Wellness·9 min read

Setting Boundaries With Family Can Be Uncomfortable. So We Asked A Therapist How To Do It.

A family standing and talking around the dinner table
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
November 17, 2022

The holidays can bring a lot of joy (hi, festive rom-coms and every kind of pie). As well as, unfortunately, stress. Especially when complex family dynamics are involved. But there’s something that can help you avoid turning into a door-slamming teenager again every holiday gathering. Boundaries. Aka rules you set to protect your peace. 

We know that setting boundaries doesn’t always come easy. Because it can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even upset people. So we called up Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist and NYT bestselling author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself,” and her upcoming book, “Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships.” She broke down why setting boundaries are important — and gave us scripts to use in certain situations. 

What is it about a family gathering that can cause so much stress?

Tawwab gave us a pretty simple explanation: Unlike your friends, you don't get to choose your family. “On holidays, we are typically spending time with people that we feel like we have to be in a relationship with,” she said. So if you mix personality, religious, or political differences with feelings of obligation, it can push your buttons. And make you snap at any mention of weddings or babies. 

I feel seen. How can I prepare ahead of family holidays?

Tawwab suggests thinking about the questions you might get asked, or topics that might come up. And from there, make a plan for how you'll respond. “Having a way to respond, and not be caught off guard when you know something is going to happen, can be a really helpful way to savor the moment and to not feel offended,” she said.

Can you tell me how to set boundaries before a family gathering?

Instead of waiting until you’re at the dinner table, Tawwab encourages people to be proactive. Think about what triggered you last year, and talk about it before the family traditions this year. Like calling a relative up to hash it out before the festivities start. 

Also, keep in mind: There’s no time limit on bringing something up that bothers you, said Tawwab. So if a comment they made about your relationship status last year still stings, you can address that. And you can tell them you’d prefer not to talk about your love life at family events in the future.

Any controversial topics I should stay away from?

Tawwab’s advice: Keep it light. Think: Food, weather, and what you’ve been streaming lately. Especially if you know there are some big differences (like politics) between you and certain family members. 

Another tip: Even if a controversial issue does come up, you don’t have to engage. “We individually have the power to let things go and to not bring up [or discuss] certain topics,” she said. 

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How can I set boundaries if someone triggers me IRL?

If it’s a heated debate you want to avoid…

Acknowledge that you disagree on a topic. Tell them, “I don't want to argue over dinner,” Tawwab said. Or, “This is not the time or place to have that conversation right now.” 

If it’s a question that feels a little too personal…

Remember Tawwab's suggestion to prep responses? This is the time to use them. And if more uncomfortable conversation topics continue to come up, keep using them.

If they won’t let the topic go…

Exit the chat. Feel free to say: "I'm going to leave this space, because this is not something that I feel comfortable having a conversation around," said Tawwab. Or a simple “stop” could work. 

If your boundaries hurt someone’s feelings…

It’s normal to not want to upset someone you care about. But according to Tawwab, you can’t always avoid that. “People disappoint us and we disappoint them,” she said. “We're not always going to be happy and satisfied in our relationships.” But remind yourself that you’re setting boundaries to protect your feelings. Not theirs. So even if they’re upset by that, it might be worth it for the sake of your mental health.

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Do you have any boundary setting phrases I can keep on hand? 

There’s nothing wrong with a little practice in the mirror ahead of time, Issa Rae-style. Here’s what Tawwab says to do if… 

You’re splitting time between houses for the holiday season… 

Whether you’re dividing the holidays between divorced parents or spending part of the time with your partner’s family, communicate your plans early. And don’t make it a big deal. Repeat after us: “This Thanksgiving, this is my plan.”

You want to stay at a hotel instead of a relative’s house… 

Be firm, but compassionate. Let them know that “you can't wait to spend some time with them during this holiday season. You will not be off limits. You will be there, available and present. The only thing that'll be different is you'll have your own space to do your own thing.”

You’re having a hard time financially, and need to limit gifts this year…

Set those expectations. "Maybe this year I celebrate your birthday a little harder and get you a gift, but I can't get multiple gifts for folks on Christmas.” Or, “If I get [you] something this year, it's going to be much smaller than what I've done in the past.”

You’re uncomfortable being asked about if or when you’re having kids…

Be courteous and move on. “This is not something I'm ready to talk about yet.”

A relative makes a comment about your body…

Become a broken record by saying, “please don't say that about my weight,” every time it comes up. 

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What if a relative says or does something offensive?

It’s one thing to avoid talking politics or having heated conversations. It’s another when a family member makes a hateful comment about race, religion, sexuality, gender, or size. You don’t have to let it slide, said Tawwab. Here are a few ways you can respond: 

  • “I feel uncomfortable with the statement you made.”

  • “Can you rephrase that?”

  • “Wow, I’m unclear how to respond. That was unkind to say.”

Tawwab also acknowledged that the dinner table might not be the best time to deal with it. If your relative has a reputation of saying offensive things at previous family gatherings, consider talking things out beforehand. "Say, ‘hey, let's talk about some of the things that may come up,'” she said. “Those conversations can be one-on-one and not general family discussions.”

What about setting boundaries as a parent?

Just like setting healthy boundaries for yourself and others, Tawwab says it’s important to set boundaries on your kid’s behalf. So feel empowered to be their advocate. Think: Telling your relatives that your child doesn’t need to clean their plate before leaving the table. Or that they don’t feel comfortable hugging.

“We may not see our family but on certain holidays,” she said. “So kids are not as familiar with whatever relative as much as they're familiar even with their teacher or with their daycare provider.”

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I keep setting boundaries, and my family ignores them. What should I do?

Some boundaries may be non-negotiable. Like comments about your body or microaggressions. In those cases, consider adjusting how much time you spend with people who cross them, Tawwab said. “We can have relationships where we talk to people once a month and not once a day,” she said.

But other boundaries might not be deal-breakers. Like when your mom refuses to take off her shoes in your house. In those times, Tawwab said it’s important to remember that you can’t control other people. “There are certain things that I might have to accept about you, because I love so many other things about you that I'm willing to acknowledge,” she said. Start by asking yourself: How important is the relationship to you? And how often are you willing to repeat your boundary?


It’s normal to be stressed about big family gatherings. And it’s OK to communicate your, your partner’s, or your kids’ needs. Because even though it can be hard, setting boundaries in relationships before, during, and after family holidays might help you enjoy the time together even more.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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