Bring On the Family Boundaries: Holiday Edition

How to set Boundaries with Parents During the Holidays

 Family during the holidays can bring so much – a sense of home, history, context, laughter, inside jokes for days, knowing eye rolls, comfort, familiarity, nostalgia.  And for those of us with a history of family trauma or dysfunction, the holidays bring a whole other set of potential experiences too – nervousness, judgement, too much alcohol, loss of boundaries, cruel comments, or just the deeply unsettling anticipation of shit possibly hitting the fan and knowing the fallout could last for months (or years!).  

I talk to clients every November/December about how to make holiday plans - where to go, who to see, who to avoid, what boundaries to set.  Above all else, I remind people not to forget they have agency, seriously.  They get to make the ultimate decision around how they’ll holiday and who they’ll include.  They’re no longer children whose plans are made for them, and the same goes for you!  YOU get to decide what feels right, where it feels right, and for how long.  You get to make contingency plans to deal with difficult family during the holidays.    

How to Set Boundaries with Your Parents

Holiday plan decisions can be private, quiet ones or direct and transparent ones.  You can be the person who says “Christmas was so stressful last year I’ve decided to visit for a weekend in January instead,” or “I know I came for a week last year, but sadly I can only get 2 days off work this year,” or “I can’t wait to see everyone but will only be able to stay for dinner” or “We decided to treat ourselves to a hotel this Christmas so you’ll have an extra room available at your place now”…. 

The possibilities for family boundaries are endless really, but please don’t let your fear of being “confrontational” stop you from doing what’s best for yourself and/or your family.  If you avoid confrontation like the plague (or COVID?), it’s OK to kindly bend the truth as you set private boundaries. No need to spell out how last holiday made you feel like shit if you don’t want to get into this; gently saying you can’t get the time off work still takes care of your heart and mental health, without the fallout you fear.

Sometimes Boundaries Means Staying Home

What often trips people up is the feeling that they “owe” family their presence during the holidays.  That traveling to spend the day or week is a permanent, built-in clause in the family contract.  I often call BS with my clients on this, because we don’t owe family a thing if that same family system spent years breaking us down or compromising our mental health.  I promise this isn’t to say that parents or family should’ve been “perfectly behaved” during their years raising us, but it is to say that if parent(s) or sibling(s) were abusive or neglectful, never took responsibility for their toxic behavior, and/or continue to behave this way in their lives – we don’t owe them our time or presence, ever.  

And yet….  We’re not wired to be alone.  We’re not meant to be cut off from family.  So we often stay in touch, keep those connections alive, spend time even when we’re unsure of our mental safety in their presence.  I get it.  I’ve been there and still am some years!  It’s all about weighing the pros/cons, keeping family at arms length if need be while still maintaining connection, and strategically setting boundaries that won’t set off World War II, cause we know it’s really not worth exposing our feelings or fear with family members who vehemently deny their wrong-doing.  

I see you, I feel you, I’m right there with you crafting a plan to ensure the holidays won’t suck.  Cheers to knowing you’re in the driver seat this year as you set boundaries to protect yourself and the family you now nurture.  xx 


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