Family Boundaries

Family Drama! How to create and maintain family boundaries

November 5, 2018

Family boundaries are not something we necessarily give much thought to, until they aren’t good enough or are almost, if not completely, non existent. This is quite understandable – boundaries can be difficult to establish and even harder to maintain, especially within families. I am focusing here on adult relationships – think adult siblings, parents and (adult) children, and even wider family members. It is something comes up often, especially in a psychologists office!

There are several phrases that, when said, tend to ring bells alerting me to the fact that some boundary work may need to happen…

“I have to…”

“If I said no he/she would…..(insert unhappy ending here)”

“He/she will just keep (calling, asking, arguing etc)”

“Ha, there’s no way I could…”

“It’s not worth it!”

…and a raft a versions of the phrases above. If these sound familiar then you might be struggling with some boundary issues, or finding that a ‘refresh’ of some would be helpful.

You can see in the phrases above, the theme tends to be that there are restrictions upon your behaviour, an inability to refuse, withhold, or act with freedom. It often plays out as a phone call you can’t ignore because that person will just keep calling, or perhaps you really need to opt out of or leave early from a family event, hopefully to put your own self care or needs first, but the ‘repercussions’ of doing so are just too great (“It’s not worth it”). Or maybe you’d just like someone to respect your thoughts or needs, whether that be an opinion or personal space, but you feel as though it just can’t happen, perhaps even that your thoughts or needs just don’t matter.

These are issues that more than a few of us have dealt with, and it’s never easy. Our own nature, family culture and previous experiences usually shape how we respond when issues with boundaries occur. I have found that some find it best to just do ‘as they are told’ to keep the peace (but hurt themselves by doing so), and others will ark up in defence of themselves, having felt so frustrated for so long (no surprise here at the conflict that often ensues). While neither of these options is wrong, I find both tend to be incredibly draining, perhaps even more than we realise.

To help create other, perhaps healthier ways of developing or maintaining boundaries, try working your way through the points below.

1. Reflect on what you need in the given situation.

Do you need space, time, privacy, someone to hear your thoughts/feelings? What might that look like, if you were able to achieve it (Hint: The more flexible you are about how you can achieve your needs, the easier it might be).

2. Consider how your behaviour alone might be able to achieve this (ie. not relying on someone else to change their behaviour).

What ​is within your control?

3. Consider the impact this will have, and I mean ​really​ have.

They may be mad now, but will they calm later? Maybe that’s not so bad or perhaps even worth it?).

You might also have a think about ways to possibly minimise any negative outcomes OR ways in which to use this as an opportunity to think about a long term goal.

For example, if you’re skipping a family dinner, could you communicate ​why you need to do so, and ask if there’s something else you might be able to do to make it up, if this eases your discomfort. If this is helpful, great, and even if it’s not, consider asking yourself, is my lack of boundaries (never being able to say no) sustainable , or is it burning me out? If it’s the latter, then maybe a few difficult ‘no’s’ might pave the way for some more realistic expectations from others in the future – you’ll just need to sit with some challenging feelings around this one, and perhaps a couple more.

4. As a useful addition, but not one I encourage people to rely on, ask yourself if there someone who can help you out here?

For example, if you need to opt out, but your partner can still go, could that happen? Then perhaps they could further ‘back up’ that you needed time, space, sleep etc. and further cement some new boundaries.

Now that you’ve worked through these points, has a new boundary started to take shape? If it has, that’s fantastic, I wish you the best in moving forward with that! If not, and you’ve realised you might want or need some help to do this, please contact us here – all of the psychologists at Attuned Psychology would be a great help in exploring this area with you.

Cara Crothers

Clinical Psychologist


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