Holiday “table talks”: How to set boundaries with family members

The holiday season can be a time for multiple family reunions, dinners, gatherings and overall joyous and festive energy.

At times, during those gatherings, unwanted conversations and subjects will be brought up.

This can be unpleasant, hurtful and possibly triggering, and it’s important to establish a dynamic where one’s boundaries are respected, especially with recurring gatherings with our families and community.

Boundaries are necessary in order to foster an environment of respect, kindness and mutual understanding, and while certain family and community members may not respond well to this, we must remember that the discomfort with boundaries may be the problem, and not the boundary itself.

The conversations can revolve around personal details, individual decisions, and political, social or religious subjects, here are some examples:

  • Inquiring frequently asking about your relationship status (e.g: why you aren’t married or if you plan on getting married), your recent separation, or your personal family conflicts.
  • Commenting on your weight, overall appearance or choice of clothing
  • Criticizing your specific career choice, your salary or inquiring about your employment status.
  • Members asking about your decision to live alone, to move to a different city or details about your financial situation
  • Family asking about your political views and choosing to debate about them
  • Family members inquiring about your degree of religiosity or your religious choices
  • Commenting about your decision of having/not having children, or about decisions pertaining to your own partnership/family, or asking if you are pregnant
  • Making racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or any hateful comment in the setting
  • Insisting that your child hug, play or be taunted

These are many of the patterns that can come up in family dynamics and you may often feel the need to accept hearing them, or feel hesitation to address them in familial spaces.

It’s important to acknowledge the various cultural, linguistic and generational gaps that can lead family members to misinterpret your boundaries as a desire to no longer engage or connect. 

Often, families will believe that communal gatherings are a space of open and limitless discussion, and it will take repeated efforts to establish an environment where these boundaries are respected. You deserve a healthy environment where your feelings are considered and where you can feel safety and comfort.

Small steps, big changes 

In many of our cultures, setting boundaries may need to come in stages. It can be helpful to set a boundary using soft and gentle language and providing an explanation to help them understand why you’re setting it. You can focus on your goal of maintaining love and harmony in the relationship.

This is an understandable approach when we think the boundary won’t be accepted easily or understood initially. Eventually after practicing this, families are oriented to boundary setting and you can start to reinforce the boundaries more clearly and firmly.

Here are some things you can say:

  • Thank you for sharing your concern with me. I am happy to share my personal updates when I am ready (you can choose to add): I would very much appreciate it if we do not bring this topic up again
  • I really don’t want to talk about marriage right now. Can we please talk about something else. (here you can also just accept their prayers for you or acknowledge their efforts for trying to find you someone etc. and change the subject) 
  • My relationship with God is personal and that’s what I love about it. Thank you for worrying about me, but guilt makes that relationship harder for me and I wish to keep it focused on love. 
  • This is a personal choice, I would appreciate it if we didn’t talk about my religious belief or my decisions 
  • I am working hard to practice loving myself and my body, comments like these make it so much harder for me (you can add) could you please avoid making comments about my appearance
  • I am not comfortable with your comments on my body and my appearance
  • I am not interested in engaging in debate and would appreciate it if we don’t bring up this topic again, I want us to focus on having a enjoyable time together this evening/dinner 
  • This is a very a personal matter, and it doesn’t feel comfortable bringing it up right now 
  • This is a very hateful comment, it will make it difficult to attend these dinners if these comments continue to be made
  • I love how much you care about my child. In our family we’re teaching them about respecting their needs. He seems uncomfortable hugging or kissing, I appreciate you helping us to respect his need
  • This kind of comment, even jokingly, is very hurtful to me. Could you please be mindful of making such comments in my presence

Before you go!

Some considerations that can make this boundary journey easy on your nervous system are: 

  1. Doing all the venting you want and need to do with a sibling or trusted friend before setting the boundary. 
  2. Practicing how to set the boundary with them, so it feels more natural. Scripts can be amazing. Your mirror is also an amazing ally on this journey! 
  3. Have a backup to call or text with after you’ve set the boundary if you need support after. 
  4. Have a restorative plan after the gathering so you can replenish and think about it to get you through the difficult conversations 
  5. Practice. Practice. and some more practice! 

You got this!!!

Sending you all the love and warmth in this holiday season, may you be surrounded by care, kindness and joyous energy.

Until next time!