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Setting Boundaries With Family: How to Do It Right

Therapists share their top 10 tips for having healthier family ties.

When you think of a happy family, you probably envision a close-knit group of people sharing life's ups and downs. However, while it's true that intimacy is an important ingredient of close family relationships, many experts argue that setting boundaries is just as crucial. Though these two things are widely viewed as representing opposite ends of a spectrum, intimacy and boundaries actually go hand in hand. To truly deepen your closeness—not to mention protect your mental health and well-being—you'll need to recognize and respect one another's limits.

"In healthy family systems, clear boundaries are essential for each member to develop their own identity and autonomy. When boundaries are blurred or absent, a process known as 'enmeshment' can occur," explains Paul Losoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist working with Bedrock Psychology Group.

Losoff notes that this is characterized by unhealthy closeness within the family, which can "stifle individual growth and lead to emotional distress, codependency, and difficulty forming healthy relationships outside the family."

If you've struggled with this in your own life, mental health experts say there are some simple ways to put things on the right path. These are their top 10 tips for setting boundaries with family.

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Consider your goals and expectations.

yellow coffee mug next to a napkin with a goals diagram written on it

If family members are not used to clear boundaries, beginning to establish them can be quite a shock. Briana Parulo, LCMHC, a psychotherapist in private practice with On Par Therapy, says that you can ease the transition by considering your goals and managing your expectations before actually opening up the conversation.

"Before setting any boundary, it is important to understand what a boundary is versus what it isn't," Parulo tells Best Life. "A boundary is set in place to ultimately make the relationship stronger. A boundary is not a punishment, although when first implemented, it might feel like one."

Natalie Rosado, LMHC, founder and owner of Tampa Counseling Place, adds that it's best not to expect overnight change or perfect adherence to your terms.

"Understand that setting boundaries with family members may be a gradual process, and it's okay to start small," she says. "Recognize that change takes time and be patient with yourself and your family."

Know your "why"—and make sure it aligns with your values.

mature woman sitting on couch looking out pensively

Parulo adds that it's crucial to also clarify your motivations before setting a boundary. "I like to call this your 'why,'" she says.

If a boundary helps establish healthier patterns for everyone rather than swaying control of the relationship in your favor, that's a good sign that you're on the right track.

Another way to better understand your "why" is to ask yourself whether the boundary you plan on setting aligns with your personal values.

"Understand what is important to you and use this as a guide for setting boundaries with your family members. Communicate your values clearly so they understand where you're coming from," says Rosado.

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Be prepared for some uncomfortable feelings.

Young man settling conflict between mother and wife, family problems, quarrel

For many people, setting boundaries with family members can feel downright uncomfortable. Preparing for those feelings and thinking ahead of time about how they might shape your actions can help you stand your ground if you're met with resistance.

"Explore feelings that might come up, such as guilt or shame, when introducing a boundary," suggests Parulo. "Feelings aren't facts, but they are a great signal to alert us around some core narratives we might have around being assertive, advocating for ourselves, or messaging we've internalized about what families 'should' look like (which is often boundary-free)."

Present it as an opportunity for positive change—because it is.

mother and daughter talking on bench outdoors; mother comforts upset-looking daughter
michaeljung / Shutterstock

When you open up a tough conversation with a family member, Parulo says it may ease tensions if you highlight how this could be an opportunity for mutual growth.

"You might present the boundary as an invitation to a positive turning point in the relationship," the therapist says.

RELATED: 9 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother, According to Therapists.

Give a hard "no" with soft language.

Handsome young man talking to his senior father while spending time at home together

It can be hard to say 'no' to a family member, but experts say that it's important to practice declining invitations kindly.

"As you are entering something in your calendar, if it is not a 'hell yeah,' perhaps it needs to be a no when that is possible," says Robyne Hanley-Defoe, EdD, a psychology instructor, public speaker, and author of Stress Wisely: How To Be Well In an Unwell World. "Say, 'I am going to pass on this, but thank you so much for thinking of me.' This is usually easier for someone to hear than 'no' but still gets the message across firmly but kindly."

Choose your non-negotiables wisely.

Mother and adult son talking on couch

When you first begin establishing healthy boundaries, it can be tempting to make sweeping statements or threaten severe consequences. However, Hanley-Dafoe says a moderate approach is more likely to pay off.

Your boundaries will feel less threatening to others if you selectively focus on communicating your most pressing needs kindly rather than taking on the entire relationship at once.

"Instead of making hard-and-fast rules, decide on your top three non-negotiables," she suggests. "Boundaries are not meant to keep people out of our lives; rather, they are life-enhancing systems for who and what has access to us."

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Parent Is Gaslighting You, Therapist Says.

Use humor.

Cheerful woman in the park with her friends

Another way to set boundaries with family members in a way that they will be able to receive is to use humor."

"Injecting humor into difficult conversations can help diffuse tension and make it easier to communicate your boundaries effectively," Rosado says.

First, think about what message you hope to get across clearly. Then, think about how to soften the language and lighten the mood with a few laughs while still achieving that aim.

Write a letter.

Closeup person writing letter

One way to ensure that you communicate clearly is to give yourself the opportunity to self-edit.

"If face-to-face communication is challenging, consider writing a letter to express your boundaries in a clear and concise manner," Rosado recommends.

Even if you plan to speak with your family member in person, writing a letter for your eyes only might help you to gather your thoughts. Write down which boundaries you feel are currently missing and explore what it would look like to have a healthy boundary established or restored.

"Identify your personal comfort zones and clearly express your expectations for others to respect them," advises Losoff.

RELATED: 5 Crucial Boundaries You Need to Set With Your In-Laws, Therapists Say.

Set consequences, not punishments.

Young woman comforts upsets mature woman while sitting on couch

If a boundary goes unobserved, it's important to follow through with a consequence. However, the experts emphasize that consequences are meant to maintain accountability and safety, while punishments are meant to inflict shame, guilt, or control.

"Clearly communicate the consequences of crossing your boundaries to your family members. Consistent enforcement of these consequences can help reinforce the importance of respecting your boundaries," says Rosado.

Use "I" statements.

young woman hugs and comforts upset-looking mature woman while sitting on the couch

No two people look at things in exactly the same way. That's why therapists often recommend using language that intentionally focuses on your own interpretations and acknowledges your potential for bias.

Rosado says that using "I" statements can help you express your thoughts and feelings in a direct and respectful manner, take ownership of your perspective, and leave some room for theirs. "Avoid blaming or accusing language, and focus on expressing your needs and boundaries clearly," she recommends.

This can also help you build self-awareness, which is crucial in any relationship. "Pay attention to your own feelings and needs, and be mindful of when your boundaries are being tested or crossed," says Rosado. "Self-awareness can help you set and maintain boundaries more effectively."

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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