How To Set Boundaries With Family: Benefits, Obstacles, And The Value Of Self-Care

Updated October 6, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Setting boundaries can be necessary for your personal health, the peace and health of your relationships, and other parts of life. However, boundary setting isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to setting boundaries with family. So, why does it feel so tough to set boundaries with family? How do you shift to a place where you can set boundaries with family, and what are the benefits of doing so, especially as it relates to a self care day? Today, we’ll answer those questions and talk about how to find help in the process if you need it.

Do You Set Healthy Personal Boundaries With Family?

Why Does It Feel Harder To Set Boundaries With Family?

A prevalent obstacle in setting healthy boundaries with family is the fear that they won’t take it well. One of the most common reasons why it can be tough to set limitations with family is that they don’t have boundaries of their own or it wasn’t standard to establish limits in your family dynamic when you were growing up (and perhaps that continues to be the case).  Whereas we choose our friends - and, as such, our friends might have knowledge and perception of boundary-setting that’s more up-to-speed with our own - we don’t choose our family, and your family may be entirely new to the concept of boundary setting. Not knowing how to set limits could be true for a number of different reasons, such as their own upbringing or generational differences.

There might be an uncomfortable adjustment period when you start setting boundaries with family, which is when personal stress related to setting boundaries might show up the most. Accordingly, it’s crucial to ensure that your boundaries are firm and clear. It is possible that family may cross, disrespect, or steamroll over your boundaries. This doesn’t mean that it’s time to give up. Instead, it may mean that additional support  is your next move. This move could be working with a mental health professional or instilling personal boundaries (like telling yourself, “Even if it’s tough, I told my family that I will hang up the phone if my family starts to yell, and I will follow through in doing so.”).

It’s also relevant to state that family life, in general, is a very sensitive topic for many people. We all have different relationships with our families, and in family relationships that are more complex or that have a difficult, emotionally painful history, it can make boundary setting more difficult. None of this means that hope is lost! Understanding the benefits of boundary setting, and having a plan for how you’ll instill them, can help.

What Are The Mental Health Benefits Of Boundary Setting?

Despite challenges, setting boundaries can be necessary, and there are a number of advantages that can come with it. These advantages aren’t limited to the ones you’ll see for yourself alone, either, such as an increase in self-respect, self-confidence, and self-understanding. Benefits of boundary setting include:

  • Better Relationships

Many would say that the number one benefit to setting boundaries is the improvement it can lead to in relationships, including familial relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships. Though it can be challenging initially, once boundaries are in place and adjustment has occurred, setting boundaries means that you will face less resentment and other such benefits to interpersonal connections. Have you ever resented or gotten upset with a family for crossing a boundary that you didn’t set? For example, for bringing up a certain topic, calling you a particular nickname,  your personal information with others, or for teasing you in a way you don’t like? If so, this can cause strain in your relationship. By stating your needs and ensuring they’re met on your own behalf through boundary-setting, relationships can feel better and become healthier.

  • Personal Health And Wellbeing

Setting boundaries and sticking to them means that your needs are more apt to be met. If you have kids, it may even be a means of supporting them. For example, perhaps your child’s grandma frequently brings up sensitive, potentially unhelpful topics, like weight and dieting. You find that it’s unhelpful for your mental health, and you want to support healthier thoughts and cultivate a healthier environment for your kid(s), at least in their home or family life. This is an example of a time where you might set a boundary such as, “if you bring this topic up, I will have to leave/hang up the phone/etc. Maybe, you can tell us a story about ___ instead?”

  • Self-Confidence And Assertiveness

Boundary-setting can help with self-confidence, and it is a practice in becoming more assertive.

  • Improved Communication

The practice of boundary setting helps you communicate your needs.

Increased respect for other people’s boundaries. Sometimes, people who have trouble with boundary setting or don’t set necessary boundaries don’t respect other people’s boundaries, or they may be more apt to take them personally. Setting your own boundaries can mean improved respect for other people’s boundaries, both emotionally and tangibly.

9 Ways Difficult Family Push The Limits Without Respecting You

Family dynamics are complicated. Suppose you tend to be a people pleaser who dislikes dealing with conflict. In that case, you likely will need to establish many different kinds of boundaries, from the tone of a conversation to digital limits.

  1. Time boundaries help you manage and your time. A time boundary might be, “We can’t be there before 11:00 A.M.”
  2. Physical boundaries relate to physical space and touch. A physical boundary might be limits you set on how close family can stand next to you or how you’re touched (“I’m not comfortable with giving X a kiss on the cheek. Can we fist bump instead?”
  3. Fight boundaries you emotionally and physically.

Growing up with sibling usually meant getting into fights. What’s okay and not okay now that you’re older? It’s up to you to decide if name-calling, hair-pulling, pinching, kicking and punching are off-limits.

If you are thinking about suicide or if you are thinking about harming yourself, or others or if you have any medical emergency, you must immediately call the emergency service number (911 in the US and 999 in the UK) and notify the relevant authorities. Seek immediate in person assistance.

  1. An emotional boundary relates to your feelings and emotions. An example of an emotional boundary might be, “I understand that you don’t mean anything by it, but it hurts my feelings when you use that nickname. Please call me by my first name instead.” You may even have to take it a step further and say, “I know that I stated that I am not comfortable with being called that/with that topic being brought up. If you do say it again, I will have to leave.”
  2. Intellectual boundaries include thinking processes or perceptions about knowledge.

For example, “I know that I asked you to please not make negative comments about my spouse not having a degree. If you put my spouse down while we are on the phone again, I will need to hang up.”

  1. Social media boundaries include what can and cannot be on social media platforms. How do you feel about an aunt a photo of you on a platform for which you don’t have an account? What if that photo portrays you in a negative light?
  2. Food boundaries are established to place limitations on what you eat. If you’re the only vegan in the family, do you give in and eat what everyone else is eating? Do you have that one relative who always seems intent on sabotaging your diet?
  3. Material boundaries relate to finances and personal possessions. A material boundary might be “I can’t loan you money” or “No, I will not loan you the new shirt I just bought.”
  4. Communication boundaries set the protocols for having conversations. Having a set cut-off time for talking on the phone – unless it’s an emergency -- is one way to draw the line for communicating. By doing so, you are prioritizing your need to do other things. Your communication boundaries could include the language and device used, as well.

As you can see, many of the boundary types here overlap, making it crucial that you know in advance how you will decide on a course of action with your loved ones.  Healthy boundary setting requires set expectations and maintain them consistently. 

Most people appreciate knowing the limitation you set for behaviors, and they’ll abide by them to preserve their relationship with you. 

Setting Boundaries With Family

Imagine being invited to a family gathering for dinner. Everyone, including family and extended family, has been invited to arrive at 4:00 p.m. to include time for conversation. You are an adult, and you live 90 minutes away.

You cannot control how other people act, but you can accept responsibility for yourself, especially when your desire for respect is strong. Here are five steps you might take to establish clear boundaries with your family:

1. Think about what you’ll say in advance.

Make sure that your boundary is clear, and think of how you will verbalize it. For those who are new to setting limits, role-playing may be helpful. It is common for therapists to role play boundary setting with their clients, and if you work with a therapist, you may be able to ask your therapist to do that.

2. Prepare for pushback.

Think, in advance, about what you can do to instill and stick with your decision if there’s pushback. For example, “I know you like having the family together on holidays, but I have a long drive ahead. I appreciate getting to spend time with everyone, but to get home safely, I must leave here by 8:00 p.m.”  The passive aggressive host or hostess may tell you, “Oh, dinner won’t be ready until 9:00 p.m.” or “It’s okay if you stay just a bit after; we haven’t even had dessert yet!”

3. Establish a healthy boundary with yourself and stay firm with your decision, even if it’s your parents who are pushing back.

There are times, like these, when people, including difficult family, won’t respect boundaries. At that point, their behavior requires that you set a line of demarcation for yourself. What does that mean? It is just like setting a parameter with another person, but this time, you set it with you. Let’s say that you set a boundary with a family by asking them to honor your time boundaries. Although you said you would have to leave by 8:00 p.m., be prepared to leave at that time, even if dinner isn’t ready yet. You can say something like, “I know you planned a wonderful dinner, and the best part has been getting to visit with everyone. However, I really must leave by 8:00 p.m. I’m asking you to respect my time.”

4. Follow through with what you said. The same way, if you told your family you would leave by a certain time, simply leave. Walk away knowing that you are living up to the standard you set for yourself. You are being accountable to the person who matters most: yourself. It is tough, but this enforces your boundary and helps you yourself. Again, putting yourself as a priority can be imperative in these situations. (Note: Observing your time needs is not the same thing as egocentric behavior, such a someone with a narcissistic personality disorder might demonstrate.)

5. Celebrate with alone time after the fact. Even when you know that it’s the healthiest thing for you to do, setting boundaries with family can be tough, especially when you have to walk away. Taking time for yourself can be both valuable and anecdotal to this, and self care might look like speaking with your support system, doing something kind for yourself (listening to a favorite podcast, making art, taking a bath, and so on), or using outlets and coping skills you know are helpful for you, like physical activity or breathing exercises.

Not setting limits can hurt. If you need help with boundary setting, self-care, coming up with ways to phrase your boundaries and needs, or something else, speaking with a therapist or counselor can help you maintain what you’ve started. Boundaries are important for the health of ourselves and our relationships, and while learning to set them can take time, it is something you deserve to do.

If you’re part of a joint family,  the confines may feel more porous and your may feel less respected. If you’re used to asking permission to borrow something, and the other family just takes it, you may feel offended while they wonder what the big deal is.  Healthy relationships thrive on communication: talking about acceptable behaviors and what’s permissible.   Everyone will feel more respected.

You can find a therapist to work with face-to-face, or you can connect with a therapist who offers remote sessions to work on life coping strategies.

Do You Set Healthy Personal Boundaries With Family?

Online Therapy

Online therapy is a safe space to discuss setting clear boundaries with family, work on ways to navigate familial relationships as a whole, develop coping strategies and virtually anything else that’s on your mind. Research shows that online therapy is effective in helping individuals who face a wide range of concerns, and even better, it’s often more affordable when compared to the cost of traditional, in-person therapy sessions or services.

There are over 20,000 licensed, independent mental health professionals with a range of different specialties who provide therapy through the BetterHelp platform. When you sign up for Betterhelp, you’ll take a short questionnaire that’ll help us match you with a provider who meets your needs. If you need to do so at any point in time, we make it easy to switch the therapist you work with through BetterHelp or cancel your plan. Financial aid may be available for those who need it.

Are you ready to talk with a therapist? Click here to get started, or read the therapist reviews and FAQs on the BetterHelp website to learn more. You deserve quality care, and we’re here to help.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.