Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/23/2022
Spending time with your loved ones can be a rewarding experience. Unfortunately, it can easily turn into a negative one when some of your family members have toxic, unhealthy behaviors or act in a way that makes you feel alienated.
Setting boundaries is an essential part of any relationship, and it’s especially important when it comes to your family members.
Establishing clear boundaries, whether strict or loose, can help you to maintain your emotional and mental wellbeing during family gatherings. They can be particularly helpful when you need to spend lots of time with family members, such as Thanksgiving and other holidays.
Done right, a clear boundary may even help you to improve your connection with the members of your family who have unhealthy behaviors or opinions you disagree with.
Below, we’ve covered six tips that you can use to establish boundaries with your family, as well as options that you may want to consider if a family-related issue is beginning to have a serious negative effect on your mental health and wellbeing.
Many people tolerate unhealthy relationships with family members because they feel concerned about looking selfish or inconsiderate.
For example, you might feel obligated to spend time around a sibling or cousin that doesn’t treat you with respect, or to spend your holidays with an abusive parent who uses guilt to compel you to visit them.
Dealing with these types of situations can be highly stressful, especially as exposure to negative events or early life abuse is associated with an increased risk of anxiety.
One of the first steps in setting boundaries with your family is understanding that you have your own personal needs, values and priorities, and that your decisions about spending time around your family are purely your own to make.
Put simply, you make your choices, not someone else. If you feel like a family member doesn’t deserve your time, or needs to understand that you have your own personal boundaries, there’s no reason for you to feel guilty about establishing these boundaries with them.
Boundaries are important. In fact, they’re often essential for maintaining psychologically healthy connections with the people you care about most.
In psychology, a trigger is a specific stimulus that elicits a reaction. Almost everyone has one or several triggers, and they can vary hugely in their severity and the effects they have on the ways you think and feel.
Your triggers might include being mocked or treated with disrespect by a toxic person, having to listen to a particularly ignorant or unusual rant, diatribe or conspiracy theory at Thanksgiving, or just having your time wasted by a difficult family member who doesn’t care for your wellbeing.
Being exposed to a trigger can potentially stir a strong emotional response, which may make the situation worse.
In order to establish clear boundaries with your family, it’s important to identify your triggers and concerns. Ask yourself about what your family members do that bothers you, how it causes you to feel and, if possible, what you can do to take care of your needs.
Identifying and understanding your triggers can help you to set clear and specific boundaries for difficult people within your family.
If you think it’s necessary to establish boundaries with your family, it’s important to be clear and specific, even if it might feel difficult at first.
Being clear and unambiguous is important because it makes it obvious to your family members what’s okay with you and what isn’t. This gives them an opportunity to adjust their behavior and potentially make things better between the two of you.
Clear communication also helps to preserve healthy relationships, especially when you and one or several of your family members are divided by a single issue.
For example, if your family members have strong political beliefs that are different from yours (a very common situation), try letting them know that you love and value their company and that to protect your relationship, you’d prefer politics to be off-limits when you spend time together.
Or, if you have a controlling family member that takes over preparations for family events, try to let them know that they’re welcome to spend time with you, but you’d like them to join you after you’ve already prepared everything.
Sometimes, your boundaries might be that you simply want more time alone and won’t be able to take part in every family gathering or activity.
While there are no guarantees, you may find that your family members are understanding about your concerns and respectful of the healthy boundaries you set.
Being clear and avoiding ambiguity can feel difficult, but it’s an important part of communicating openly with your family and making it clear to them what you can do together to make sure your relationships stay healthy.
No one likes being told that they’re wrong about something, unpleasant to be around or more of an annoyance than a help.
Just like nasty or mean-spirited behavior from family members can take a toll on your emotional health, being overly critical when setting boundaries can leave your family members feeling hurt and upset — something that could affect your family dynamics.
When you’re setting boundaries with family members, it’s important to be friendly, respectful and fair.
Try to focus on the things that you have in common. Aim to have an honest conversation and a calm exchange, not a shouting match. Let them know how you feel as gently and sensitively as possible, then give them a chance to connect with you in response.
While truly toxic family members can be difficult to deal with, lots of people will appreciate your honesty and respond in kind if you start the interaction by showing them respect.
When you’re feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or simply frustrated, it’s important to be able to turn to people you trust and care about. This could mean your close friends or it could mean certain family members that have more in common with you than others.
Social contact is important when you’re going through stressful situations. In fact, one common piece of advice for people affected by depression and other mental health disorders is to avoid becoming socially isolated.
If you have an extended family member you get along with better than others, try spending time with them whenever you spend time at a family event.
Or, if you feel stressed or anxious about unhealthy boundaries created by your family, don’t feel afraid to reach out to a trusted friend for emotional support.
Finally, when setting boundaries, it’s important to have realistic expectations about your family members and the way they’ll interact with you.
No one has perfect familial relationships. It’s normal to occasionally argue about certain things, deal with disagreements or just go through moments in which your family members may make you feel annoyed, stressed or overwhelmed.
Part of creating successful boundaries with your family is accepting that they, just like you, are imperfect. While truly toxic behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, it’s often best to be forgiving with a family member if they make a mistake while trying to comply with your boundaries.
In other words, don’t be unwilling to be flexible. No one’s perfect, especially family. If a member of your family accidentally oversteps your boundaries, let them know politely and give them the chance to fix things.
Often, setting clear boundaries is all that’s required to deal with a stressful family dynamic or a difficult family member.
However, in some cases, even the clearest boundaries can fail to improve relationships. If you have a toxic relationship with a family member that you’re really struggling to fix, you may want to consider the options below.
Sometimes, coping with things privately can help you to stay mentally healthy and avoid letting a bad relationship with a family member affect your wellbeing.
If conflict with your family is taking its toll on your wellbeing, seemingly simple techniques such as mindfulness meditation, saying “no” to stressful situations and practicing self-care can often make a real positive difference.
Our guide to calming down anxiety shares techniques that you can use to cope when you start to feel stressed or anxious.
You can seek help for your mental health by asking your primary care provider for a referral, or using our online mental health services to connect with a licensed provider from home.
Depending on your symptoms and needs, your provider may suggest taking part in talk therapy, using medication, making changes to your lifestyle or a combination of approaches to deal with family-related stress, anxiety or other issues.
If your family members are willing to take part, you may also want to consider family therapy — a form of psychotherapy that focuses on improving your relationships and behavioral patterns as a group.
Family therapy is commonly used to deal with parent-child conflicts, marital problems, difficulties between siblings, adjustment problems and other issues that harm family functioning. Research suggests that it’s an effective option for many families experiencing mental health issues.
Our guide to finding a therapist shares more information about how you can find a therapist with experience in family disputes and conflict resolution.
Setting healthy boundaries is an important part of any relationship, including your relationships with family members.
If you’re feeling stressed because of a toxic family member or feeling that you aren’t respected within your family, consider using the techniques above to create boundaries and make it clear to your family what you will and won’t tolerate.
While it can feel daunting to set boundaries at first, doing so can improve your quality of life and even potentially strengthen your connection with many members of your family.
Want to learn more about caring for your mental health? Our online mental health resources and content share free information that you can use to build resilience, strengthen your interpersonal skills and deal with stress, anxiety and other common issues.