Setting Boundaries at Family Holidays: Boundaries with Family Are Challenging But Worth It

Closeup shot of a turkey being served during a feast at a dining tableMillions upon millions of Americans see their families during the holiday season. While a lot of us look forward to taking time off from work and spending quality time with our loved ones, just as many of us dread the holidays because we have to spend time with them. 

“Although holidays are often times of connection, joy, gratitude, friendship, and love, they can sometimes be times of frustration, fear, loneliness, and exhaustion,” explains Kendall Coffman, MS, a marriage and family therapist.  

In order to ensure your holidays are as enjoyable as possible, you need to understand some of the factors that cause family members to reach their wit’s end during the holiday season. Once you do, you can begin figuring out how to set boundaries with family and learn about some tactics you can use to navigate the holidays smoothly. 

Surviving the Holidays: Why People Feel Uncomfortable at Family Gatherings 

recent survey found that — while 81 percent of Americans plan to see family members during the holiday season — just 55 percent were actually looking forward to it. 

In large part, this is due to the fact that families tend to argue over things like politics and religion during holiday dinners — particularly when there are copious amounts of adult beverages involved. 

But that’s not the only reason. That same study found that Americans don’t like seeing family during the holidays because 

  • They don’t like sleeping on the floor or on the couch 
  • They don’t want to be packed into a small space with tons of people 
  • They wouldn’t be able to get intimate with their partner in their family member’s house 
  • They wouldn’t be able to watch their favorite TV shows 
  • They don’t like the food their family serves 
  • They wouldn’t be able to walk around in their underwear 
  • They’d have to share a room with a relative 

Of course, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, which adds another layer of complexity into an already difficult time of the year. 

Now that you have a better idea of some of the main drivers of argumentative behavior at family gatherings, let’s turn our attention to what you can do to reduce the chances family members are at each other’s throats this holiday season. 

How to Establish Boundaries with Family 

For clinical psychologist Paul Greene, PhD, the holidays are the perfect time to start thinking about what kinds of behaviors are unacceptable and what your family can do to create workable boundaries. 

“Gathering with family for any of the holiday rituals is a good opportunity to reflect with a 360-degree perspective for discovering acceptable and enforceable boundaries,” Dr. Greene says. 

Since every family is different, you’ll need to ask yourself and at least some of your family members a series of questions to outline what your family’s boundaries might be. According to Dr. Greene, these are some of the questions you should ask: 

  • Why are you gathering? 
  • Which members of the family are most likely to cause trouble? 
  • What are some of the pitfalls your family has encountered in the past? 
  • What does the vision for a more acceptable gathering look like? 

Once you’ve come up with agreeable answers, you can then start to define the boundaries themselves. For example, boundaries with family might include no yelling, no political discussion, and no abusive behaviors. 

Whatever your family ultimately decides, by preparing ahead of time about the coming events, you will improve the odds for a better holiday, Dr. Greene says. At the same time, this will help you resolve issues before your family gathers so that fences are mended ahead of time. 

By now, you have a better understanding of some of the drivers of family grief during the holiday season as well as the way setting boundaries can help mitigate some of them. In the next section, we’ll explore some other tactics that can save you as you approach your next family gathering. 

What You Can Do to Navigate the Holidays Smoothly 

Other than outlining boundaries and doing everything you can to adhere toand enforce them, here are some additional tactics to keep in mind that can help you have productive and enjoyable family gatherings.

1. Set realistic expectations

According to Paul W. Anderson, PhD, who’s a licensed psychologist, it’s important for folks to set realistic expectations for the holidays. 

“In America, the holiday period is the emotional hurricane season,” Dr. Anderson says. “The most realistic expectation I offer people is to just get through the season with minimal ensnarement in family drama. This is not the time to pursue good feelings. It’s the time to survive, so later on you can find yourself in one piece.” 

If yours is a particularly politically divided family, prepare for the likelihood that someone will invariably start yapping about politics — even if your family has set a boundary of “no political discussions.” 

2. Don’t over-indulge

It’s no secret that Americans like to imbibe during the holidays. Of course, when people drink too much, they’re much more likely to get into arguments with their family members. 

If you can get through the holidays without too many spirits, there’s an easy fix: do as much as you can to abstain. 

“Drink enough but not too much alcohol,” Dr. Greene says. “That may mean zero or near-zero.” 

Unfortunately, this might not prevent your eccentric uncle from tossing them back and starting an argument about Ross Perot’s role in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. But if you keep your alcohol intake in check, you can at least rest comfortably knowing you won’t be making it worse.

3. Understand that it won’t last forever

When you’re in the middle of a difficult and tense family gathering, it may feel as though time is grinding to a halt. Even though the night might seem to stretch on forever, you need to remind yourself that this too shall pass, and that — eventually — you or your family will be headed back home. 

If you find yourself struggling during a particularly tense moment, Dr. Greene recommends staying patient by focusing on your breathing. 

“Practice counting to 10 before speaking, then breathe deeply, two seconds in and four seconds out,” he says. “Repeat as needed.”

4. Make your own rules

At the end of the day, there’s no reason any of us have to put ourselves into toxic situations just for the sake of it. This is part of the reason why many people are opting to spend holidays with their “chosen family” — i.e., their very close friends. 

“You are allowed to not invite someone to the party because they threaten your identity,” Coffman says. “You have permission to make your own rules this holiday.” 

At the same time, it’s also okay to get along with family members — and even love them — although they might disagree with you on various important topics. 

“You are also allowed to lean into fun, play, and excitement. You are allowed to love a family member who has different views than you,” Coffman concludes. “You get to decide what works best in your life this holiday. Protect your peace.” 

Getting Ready for Your Next Family Gathering 

Are you anticipating exceptionally difficult family gatherings this holiday season? If so, remember that you don’t have to go into the holidays on your own.  

If you need some help getting ready for the holidays, a therapist can help you get in the right frame of mind before the big days arrive. Start your search for the perfect therapist today.


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  • holly

    November 28th, 2021 at 11:14 AM

    This was very informative and gave me a deep and audible sigh of relief while reading it. Thank you!

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