Open Hearted Holidays: Boundary Work for Better Family Gatherings

boundary work for better family gatherings

Before our move from Texas to Germany, I had never really come home for the holidays before. Now that I have had the experience to, even briefly, leave my home community and return for a visit, I feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of the intention behind so many little behaviors in my family or community that were hard for me to handle as a younger parent. Once I started trying to do some boundary work for better family gatherings, holidays only seem to become more pleasurable each year.

I’m trying to think of this kind of work less as walls up and more like bridges built. As a rising matriarch of my own family, what ways can I help my two families blend and thrive when together? I’m introducing the family I’ve built to where I’m from – which I’ve realized more is my home community, not just the family I was raised in. I’m introducing my home to my family, educating them on how we like to do things. Often as we spend time with extended family, we’re a guest in someone’s home. I’m trying to apply the same curiosity, respect and letting go I would lean into when staying with a friend to my trips home with – gasp! – my own family.

Sometimes, when I am home these days, I can feel a bit bombarded by love in the form of opinions, many, many questions about our lives here and even more presents I can “slip in my bag” and tote across the planet home. Some are from family and some are from the woman at the grocery store who remembers me from Fourth Grade and sees me on my Mom’s Facebook. On the days I’m stretched, I can feel like too much. But after long periods away from home, I realize how special it is to have this community where I am known, where the older women still care for me like the child they partly raised. With a little gentle direction from my end and my own work on accepting and letting go on the inside, I have a deep appreciation for the people who ask because they care, who slip candy as a reminder to you and your child that childhood and its pleasures go by quickly. We’re a family of individuals and smaller families raised in completely different eras, in different cultures and circumstances. Empathy and boundaries, in my opinion, create a container where all of these differences can come together and celebrate wholeheartedly.

I’m excited to have Melissa Griffing, LPC, RPT, NBCC, of WellNest Counseling, with us today sharing empathy and positive solutions on how to go this work as parents.

Boundary Work for Better Family Gatherings

Parenting is hard on a normal day. Add in some holiday chaos and it can leave parents wondering if they were cut out to be parents at all! Navigating the holidays within your immediate family is challenging on its own. If your house is anything like mine, we (the parents) are driven nuts by having to set extra boundaries around all the extra candy laying around and the gifts they can’t open till Christmas and not touching the decorations! And that is just when we are alone. Throw in a grandma or a few aunts and my stress level goes through the roof with all the extra advice and opinions about me, my kid, and my parenting! That’s what I want to talk about today. How to set holiday boundaries with family members. 

We’ve all got them. The well-meaning great aunt offering her opinion on your 3 years old’s tantrum he’s throwing because he must wait to eat the apple pie till after dinner. The too-stern grandfather who says harsh comments like, “don’t be a crybaby, toughen up kid!”. The overindulgent grandma who sneaks candy and cakes to your kids even though you’ve said no. The mother-in-law who always has an opinion about how you parent or why it’s wrong because it’s not how she does it. Or the well-intentioned great-grandmother that requires a hug and a kiss from your kids lest it be disrespectful to decline. In this post, we will go over some common scenarios and what you can do to set firm, yet respectful boundaries with your family. So, let’s dive in! 

The Well-Meaning Great Aunt: 

Scene: Your three-year-old is throwing a tantrum over the fact that you said no to having a piece of pie before dinner. He is screaming, throwing things, and crying loudly. Despite your best attempts, he can’t seem to be calmed. You know that this will just take some time and that you are meeting your child’s emotional needs. You understand that your child has lost the ability to reason, is overtired, and needs to be met with love in order to co-regulate. Discipline will come much later after your child’s “thinking brain” has turned back on. You’re keeping your calm, reflecting feeling, and doing great until… The well-meaning great-aunt walks in and says something along the lines of, “Well, he’s probably acting like that because you’ve spoiled him. Just give him the pie, he’s too skinny anyway. He’s only screaming at you because he knows it will get him what he wants.”  

How to respond: You might decide to simply pick your child up and find a quiet room to finish your parenting strategy in. Sometimes we do need to take space breaks to reset. Or, if you can’t leave you might choose to say something like, “He’s showing a lot of emotion, today has been hard, and I’m comfortable with how I am handling this situation. Please give us some space so I can help my child.” 

The Too-Stern Grandfather:

Scene: Your son is running around with his cousins when he suddenly trips. He is not hurt but he cries and comes to you for some comfort. After a moment, he’s better and he goes back to play. But another 5 minutes pass and he runs straight into his cousin and they bump heads. Again, he cries and comes to you for comfort. This time, the too-stern grandfather decides to chime in, “What?! Are you a little girl? You’re crying like a girl. We need to toughen you up! Come on act like a man. No crying.” 

How to respond: For this one, I would say something directly to grandpa. There are so many inappropriate messages; girls are less than boys, boys don’t show emotions, weakness makes you less than… I could go on. Setting a firm boundary here is important. You could say, “In our house, we don’t use gender to put down people and it is okay to show sadness when you are hurt or just feeling sad. Please do not make a comment like that again.” This sends the message to grandpa that it’s not okay to speak like that and it also models to your kids how to respectfully set boundaries and speak up when necessary, no matter who it is. 

The Over-indulgent Grandma 

Scene: You’ve said, (in front of grandma) “no more sweets, you’ve had too many!” As you walk away, you hear grandma telling your daughter that as soon as mom leaves, she’ll get her something sweet to eat! You might even hear her say, “Don’t tell mom!”

How to respond: Again, you might let it go. You might just chalk it up to a special holiday treat and that grandma gets to “spoil” your kiddo. The one comment I would make is to encourage your family NOT to teach your kids to keep secrets. In certain situations, secrets are dangerous and kids have a hard time distinguishing between safe secrets and unsafe ones. For example, topics around body safety should not be a secret. So as a rule of thumb, secrets are not allowed in our house. We can have surprises. But even then, surprises are shared quickly. 

The Opinionated Mother-in-Law:

Scene: During the Christmas party your mother-in-law keeps commenting on your child’s eating habits. Saying things like, “She’s eating too many chemicals and junk, no wonder she doesn’t listen all the time.” Or “You should be cooking homemade food every night, that’s why she is so emotional.” On the way home, your mother-in-law keeps commenting on your daughter’s body, weight, and eating habits. You don’t want to offend your mother-in-law, but you also feel like you need to say something. 

How to respond: This is one you should set a boundary on! Commenting in negative ways on children’s bodies and eating habits can lead to and contribute to the development of eating disorders. I would say something like, “thank you for your concern but we will not be commenting on my daughter’s body anymore. No more comments about what she eats or how she looks or her weight. I know you may see it differently, but I appreciate you following the way I do it on this one.” 

The Well-Intentioned Great Grandma:

Scene: Your family enters the Christmas party and grandma lights up and demands, “come here, give me a hug!” You can tell your kiddo is uncomfortable and doesn’t want to. 

How to respond: This is another important one. We want to teach our kids that they can say no to adults when necessary, especially when it comes to their own bodies. When you hear grandma demanding physical affection you can say something like, “Honey, if you want, you can choose to hug grandma. But you don’t have to it’s your choice.” You might also give other options like giving a wave, fist bump, or high-five. 

Tips for Setting Family Boundaries

Think about what is important to you – Before the holidays, think about what is important to you and what you value. Make decisions out of your values. This will guide you on the things you might let go of, like letting grandma sneak extra candy, and the things you feel you must speak up on, like grandpa using gender to insult people. 

Prepare for pushback – in any one of these scenarios, your relatives might feel offended. They may ignore you, guilt trip you, or tell you you’re overreacting. Keep in mind that if relatives push back on boundaries, that is a sign that they need to be set. Also keep in mind that if they do push back, that is about them, not a reflection of you. 

Clearly state your boundary – think about your boundary beforehand and clearly state it. When setting boundaries, sometimes people try to be kind and gentle to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. This is not the time to do that. State your boundaries using specific terms that are black and white. This makes it clear and closed to interpretation. You might even use an I-statement, “I feel _____ when _______.” For example, “I feel uncomfortable when people comment on my kids’ eating habits. Please do not make any more comments.” 

Be consistent – When you change a boundary or make a new one, it takes time for people to accept it. So be consistent and persistent with your boundary. Your family will either come around or you will have to make a choice about what to do if your family is not respecting your boundary. 

Don’t be afraid to miss out – sometimes setting boundaries means you must excuse yourself from the activity if your family isn’t respecting them. Sometimes it means declining an invitation ahead of time. Don’t be afraid to miss out on activities if you know it is only going to bring you and your kids and your spouse stress. Go back to what your values are and make decisions out of those. 

Anything can happen – These scenarios are crafted from real situations I have heard over the years with certain information changed to make it more general. So, take each scenario with a grain of salt and adapt it to fit your specific needs. 

If you have a partner, get on the same page– setting boundaries can be hard, especially if it’s not your family. Have a conversation with your spouse about which boundaries you feel you need to set so that way when the time comes you are prepared and have a united front. You could even share this blog with him/her. 

Thanks, Melissa, for all of the positive solutions! I’m have faith that, in spaces where you are genuinely welcomed, the work of each gathering builds. Once again, it’s like, no matter what the response is, I have my own voice and the opportunity to build the peaceful celebrations I love, one way or another. 🙂

Leave a Reply