All families can be difficult in their own way,
whether you come from a large family, with many siblings, or a single parent household, there will always be disagreements and differences in opinions about expectations around career choices, relationships, child rearing, and boundaries between family members. For some families, these issues may result in persistent conflict**. You may deal with sibling rivalry and notice that either your sibling or your parents ask information about your job, children, or finances that you do not feel comfortable answering.
Or you may have a parent who has a narcissistic personality who may constantly call you to talk about themselves, even when you do not really have time to take the call. You may have a parent who uses guilt to influence you to do things for them and others, regardless of your schedule or resources. Most difficult of all can be that, despite how much anxiety, sadness, or frustration, your family may contribute to in your life, you still love them! If this sounds like you, this blog post offers potential approaches to staying firm with your boundaries with family while understanding that one of the hardest things to do is standing up to someone you love.
Be Clear with What is an Issue, and What Isn’t
When setting new boundaries with family you may be worried about all of the things that you may lose. Since most families are not all good or all bad, you may find yourself afraid of setting a boundary around certain conversation topics or unexpected visits because you are worried about losing other important parts of your relationship with family members. You may find yourself thinking “Yes, my sister constantly calling me to compare her grades to mine may worsen my anxiety, depression, or stress, but I don’t want her to be so mad at me that we won’t see each other over winter break.” This completely understandable feeling helps to illustrate the importance of clear and specific boundaries. This means identifying which behaviors contribute to you feeling more anxious, depressed, or worried with family, so you can set boundaries around those behaviors while reinforcing the parts of your relationship with your family that feel good or make you feel more connected with them.
For the example above, being unclear with your boundary may look like telling your sister: “Every time I hear from you, you stress me out!” While this may be true when your sister calls at the end of the semester to compare final grades, a broad statement like this often contributes to misunderstandings.
A specific boundary would be: “When you ask about my grades at the end of the semester, I feel more worried about my grades. I do not want to discuss our grades together any more, can we plan for an after finals movie night instead?” Being specific allows for greater understanding about the part of your relationship that is negatively impacting your mental health while reinforcing the parts of your relationship that are likely more meaningful for both of you.
Let’s think about another example. Perhaps your father stops by for unexpected visits throughout the week, often just as you are getting home for work. He is often critical of how your apartment looks and makes comments about breakfast bowls in the sink or how quiet you are when he visits. On the other hand, whenever you have a lunch date together, you have a great time and often enjoy the break you get from work to talk to him. An unclear boundary would be: “Dad, all of your visits make me feel more anxious!” While this is certainly true when he visits after a long day at work, you enjoy other times that you get to spend with him. Setting a specific boundary would look like: “Dad, it can be stressful for me when I have unexpected visits after work days, especially because I don’t have time to prepare to host the way that I usually like to. Can we schedule a weekly lunch date together, so that we can be sure to catch up once a week?”
While it may be hard to set boundaries with your loved ones, being specific and concrete with your boundaries, as well as being clear about the activities that you do enjoy together, can create more space for meaningful time together. Unfortunately, some families do not respond to clear boundaries, or push past boundaries even when you set them (see Practice, Practice, Practice section below). Let’s discuss some other ways of setting boundaries with family.
Create Clear Time Limits
Families with boundary issues often take up a lot of your time, usually without regard to how you are feeling or your other life obligations. This may look like getting multiple phone calls a day, especially if you do not pick up right away, or having conversations that last for hours even if you only have a minute to spare. Time boundaries are often especially difficult for parents or siblings with narcissistic personality traits or issues with codependence. If this sounds like your family, one helpful approach is to set clear time limits about how much time you have to attend to their concerns. Check-in with yourself each week about how much time or mental space you have to devote to family concerns, especially concerns that may not be your responsibility (see section below.) While it may work to be direct with some family members, such as saying “I am only available for 20 minutes and then I have to go,” it may also be helpful to give clear external circumstances that create a time limit.
For example, you could say “hey Mom, I’m available to talk from now until 1:00pm, after which I have work meetings for the rest of the evening.” This clear external circumstance helps you to hold firm with your boundary without having to say “Mom, I can only listen to you for 20 minutes until I feel overwhelmed!” With time you may begin to feel more comfortable advocating for your needs without external circumstances, but as you begin it may be helpful to have things like work, school, or childcare help to support the time boundaries you want to establish.
Know What is Yours and What is Theirs
Families with boundary issues often have a way of making their problems into ours. While there is nothing wrong with being a listening ear for a loved one in need of support, families with boundary issues tend to cross the line from needing a shoulder to cry on into asking you to fix issues that are theirs. This can be especially difficult if you experience anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns as your family member’s additional emotional needs may make it difficult for you to take care of your own. When you get a frantic phone call from a family member telling you to drop everything to help them, check-in with yourself. Is this issue persistent, fixable, and their responsibility? For example, picking up your brother and driving him to work after he overslept his alarm may feel very different for you the first time it happens versus the 5th time in the same month. Maybe you don’t mind picking him up on your days off, but feel frustrated when he asks you when it would make you late for work yourself. This is a hard boundary to set, and it may even be difficult to see at first the difference between your family members’ responsibilities versus your responsibilities. Sometimes there is a lot of overlap between those two things! But the distinction between the two is just as important. You may feel worried or concerned, when your sister calls you up at 1am because she forgot to study for her midterms but reminding yourself of the limits of what you can do (be a sympathetic ear, tell her you will talk to her in the morning) and what you can’t do (study the information for her) can make a world of difference for your mental health.
Answer What You Feel Comfortable, Redirect What You Don’t
Some families cross boundaries when it comes to asking for information about relationships, child rearing, school, or work. While some questions may come from a loving place, others may feel driven by jealousy, resentment, or criticism. If this sounds like your family, you may want to practice setting boundaries around what information you feel comfortable sharing and what you don’t. As with the Create Clear Limits subsection, a good starting point will likely be stating clearly what information you do and do not feel okay with providing to family. For example, if you are a young person starting your first job out of college, you may feel comfortable sharing when you start date is and your new job title with family, but may not want to disclose your salary. The first step would be to say, “I don’t want to share that information” when it comes to questions of finances. However, you may have already tried this before, and they may not have listened! While the importance of repeating and staying firm with boundaries will be discussed more below, another approach is to redirect conversation. In the example above, you may respond to questions about finances by saying “I’m not sure what the salary will be yet, but let me tell you about my new boss!” Redirecting the conversation can help you to maintain the healthy boundaries you want without ending the conversation entirely. It also enables you to feel more empowered to discuss what matters to you.
Practice, Practice, Practice and Be Patient with Yourself
Setting boundaries takes time and a lot of reinforcement. It may take several, maybe dozens, maybe hundreds, of tries until boundaries stick with family, and even then they likely will not always work. It is helpful to remind yourself of the reasons why you want to set boundaries with your family. Remember the ways that boundary issues may increase feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness. Keep in mind how you want your relationship with your family to look and how enforcing your boundaries helps you to maintain those relationships. Most importantly, remember that practicing boundaries is an act of love and care; they can help you to increase the parts of your relationship which are most meaningful with family and decrease the parts of your relationship which are most stressful. Similarly, setting healthy boundaries is an act of care toward yourself; they help to remind you that your mental health and needs are worth protecting.
If you find yourself having difficulty creating or maintaining healthy boundaries with family, or if you need additional support around navigating high-conflict families, narcissistic parents, sibling rivalry, or other complicated family relationships, please feel free to reach out to me, Dr. Grace Waite, or another clinician at the Integrated Care Clinic. Together we can explore your unique family relationships, so you can develop greater insight into the boundaries you want to establish and greater understanding of how anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns may be related to complicated family histories.
**Important Note: All of these approaches to setting boundaries may not be appropriate in family environments with verbal, physical, or emotional abuse and more rigid boundaries may be necessary if you have safety concerns with your family. If you are experiencing safety concerns in your family, please visit https://www.thehotline.org/ or call 800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support around issues related to domestic violence.