How To Set Boundaries With Family

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated July 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It can be challenging to set boundaries with family and those you care about deeply. However, doing so has many benefits, such as improved relationships, increased confidence, and more effective communication. You may set many types of boundaries, such as those regarding time, physical touch, arguments, emotions, intellect, social media, diet, finances, and communication. 

To set an effective boundary, you might plan it out ahead of time, prepare for pushback, maintain boundaries with yourself, follow through on your words, and reward yourself after the fact. If you struggle to set boundaries, working with a therapist online or in person might help you develop this skill.
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Learn To Set Healthy Boundaries.

Are There Benefits To Setting Boundaries? 

Although it can be challenging to set boundaries, doing so can result in many benefits, such as better relationships, improved personal health and well-being, increased confidence and assertiveness, and more effective communication. Setting boundaries can also help you learn to respect others’ boundaries.

Types Of Boundaries

There can be many types of boundaries that you may put in place, including the following. 

Time Boundaries 

Time boundaries involve the time you spend with others, whether for work, school, or social relationships. A few time boundaries include the following statements: 

  • “I won’t be there until 9 am.”
  • “I can’t work on Wednesday.” 
  • “I need ten minutes to think before we talk about this.” 
  • “I need time to myself on Sunday.” 
  • “Please don’t call me before 9 am.” 

Physical Boundaries 

A physical boundary might be a limit you set on how close individuals can stand next to you or how you’re touched. Consent is a physical boundary, but there are many others, including the following: 

  • “Don’t hug me.” 
  • “No.” (Regarding touch) 
  • “Please stand farther from me.” 
  • “I’m not interested in hugging my aunt.”  
  • “Please don’t touch my hair.” 
  • “Don’t tickle me.” 
  • “Don’t pick me up without permission.” 

Fight Boundaries 

You might notice you argue or disagree with your family members at times. However, setting boundaries to what can and cannot be said and done during an argument may be beneficial. For example, you might say, “Please don’t yell at me, or I will have to leave this conversation.” 

Emotional Boundaries 

Emotional boundaries are rules you set to protect your emotional well-being. For example, a family member calling you by the wrong name might be a situation where you’d set an emotional boundary. You may say, “Call me by my name, please.” If they persist, you can say, “If you continue to call me by the wrong name, I will leave.” 

Intellectual Boundaries 

Intellectual boundaries involve rules you set on what you’ll accept in conversations about your education, intelligence, or ideas. For example, you could say, “I asked you to please not comment negatively 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.”

Social Media Boundaries

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Perhaps you prefer photos of your children not to be posted on social media, or maybe you’d like family members to ask you before posting content that involves you. In these cases, you can set boundaries by letting someone know you might unfriend or block them if they continue their behavior. 

Food Boundaries  

Many people have boundaries about the types of food they eat or when they’re comfortable eating. For example, if you’re a vegetarian, but your family pressures you to eat meat, you might clearly inform them that you will not eat meals with them if they continue to disrespect your dietary preferences. In addition, if a family member tells you to “stop eating so much” or “eat more,” you might set a boundary by asking them to stop commenting on your eating habits. 

If you are experiencing a crisis related to an eating disorder or would like further resources, reach out to the ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767 from Mon-Friday 9 am to 9 pm CT. 

Material Boundaries

Material boundaries involve your belongings. A few material boundaries include the following: 

  • “I can’t loan you money.” 
  • “No, you cannot borrow the new shirt I bought.”
  • “Don’t ask me to use my toothbrush again.” 
  • “Please don’t use my towel when you shower.” 
  • “Don’t eat my food when you come over.” 
  • “If you continue to take my hat without asking, I will not invite you over.” 

Communication Boundaries 

Communication boundaries include your comfort with when and how you communicate with others. Having a set cut-off time for talking on the phone can be one way to draw the line for communicating. By doing so, you may prioritize your need to complete other tasks. Your communication boundaries could also include the language and device used for communication.

Setting Boundaries With Family

Imagine you’re invited to a family gathering for dinner. Everyone has been invited to arrive at 4 pm to include time for conversation. You are an adult, and you live 90 minutes away. You have decided you’d like to leave their home by 8 pm to get sleep, but you are receiving pushback from some family members.  

You may not be able to control how other people act, but you can accept responsibility for yourself when your desire for respect is vital. Below are five steps you might take to establish clear boundaries with your family in this situation and others. 

Think About What You’ll Say In Advance

It can be helpful to make sure 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 can be 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 work with you in this way.

Prepare For Pushback

Consider what you could do to stick with your decision if there’s pushback. For example, you might say, “I know you like having the family together on holidays, but I have a long drive ahead. I appreciate spending time with everyone, but I must leave by 8 pm to get home safely.” The host may respond by saying, “Oh, dinner won’t be ready until 9 pm,” or, “It’s okay if you stay just a bit later. We haven’t even had dessert yet!” In these cases, continue to set your limits. If it means you can’t eat dinner with them, let them know. 

Establish A Healthy Boundary With Yourself 

There may be times like the one in the example when family members may not immediately respect your boundaries. At this point, their behavior may require that you set a further limit for yourself. 

For example, perhaps you set a boundary with a family member by asking them to honor your time boundaries. Although you said you would have to leave by 8 pm, you may need to be prepared to leave at that time, even if dinner isn’t ready yet. You might say, “I know you planned a wonderful dinner, and the best part has been visiting with everyone. However, I am leaving now, as I stated.” Follow through with this by respecting your needs. 

Follow Through On Your Words 

If you told your family you would leave by a specific time, leave the dinner. You can walk away knowing that you are living up to the standard you set for yourself. You are being accountable to yourself, which can show you self-compassion and respect. It can be tough, but this behavior enforces your boundary and shows your family that they may need to plan around these boundaries or accept them in the future. 

Reward Yourself After The Fact

Even when you know it’s the healthiest thing for you to do, setting boundaries with family can be tough, especially when you walk away or upset someone. Taking time for yourself can be helpful, and self-care might look like speaking with your support system, giving yourself relaxation time, or using coping skills you know are helpful for you, like physical activity or breathing exercises. You might also get yourself a treat like a coffee or a small pastry. 

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Learn To Set Healthy Boundaries.

Counseling Options 

Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if you’ve never tried to do so before. A licensed therapist can be a valuable resource to teach you how to set boundaries and utilize different exercises, such as role-playing, to help you practice the process of setting a boundary. However, it may not always be convenient to attend therapy in person. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp might be beneficial. 

Online therapy can be a safe space to discuss setting clear boundaries with family and learn to navigate familial relationships. Research shows that online therapy can effectively improve self-esteem and self-compassion, both of which can be essential for those who are learning to set boundaries with family members and others. In addition, when you sign up for an online therapy platform, you can attend therapy discreetly, using a nickname or meeting in a location where you feel safe. 

Takeaway

Setting boundaries with the people you care about can be challenging. However, there are many benefits to setting these limits, as they may increase your confidence, help you communicate more effectively, and improve your relationships. You can set boundaries regarding finances, emotions, arguments, social media, intellect, diet, communication, physical touch, and time, among other categories. 

You might plan out your boundaries ahead of time, get ready to experience pushback, maintain your boundaries, follow through on what you say, and reward yourself after setting a boundary. Working with a licensed mental health professional can also be an effective way to learn how to set boundaries effectively and healthily.

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