For many of us, parenting means navigating through seemingly never-ending advice and expectations to figure out what works best for our family. Part of that includes setting boundaries with family members. It can be stressful. And awkward. But there are methods parents can use to successfully set and maintain boundaries (while trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings).
“The key is empathy. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from,” said Dr. Judith Joseph, a board-certified psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. “This will allow you to carefully choose an approach that is less likely to create conflict.”
We know, it’s easier said than done. Especially if they disagree with your parenting style.
Here are ways to put that into practice.
Setting boundaries with family members
Your words matter.
“You may want to say things like, ‘I understand your point of view and…’ rather than saying ‘but’,” said Dr. Joseph. “The human brain interprets ‘but’ as a rejection. The ‘and’ suggests that the opposing view is valid, and it’s just different and not necessarily wrong.”
Boundaries around sleep
Many parents prioritize consistent sleep schedules and following safe sleep guidelines. And some grandparents may think parents are being irrational or inflexible. Dr. Joseph recommends calling your family members ahead of time.
“Take a deep breath and use a phrase like, ‘I understand where you are coming from, and I want to hear you out before I share with you where I am coming from.’” This mirrors healthy communication styles in hopes that your family will do the same.
For conversations about routine, Dr. Joseph recommends saying: “Mom, I want the baby to be bright and interactive when you are visiting because I want the baby to connect with you. The best way to do this is to ensure that the baby has adequate sleep, or else she will cry throughout your visit.”
This way, you’re aligning the sleep routine with the goal of bonding.
Boundaries around food talk
Many parents are working to create positive eating experiences for their kids. Part of that is communicating ahead of time what they don’t want their kids to hear (aka: someone speaking negatively about their body or forcing your kid to eat). According to Jennifer Anderson MSPH, RDN, a registered dietitian and founder of Kids Eat in Color, here’s an example of what parents can say:
“Hey, we're working on helping Alex have a good relationship with their body, and we want her to be appreciative of everybody and not be concerned about her size. I'd really like you to help support us in this by not talking about this around her.”
Grandparents may have strong views about food because they relate certain meals with tradition (think: getting together to eat grandma’s special casserole). But this can get tricky if your child has an allergy.
“Stay aligned with grandma’s goals by expressing that your child will feel ‘left out’ and not included if they cannot partake in this experience. That way the issue becomes less about the food or allergy and more about family and bonding,” said Dr. Joseph.
Boundaries around physical touch
For many parents, bodily autonomy and consent are early lessons. This means kids can say “no” when a grandparent reaches out for a hug. Cue the awkwardness. To avoid that, Dr. Joseph said parents should call ahead and explain why this boundary is important.
“Use empathy and [say] that you’re aware that it’s difficult for your family to not feel free to express emotions using physical touch. Verbally tell them that your child does love them and has different ways of showing affection,” she said. [Tell them] it’s a way of creating a sense of agency and autonomy so that children learn that they have control over who touches them.”
Boundaries around sensory and mental health needs
If your kid has a particular sensory need or you’re worried about their anxiety, be clear with your family members about expectations. Family members could interpret these needs as something negative if they don’t understand your reasoning.
“You may want to frame this as, ‘It is important that you understand my child’s needs so that you can better support us,’” said Dr. Joseph. “If you don’t feel comfortable sharing information about your child’s condition, you may want to plan ahead. Inform your family that you will be staying for a brief period, and that you may have to step out intermittently so that your child can have a break from overstimulation.”
Note: The goal is to try to get your family members to understand. But that won’t always be the case. It’s OK to put your kid’s needs first.
Boundaries around screen time
It’s important to remind grandparents how screen time impacts children. They may want to bond with your kids by watching a TV show they love (even though they hit their TV limit). One way you could shift focus away from screens is by asking grandparents to help you come up with different activities or take part in special time with your kids. (Reminder: Family members usually want to feel included). Dr. Joseph recommends saying:
“Family time is important, and we want our children to spend less time on devices and more time engaging with and learning from others.”
Boundaries around gifts
Be clear about spending caps. And if there are certain gifts you don’t want your child to receive. For example, parents may not want gender-specific toys, but grandma wants to get her granddaughter a princess doll. Dr. Joseph said in many cases, grandparents may be trying to recreate a memory (from their childhood or your childhood) through gifts. It’s important to empathize. And still stick to your boundary.
PS: Here’s Dr. Joseph’s video of what a conversation about gift boundaries could look like.
Boundaries around gender and race
If a family member says something hateful or disrespectful, that’s an opportunity to speak up and mirror positive behavior. If the hateful speech doesn’t stop, you may want to leave.
“We have to protect our children and set a good example. Silence and compliance send the wrong message,” said Dr. Joseph. “Clearly state in front of your child that this speech is not OK and is not appropriate. You can say you’re going to take a break and return when the conversation becomes respectful. You can then remove yourself and your child from the situation and talk with your child separately about how this speech made them feel.”
Using empathy (and lots of patience) to understand why grandparents or family members react a certain way is critical to making boundaries work. It can be stressful. And it won’t always work. If someone refuses to respect a boundary and it’s creating a conflict in a group setting, it’s best to not engage (and take up the issue with them privately if you want). All of this takes effort. But it’s worth it — for the entire family.
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