? You think I am that horrible? Well, you shouldn’t have… anyway.”

The minimizer:

This person might try to make you feel like you are making a big deal out of nothing or tell you that you are being too sensitive. They try to use guilt to get their way. They may say something like, “Stop making such a fuss. It’s not that big of a deal. I'm only trying to help.”

The maximizer:

This person will try to make you feel as if you are being mean or cruel but setting a boundary. Let’s say you are uncomfortable with people holding your brand-new 8-week-old baby, so you set a boundary. This person might say something like, “Well, you’re just a new mom. You aren’t thinking about my feelings.” And if they are older, “I may not be around next year to hug her and you will feel terrible about that!”

Many of us struggle with how to navigate setting boundaries respectfully and sometimes we ask ourselves: Is it even worth setting them at all? If you decide that it is worth it, what do healthy boundaries actually look like? We’ve broken down one possibility.

Ask yourself:

1. Does what’s happening align with my (or my family’s) values and priorities?

2. Are you agreeing with others just to please them or avoid conflict?

Prepare ahead of time:

1. Think ahead about what you want to say and how you want to say it.

2. Prepare for pushback. (See examples of how people might respond above.)

3. Decide what to do if the pushback doesn’t stop. (Do you need to leave? Walk away? Laugh it off? Say something more?)

Be consistent:

1. Boundaries can be hard (non-negotiables) or soft (flexible); you get to decide. If it is a hard boundary, how will you respond if it isn’t respected?

2. Be consistent with your boundaries.

Here are some scenarios that are common during the holiday season that may require boundary setting:

The opinionated relative: Let’s say Grandma comments on your daughter’s weight or on your teenage son’s smaller frame. This may be a hard boundary for you — no one should comment on a child’s body. You might respond with, “In our family we focus more on healthy habits and how we feel, not how our outsides look.” If the comments continue, you can gently change the subject or be more direct by saying, “It seems like we disagree on this topic; let’s talk about something else.” Later, perhaps you choose to have a private conversation with that family member.

How about the “give me a smooch” relative: This can be uncomfortable for a child, no matter the age. A child should never be forced into a greeting they don’t want to give. In this case you can say to your child, “It sounds like (relative) wants to say hi to you. You can choose to give a wave, handshake, high five, hug, or kiss. It’s up to you.” If the family member continues to push back, you can say, “Nope, my child gets to choose!”

And then there’s the long-winded lecturer: You know, the relative that feels like they need to impart their wisdom in a long and never-ending speech. You might set a boundary here, depending on the topic. If the content is something you are okay with, you may choose to just let it go. However, if you are not totally on board, you may opt to have a conversation with your child later about what was said. If it’s a topic that is a hard boundary for you, then you can stop it right away by saying something like, “This conversation is no longer appropriate — Let’s talk about something new.”

Although setting boundaries may seem difficult, it can actually make the holiday season more enjoyable. Setting and maintaining boundaries is a practice, so give yourself a long enough runway to practice these boundary setting techniques as you head into the holiday season. Remember to give grace and be kind to yourself as you learn to master these new skills. We wish you all a joyous holiday season and a Happy New Year!

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