How to Set Boundaries with Family: The Definitive Guide

You’re tired of feeling like conflicts become catastrophic events. It seems like your loved ones use their words or actions to hurt one another. The resentment festers, arguments escalate, and everyone becomes frustrated or even enraged with one another. 

In healthy families, members mutually respect and support one another. There is a general sense of compassion and love. Even when a conflict arises, the family has resolution skills for dealing with it maturely and productively.

It’s no secret that family systems can be stressful and complicated. If you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to consider setting boundaries. Boundaries can help reduce some of this emotional intensity. However, implementing them can be easier said than done. Let’s get into what you need to know. 

Understanding the Definition of Boundaries

Just like fences separate physical property, relational boundaries refer to the limits a person has with another person. Your boundaries are your personal guidelines for how you expect other people to treat you.

How to Set Boundaries with Family

In a healthy family system, each person assumes responsibility for their part in keeping the system balanced and safe. For example, a parent might set a boundary against unwanted behaviors like cursing, hitting, or stealing. A spouse might request that his partner doesn’t share his private information with outside friends. A mother might ask her daughter to call her when she arrives at her friend’s house.

Healthy boundaries can and should be fluid. This means that they ebb and flow based on each family system, and there isn’t a right-or-wrong way to use them. However, effective boundaries are concise and defined- there isn’t any “guessing” what the other person wants.  

What Are Some Examples of Unhealthy Boundaries?

While issues are inevitable in every family system, some families have chronic, unhealthy boundaries that perpetuate a sense of dysfunction. There are numerous kinds of problematic boundaries, and they aren’t always apparent.

Invading Your Privacy

All people need privacy and personal space. These needs should be understood and respected. Invading your privacy may include:

  • Reading through your messages or emails
  • Going through your bedroom without knocking
  • Persistently asking and probing for personal information


Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic where someone attempts to make you second-guess yourself.

Gaslighting can occur in any relationship, but it’s common in people with a narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

If someone gaslights you, they may: 

  • Deny that they did a certain thing altogether (after being accused of it).
  • Attempt to blame you for issues that reflect more than one person in the dynamic.
  • Try to convince you that other people don’t like you.
  • Tell blatant, outright lies.
  • Convince you that you are too emotional. 
  • Act incongruently (their words don’t match their actions).
  • Accuse you of doing the things they are actually doing. 
  • Tell you that everyone else lies to you (and that only they are telling the truth).

Lack of Regard for Your Emotional Well-Being

Even in healthy relationships, people disagree and must rely on a compromise to solve specific problems. However, in dysfunctional dynamics, one person tends to dominate the rest of the system. They appear to have little regard for anyone else’s emotions or thoughts. 

These individuals seem to only have their best interest at heart- even if it’s at the expense of someone else’s safety. Many times, this family member has tremendous authority over everyone else. Others fear upsetting this person, so they will usually give in to their demands just to maintain a sense of peace.

Attempting to Control You

This is often seen in dysfunctional parent-child dynamics, and both parties play a role in the dynamic. On the one hand, the parent makes the executive decisions on behalf of their child. They often assume that the child is inept at critical thinking, and they also worry about what would happen if they didn’t make the right decision. 

Because the child has been accustomed to this pattern their whole life, they often feel helpless without the parent’s guidance. Therefore, they might not even identify this behavior as controlling- instead, it seems like typical parenting.

Often, once the child starts pursuing their own independence, the parent lashes out with extreme anger or resistance. In extreme cases, they might make threats or cut off the child from the family.

Lack of Consistent Boundaries

Children thrive in structured environments. They benefit from having supportive parents who clearly articulate their expectations for them.

For this reason, a lack of boundaries or inconsistent boundaries can be extremely problematic. Children need parents who can teach and guide them. They should not be responsible for making adult decisions before they are ready to do so. Even if they “act maturely,” that does not mean they are capable of taking care of themselves.

Inconsistent boundaries often look like:

  • Having no boundaries at all.
  • Setting very strict boundaries (often with threats) but failing to implement them.
  • Disciplining children harshly without explaining what they did wrong.
  • Failing to have a united front (one parent is overly strict and the other is overly lenient).
  • Allowing other children to set the boundaries for younger children.

Poor Communication 

In unhealthy family relationships, poor communication is rampant. People often scream over each other. They may act aggressively or passive-aggressively when they don’t get their way. Silent treatment may be common.

Poor communication tends to be passed down from generation to generation. Children often learn how to talk to others by observing their parents. Therefore, if the communication patterns are toxic, they will often perpetuate the vicious cycle.

How to Build Insight Into Identifying Your Boundary Needs 

It’s essential to consider the different boundaries you want to set in your life. While your family may be the focal point, you can start by focusing on all your boundary needs.

Physical Boundaries

What kind of rules do you want to maintain about your physical body and personal space? How much distance do you need between you and another person? What are your rules about sex and intimacy? What kind of affection will you accept or give to others?

Emotional Boundaries

What boundaries do you have related to your thoughts and feelings? Can you separate your feelings from other people’s feelings? Do you blame yourself if someone else is struggling? How do you intend to relate to people if they have beliefs that are vastly different from your own?

Financial Boundaries

What are your guidelines for lending, giving, or donating money to others? Do you plan to jump in and rescue if someone faces a financial hardship? What kind of financial support will you accept yourself?

Moral Boundaries

What are your morals and values, and what happens if someone crosses them? If you intend to address the discrepancy, how do you intend to do that?

Understanding Your Boundary-Related Fears

Identifying your boundaries is one thing. Setting them is an entirely different story. Many people fear boundaries because they worry about hurting the people they love. Additionally, they don’t want to be perceived as mean, punitive, or overly dramatic. 

You may also be afraid of:

  • Offending someone you care about deeply.
  • Being met with extreme defensiveness or anger.
  • Losing the relationship altogether.
  • Your own ability to actually set the boundary. 
  • Being disrespected regardless of the boundary.
  • Being laughed at or ignored.

It’s important to identify which fears resonate the most with you. Eliminating all fear isn’t part of the goal. Setting boundaries may still feel scary, and that’s normal. However, this awareness can help you develop insight into certain patterns. It can also help you identify the steps you need to take next. 

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How to Set A Boundary With a Family Member

First, it’s important to reflect on exactly which boundary you want to set. If you have several boundaries in mind, that’s okay. However, it’s important to address only one boundary at a time. 

If you dump a bunch of boundaries on someone simultaneously, it can be overwhelming and confusing. This strategy can also increase the likelihood of the other person feeling attacked. 

Identify Exactly What’s Hurting You 

Most of the time, the need for boundaries comes from a place of disrespect. You must reflect on exactly what’s hurting you in the dynamic. If your first instinct is everything, slow down, and consider the situation.

Do you feel like the other person doesn’t respect your time? Your generosity? Your home?

Do you feel like the other person doesn’t care about your feelings or your spouse or your job?

Try to hone in on the specific details ahead of time. 

Choose A Neutral Time For Your Discussion 

Although it may seem like a great idea to establish your boundaries in the middle of a conflict, this method rarely works. You don’t want to assert your needs when emotions are already heightened. If you do this, you’re more likely to come across as demanding or hostile.

Instead, choose a neutral time and location. If you’ve decided to set a boundary after a contentious argument, wait a few days until your feelings have simmered. Ideally, you want to have a calm and level-headed discussion. 

Speak Using I-Statements 

When people feel frustrated with someone else, they often jump to quick generalizations or accusations about their behavior. They may use extreme language like you always or you never. These kinds of statements tend to make people feel angry and defensive. 

I-statements enable you to share your feelings without making assumptions about other people. They require that you own personal accountability for your own reactions.

The I-statement formula is fairly simple and it follows the format:

I feel ____ when you ___.

Afterward, you can also add an I need ____. This will help reinforce what you expect the boundary to be. 

For example, let’s say your mother continues to disregard your rules when she babysits your child. You might frame your I-statement to say, I feel disrespected when you give Michael candy before dinner. I need him to eat his meal before he has sweets.

Validate the Other Person 

When people feel understood, they are less likely to become combative. Therefore, it’s a good idea to consider how you want to validate your loved one as you set boundaries. Some examples of validation include:

  • “I care about you deeply.”
  • “I know it wasn’t your intention to hurt me.”
  • “I can see how much you care about us.”
  • “I know you are going through so much right now.”
  • “You are such a wonderful, loving person.”
  • “It means so much to me that you are willing to listen to what I have to say.”
  • “I appreciate your support.”

Know The Consequences

It’s not enough to just set a boundary without intending to implement it. Ideally, your loved one can respect your needs and make accommodations to compromise. However, this doesn’t always happen, and it’s important to be prepared.

You should identify your consequences ahead of time and outline them to your loved one. Remember that consequences aren’t inherently synonymous with punishment. They are simply there to reinforce your limits.

Boundaries can be as strict as you need them to be. However, they should send a clear message that you are no longer willing to tolerate unwanted behavior. 

Let’s say your mother continues giving your child candy throughout the day, even after you have asked her to stop. A consequence could be prohibiting her from babysitting your child for a week. Or, it could be installing a nanny cam and requiring that she use it when she is unsupervised. 

Consistency is the most important component of setting boundaries. When dynamics have been occurring for many years, you can’t implement a rule one time and expect the other person to comply fully. You may need to continuously remind them of your needs and reinforce the boundaries as needed. 

Many people need to create boundaries with people living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or displaying narcissistic traits. Learn more about how to manage narcissistic relationships here.

Final Thoughts

Setting boundaries with family isn’t easy, but learning this skill is crucial to your growth and overall well-being. Just because someone loves you doesn’t mean they have the right to disrespect you. You are allowed to have limits- both physically and emotionally- and it’s important to honor them. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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