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How to set clear-cut boundaries in dysfunctional family relationships

Family Law, Divorce and Child Custody Last updated

Over the years, I have noticed themes in the content that clients bring in to sessions. One month my staff and I might work with many clients on similar issues. Perhaps many people experience break-ups one month while another month may seem to focus on grief. Lately, several adult clients have wanted to discuss boundary setting in problematic relationships with family.

What is a boundary?

Thomas Fischer, M.Div states “Personal boundaries define you as an individual, outlining your likes and dislikes, and setting the distances you allow others to approach. They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries, involving beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem.”

Boundaries are rules and limits that you present (or don’t present) in your interactions with others.

For instance, I have a friend who is committed to staying home on Sundays to relax and recharge. She has made it very clear that if I ask her to do something on Sundays, the answer will be no. After asking a few times, the boundary was clear to me. This is a simplistic example, but hopefully useful.

Boundaries are an important part of good mental health. Without boundaries, we have (and provide) no understanding of what is allowed or expected, and without these, we feel confused and unsure of appropriate behavior.

Boundary setting in relationships is an important, if somewhat difficult skill to develop, regardless of the nature of relationship.

With parents, however, the idea of setting boundaries can seem nearly impossible. How do we tell a parent no? It may reduce us to feeling like children all over again. Unfortunately, many relationships involve the push and pull of manipulation. The parent wants something and the adult child isn’t really comfortable with the demand/request, but goes along with it to keep the peace.

An example might be having an alcoholic parent who drinks too much and becomes verbally abusive at the Friday evening family dinner. A healthy boundary might be saying “Mom/Dad we would love to meet you for breakfast on Sundays rather than dinner on Fridays,” (which may lessen the likelihood of heavy drinking). You might choose to state your reasons, depending on how reactive your parent is likely to be. This boundary helps create the likelihood of better interactions for both parties while minimizing verbal abuse.
Perhaps a parent stops by unannounced regularly, creating discomfort in your home. Stating “Mom, I love our visits but have to ask that you call first. If you don’t, I can’t promise we will be available.”

Wait, you say. Won’t this make them angry? Create more problems?

Yes, potentially at first. Often when we begin to create new boundaries, the person we are creating them with will push against the boundary for a short time. It is extremely important to hold firm. If you set a limit – stick to it. There is nothing worse than not keeping your word.

Imagine telling your child you will not buy them a candy bar in the store. Imagine if they pleaded a bit and you gave in. You have now sent the message that your boundaries don’t really matter.

Using the scenario above, if Mom stops by unannounced after being asked not to, it’s OK not to answer the door. Doing so a few times is likely to cut down on the unexpected visits and send the message that you are serious and committed to your boundaries.

Being clear is important for all parties and sets expectations for the relationship.

Setting boundaries can often create guilt or the sense we are rejecting someone. The truth is, you are rejecting behavior, not a person.

Boundaries actually help to create more secure, healthy relationships. It’s generally a lack of boundaries that leads to issues among families. Once you set a boundary, if someone continually crosses it, it may be time for a more serious decision.

Take some time this week to examine where more solid boundaries can be set in your life and try setting one or two. Once you’ve established clear, consistent boundaries, you may be surprised by how your relationships change!

Dr. Traci Lowenthal is the owner of Creative Insights Counseling, a counseling agency in Redlands serving individuals, families, and couples. She can be reached at or 909-240-7833.

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