How to Set Boundaries With Family in 5 Steps

Published September 28, 2022
Family talking at dining table in kitchen

When you were growing up, it might have seemed like you didn't have any boundaries with your parents. Every time you left the house, they likely asked you where you were going and when you were coming back. They might have pre-approved your outfits at the store before buying them, and perhaps even read your diary to sleuth out some information they thought you were withholding.

Now, you've grown up. You have a sense of independence, know you deserve respect, and maybe even want a little bit of privacy. It's appropriate to tell your loved ones how you feel and set some healthy family boundaries. This can be a tricky task to navigate, but with some self-reflection, a few conversations, and some determination, you can advocate for your needs.

How to Set Boundaries With Family

If you have never had boundaries before with your family, it's okay. Sometimes it can take people a while to realize that they even want to have boundaries or to understand why they are important.

Boundaries help you advocate for yourself, take action to meet your own needs, and can foster stronger relationships with those around you. They are a way to protect and maintain your mental health, and they can be an essential wellness tool.

Maybe you've set a ton of boundaries before with friends and partners, or boundaries are a new concept to you, and you haven't put one in place before. Either way, you can look at the steps below to gain a better understanding of how to set boundaries with your family.

Step 1: Check In With Yourself and Discover What's Bothering You

Do you currently have any boundaries set with your family? Or are you starting with a blank slate? Either way, a good first step is to check in with yourself after you get together with your family or chat with them over the phone.

How did the interaction make you feel? Was there anything that bothered you? Did certain questions or comments put you on edge or make you feel uncomfortable? Was there any aspect of the conversation you wish you could have changed?

Monitor how you are feeling, and try to get to the root of what caused those feelings after interacting with your family. This insight can help you learn more about your relationship with them and discover your own needs.

Step 2: Decide Which Boundaries You Want to Set

After you have gotten a better sense of your needs, you can take those necessities and turn them into boundaries. You can set a boundary around anything that you need to, in order to protect your mental health and well-being.

You don't have to decide on all of your boundaries at one time. In fact, it might be helpful to re-evaluate them regularly in order to tailor them over time.

Some aspects of your life that may require boundaries:

  • Romantic partners or your social life
  • Your work or financial situation
  • Expectations placed on you
  • Your own limitations and priorities
  • Your role in your familial relationships

Step 3: Have a Discussion With Your Family

This step might be the hardest part about setting a boundary with your family, but it's the only way for them to know how you feel. Set aside some time to talk to your family about the boundaries that you want to establish going forward. If you live near your family members, you might want to have the conversation in person. However, you can also set boundaries over a phone call if it works better for you.

It can be helpful to start the conversation by reassuring your family that you care about them, and that's why you wanted to have this conversation. You are setting boundaries to protect yourself and your relationship with them, not to push them away.

Make it clear that these boundaries are non-negotiable, important to you, and that they should be put in place immediately. Some helpful example phrases are:

  • I know that we haven't had boundaries before, but I think it's time that I put some in place for my own well-being.
  • I love you all and want to keep spending time with you, and in order for that to continue, I need to set some boundaries.
  • I wanted to talk to you about setting some boundaries around certain topics. I'm not trying to push you away; I'm just trying to take care of my feelings.
  • I really need you to listen to what I have to say right now because it's important for our relationship.
  • I realized that sometimes after we spend time together I don't feel great, and I think that's because I need to set some boundaries.

Step 4: Stand Up for Your Boundaries

After you have set boundaries with your family, your next task is to keep those boundaries in place. This can require continuous effort and might be particularly challenging in the beginning as people learn to change their habits from the way they were before.

Your family should try their best to remember your boundaries and respect them. However, no one is perfect, and if they are new to boundaries, they might cross them from time to time. In these instances, remind them about the boundary and ask them to respect it.

This is a learning process for everyone involved. It might take a lot of patience and understanding from both you and your family before these boundaries feel like they are firmly in place.

Step 5: Repeat the Steps as Needed

You might notice that your boundaries grow and change over time, and that's okay. If you have a handful of boundaries set in place, and still feel like something is off after you interact with your family, continue to check in with yourself to discover why that is.

Then you can adjust your current boundaries, or add new ones to protect your well-being in whatever way you need. Whenever you do this, you should talk to your family again, so all of you stay on the same page. Finally, you can continue to advocate for your limits whenever you need to.

Examples of Healthy Family Boundaries

Boundaries are extremely personal and individualized. For example, you might want to set boundaries around respecting privacy, but someone else might not be bothered when their family asks them questions about their personal life.

More importantly, there's no right or wrong boundaries to have. Your needs are your needs, and that's the beginning and end of it. Some people in your family might not understand your boundaries, but they should respect them, nonetheless.

Although personal boundaries may look different from person to person and family to family, below are some common examples of healthy family boundaries that you might want to talk about with your loved ones.

Your Wants, Needs, and Dreams Matter

You love your family and want to be there for them as much as possible. However, at the end of the day, you are your top priority. Your goals and well-being need to come first sometimes, and that's okay. You're your own person and have the power to make decisions about what happens in your life.

Does your family expect you to prioritize their time? Do they make you feel guilty for moving to a new area or applying for jobs that might take you farther away from them? Do they often ask you to stop what you're doing and tend to their own needs? If so, you might need to set a boundary around your time and decisions.

Some ways to say this are:

  • My time is just as important as your time, and I need to spend my time working towards the things that I want.
  • My wants and needs are valid, and I'm capable of making my own decisions. I need you to stop questioning my choices and how I'm living my life.
  • Just because I choose to do something that serves my needs, it doesn't mean that I don't care about my family. It means that I'm putting myself first right now.
  • I need to make my own decisions about my own life. I would appreciate it if you stopped commenting about it or making me feel guilty for working towards my goal.
  • I have things that I need to do just like you have things that you need to do. I can't change my schedule last minute, and I would appreciate it if you stopped asking me to.

You Deserve Respect

Respect should be mutual in every relationship that you are in, especially in your relationship with your family. If it's not, it can feel like there's an imbalance of power and it can invalidate your wants and needs.

Mother and daughter talking to each other and holding hands

Respect can look like a lot of different things. Maybe your family makes unwanted remarks about your job or your financial situation. Maybe they give backhanded compliments about your character. Or, maybe they cast judgment on your partner or friends - all of which can invalidate and disrespect your choices.

Some ways to talk about feeling disrespected and setting a boundary are:

  • I don't appreciate it when you say (insert comment), and I would appreciate it if you stopped.
  • When you say (insert comment) it makes me feel like you don't respect me or my choices; and it makes it difficult for me to be around you.
  • You don't have to agree with everything about my life; but you do have to respect me and my choices.
  • It really hurts me when you say (insert comment). I have been letting it go for quite a while now; but I'm going to need you to stop saying that.
  • It's important to me to feel like my family respects me and my choices; and I feel like there's a lack of mutual respect in our relationship.

You Are Entitled to Privacy

You do not need to tell your family everything about your life. In fact, you don't need to tell your family anything about your life if you don't want to. That is your personal information, and it is a privilege for you to share it with them.

Your family might ask you a lot of questions about yourself and your life for one reason or another. However, you can refuse to answer any of their questions. And, you are allowed to request that they stop asking you about your personal life, or trying to make you feel guilty when you decide not to share something.

Also, if your family lives nearby, they might invade your privacy by coming over unannounced. This may not only be an inconvenience, but it might feel like they're checking up on you, or like you have no safe space that is all your own.

Some ways to advocate for your privacy are:

  • I don't want to tell you everything about my life all of the time. I deserve to keep some things to myself.
  • From now on I'm only going to share things that I'm comfortable sharing.
  • I appreciate that you care about me and want to know what's going on in my life, but there are some things I just don't want to discuss.
  • I would appreciate it if you stopped asking me about (insert topic). It's something that I don't feel like sharing with you.
  • Some aspects of my life I don't want to share with you right now. I might at some point, but I'm not ready yet.

You Are in Control of Your Own Life

The life that you are living is all your own. You get to call the shots and make all of the decisions, whether it's small choices, like how many spoonfuls of sugar to put in your morning coffee, or big decisions, like how you are going to parent your child.

Sometimes family members have a lot of opinions about how others should live their lives. But you don't have to take their suggestions and implement them just because they told you to. You have a right to make your own decisions, even if your family would do things differently.

Some ways to say this are:

  • I appreciate you sharing your opinions with me from time to time, but I need you to know that at the end of the day, I will make my own decisions.
  • Just because I don't take all of your suggestions doesn't mean that I don't respect your opinion. I just want to make my own choices.
  • I need to do what's best for me and my life, and that means I need to decide some things for myself.
  • I respect your opinion, and I need you to respect mine.
  • At the end of the day, this is my life, and I need to make choices that feel right to me.

What If Your Family Doesn't Respect Your Boundaries?

In an ideal world, you would talk to your family about boundaries that you want to set and they would accept them immediately. There would be no questions asked, and they would begin to abide by them immediately and never slip up.

Unfortunately, things don't always work out that way, and you might need to be prepared for when they don't. Sure, when boundaries are new, people can make mistakes surrounding them because they haven't adjusted yet. However, there are also instances where you might realize that your family isn't crossing your boundaries accidentally, and that they are doing it deliberately.

This can be a sign that there is a lack of respect for your boundaries. There might come a time when you feel like you can't keep correcting them when they display toxic behaviors or create a difficult and strained relationship. These instances can be difficult and painful, but there are some things you can do to protect your well-being.

Tell Your Family How You Feel

If your family continues to cross your boundaries, you should have another conversation with them. Ask them questions to discover whether there is some confusion about the boundaries you put in place, and give examples about how their behavior was not respectful.

Shot of a young woman having coffee with her elderly mother at home

Explain how it makes you feel when they don't respect your boundaries, and emphasize that the behavior cannot continue because it is painful to you. Discuss how the lack of respect can be damaging to your relationship.

After this conversation, see if you notice any changes in their behavior. If they begin to respect your boundaries, then the lines have clearly been drawn and you can move forward with your relationship. However, if they continue to cross your boundaries, you might need to take further action.

Reflect on Your Relationship With Your Family

If your family has shown you repeatedly that they don't respect your boundaries, it might be time for you to evaluate your relationship with them. When people cross your boundaries, it can affect the trust you have in the relationship, and leave you feeling vulnerable and sad.

It can be hard to think about limiting the time you spend with your family, and maybe even harder to come to the decision that you can no longer keep space for them in your life. However, it might be a necessary decision to make in order to protect yourself and advocate for your needs.

You don't have to come to that decision on your own. You can explore therapy options, talk to a mental health professional, and lean on the support of friends as you come to your decision. Just remember that your health and well-being aren't something you should compromise on, even for your family.

Give Yourself Permission to Take a Step Back

After you reflect on your relationship with your family, you might come to a decision that your current family dynamics create a toxic or difficult environment. This is not an easy thing to realize or cope with, and it can be challenging to decide what to do next. However, take whatever steps you think are necessary to protect your mental health.

This might look like you telling your family that you need to take some time away from interacting with them to protect yourself. It's okay to follow through with any of the consequences you believe are necessary to show your family that your boundaries are serious and deserve respect.

You might feel guilty about taking space, however, you're helping create a better environment for both you and your family moving forward. When and if you feel ready to reconnect with them, repeat the process. If toxic or difficult relationships continue, you are allowed to decide that the relationship has reached its end in order to protect your mental health.

You Deserve to Set Boundaries, Even With Family

Setting boundaries can be intimidating, and putting them in place might even make you feel guilty. However, you shouldn't feel bad about protecting yourself. You deserve to take care of your mental and emotional health, both of which can be impacted by your relationships with others.

Your family might not understand the point of boundaries in the beginning, and that's okay. Over time, you will both get better at supporting and respecting one another's needs.

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How to Set Boundaries With Family in 5 Steps