12 Simple but Effective Ways to Set Boundaries with Family, According to Therapists

Specific, active requests are your best friend

how to set boundaries with family photo of generations of a family cooking together
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You love your family, you really do. But sometimes it feels as if they’re never even heard the word boundaries, let alone understood how to respect them. Whether your well-meaning but over-involved sister shows up at your house for dinner for the third time this week or your potentially toxic mother-in-law refuses to stop giving you unsolicited parenting advice, boundaries signal to those around us what we are and aren't going to put up with.

But even though boundaries are completely necessary in any kind of relationship (toxic or not), they can be tough to set, I get it. That’s why I checked in two therapists, Kibby McMahon and Elizabeth Earnshaw, to learn more about how to set boundaries with family—and why boundaries are so important in the first place.

Meet the Experts

So, What Are Boundaries, Really?

Earnshaw tells me, "Boundaries signify where one person ends and the other begins. They are reminders that we are different people with different needs and comfort levels." In a relationship, she explains, boundaries define how we would like to be treated by others and what we are willing to engage in. She says that establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries with family requires a few things:

  • Awareness of your boundaries
  • Ability to express your boundaries either proactively (before the boundary is needed) or responsively (in the moment that the boundary is needed)
  • Understanding that your boundaries aren't guaranteed to be respected; they're a roadmap that people may or may not follow
  • An idea of how you will respond if your boundary is violated

10 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother in Law, According to a Therapist

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FG Trade/getty images

10 Ways to Set Boundaries with Family

1. Validate Their Emotions

“Validating, or communicating that other people’s experiences are real and valid, is a really effective strategy to help diffuse intense emotions and lower defensiveness even before setting your boundary,” McMahon urges. “Even a simple, genuine acknowledgement of their feelings can go a long way.” Saying things like, “I completely understand that you’re upset, and it makes sense that you feel that way” or “I get that you feel neglected these days” ensures that your family member knows that you’re approaching them with empathy instead of hostility. Plus, McMahon adds, nothing gets someone’s blood boiling more than feeling like you’re dismissing their feelings. “Try to avoid dismissive comments like ‘You’re just being crazy” or “Calm down, there’s nothing wrong!’”

2. Make Active, Specific Request

Rather than speaking in generalizations, ask for something specific that your family member can do differently. McMahon tells me, “Even if you’re setting a boundary, people have an easier time with requests to do something instead of not doing something.”

She notes that it’s important to be clear about what you’re requesting, so there’s no room for confusion. “Frame the behavior you’re asking for in really objective terms. For example: ‘Can you please only text me after I’m done with work on weekdays, after 5 p.m.?’ With objective, specific requests like these, it would be clear to both parties if he/she did what you asked.”

3. Sweeten the Pot

Many times, a family member who needs to be reminded of boundaries is just trying to help or show that they care. In exchange for respecting your wishes, let them know a positive change or outcome if they honor your request. “Changing our habits or behaviors can be hard, so highlight the benefit for putting in the effort to respect your boundary,” McMahon explains. “It can be as simple as making explicit how it would make you feel: ‘If you text me after I’m done with work after 5 p.m., I’ll feel less stressed and overwhelmed when I respond,’ or ‘After 5 p.m., we can even FaceTime or have a phone conversation instead of just texting.’

4. Set Proactive Boundaries

Earnshaw calls out two specific types of boundaries that are important to set. The first type, proactive boundaries, are those that let people know in advance where the line is. "For example, you might let people know how long you can stay at a party before you even arrive or tell people about a conversation topic that's off-limits for you before you go to the family holiday dinner," she says. This could sound like, "I'm so excited for the party tonight! Just a heads up, I can only stay until 10 p.m.," or "Before I see everyone, I'd appreciate if we don't talk about my IVF experience. It's a tender subject right now."

5. And Responsive Boundaries

On the flip side, responsive boundaries are the boundaries we set when people do something in the moment that violates a boundary. Per Earnshaw, "It might violate a proactive boundary you set—for example, after telling everyone you don't want to talk about IVF, they choose to talk about it with you anyway. In this moment, you set the boundary in the moment." Setting a responsive boundary can sound like, "I don't want to talk about this right now."

6. Take a Breather

Confrontation of any kind can be stressful, and sometimes in the heat of the moment we get overwhelmed and end up making things worse. “Taking some space to cool off can help prevent conflict and communicate when everyone is calmer,” McMahon says. She explains that while it’s fine to ask for some space to get your thoughts together, it’s helpful to provide a clear timeframe for when you want to have the conversation, so the other person isn’t blindsided in the future. An easy way to do this would be to say, “I think we’re getting a little heated and it would help if I could cool down first before continuing this conversation. I’m going to take a break for 30 minutes and then we can continue talking.”

7. Plan Your Thoughts and Rehearse What You're Going to Say

To avoid getting flustered, tripping over your words or forgetting some of your main talking points during a conversation about boundaries, outline what you want to say beforehand and rehearse—either in your head or out loud to a mirror (seriously, it helps)—what exactly you want to say. That way, even if you do get wrapped up in the heat of the moment, you're as prepared as possible to get your entire point across.

8. Try Not to Open Old Wounds

If things get heated, it’s easy to drag up old fights or patterns of behavior that are similar to the current problem (e.g. “You always do this!”). But McMahon stresses that bringing up the past will only escalate a conflict and distract both of you from the boundary you’re currently trying to set.

9. Avoid Going into Attack Mode

Especially when you’re frustrated and it’s seeming like you’re not getting through to your family member, it can be easy to go on the offensive. This is counterintuitive, McMahon explains. “Criticisms of your family member’s character will only drive a wedge between you two. Attacking their personality, tendencies, values or desires will make them feel belittled and make it less likely that they will listen to you.” If you feel like you’re on the verge of criticizing their character, pause the conversation and take a breather. 

10. Practice Setting Boundaries in Different Ways to See What's Right for You

There's not always one right way to set a boundary, Earnshaw tells me, adding that there are often multiple ways to express our limits. For example, if your mom asks you to come over and cook dinner with her for the third time this week and you're not in the headspace to commit to the plan, you can respond in the following ways:

  1. With a no: "No, I can't come tonight to cook."
  2. With a yes, but...: "Yes, I can come tonight but I need to leave by 7 p.m."
  3. With a no, but...: "I can't come tonight, but I am available next week"
  4. With an alternative suggestion: "I can't come over but how about I send some Doordash?"

11. Make Sure You're Respecting *Their* Boundaries

Do unto others as they do unto you, right? The same applies for boundaries. You can't expect your family to respect your boundaries if you're not respecting theirs. From having an open, honest dialogue about the boundary a family member has set to resisting the urge to be bitter about a line that's been drawn in the sand, here are a few tips for how to respect people's boundaries with grace.

12. Tell Them You Love Them

“Sometimes people can feel rejected or uncared for when someone is setting a boundary with them,” McMahon notes. “Make sure that person knows you care about them and you need more boundaries at the same time. Setting and respecting boundaries is a normal part of any healthy relationship, so make sure you communicate what they mean to you while you are asking for them to change their behavior.”

how to set boundaries with family young woman talking to older woman
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Why It's Important to Set Boundaries with Family

Boundaries are essential to any kind of relationship, but why? "By making your needs known, others have an opportunity to engage with you successfully," Earnshaw says. "This reduces resentment and makes communication clear." Basically, by setting healthy boundaries with your family, you're setting yourself and your loved ones up for success (and less stress).

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...