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5 Ways to Set Boundaries with Family Members (& 2 to Avoid), According to a Therapist

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. That’s why we checked in with Kibby McMahon, a clinical psychologist, fitness studio owner and yogi who co-hosts the mental health podcast A Little Help For Our Friends with Jacqueline Trumbull. Below, she outlines five ways to set boundaries with your family—and two methods to avoid at all costs. (If you’re interested in an even deeper dive, check out McMahon and Trumbull’s podcast episodes on setting boundaries and dealing with toxic family members.)

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1. Do: 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. Do: Make an active, specific request

Rather than speaking in generalizations, ask for something specific that your family member can do differently. McMahon tells us, “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. Do: 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. Do: 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.”

5. Do: 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.”

6. Don’t: 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.

7. Don’t: Attack

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. 

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