How to Set Holiday Boundaries with Family

When you were born, God placed you into a family for a season of time to help you grow into a mature adult. At some point this season ends, and your relationship with your parents changes from child-to-parent to adult-to-adult. The roles change from dependency and authority to mutuality. While you are to respect and care for your mother and father, you are no longer under their protection and tutelage. Children are to obey parents, while adult children are to love and honor them. Therefore, situations will occur where you need to make decisions and set boundaries with family with which they may not agree.

For example, you might decide to spend some traditional holiday time apart from your family. This can often be a cause for a confrontational talk:

You: “Mom, I wanted to let you know as soon as I could that I’ve made plans to go to the mountains with some friends this Christmas. I know this will be the first Christmas I won’t be with you and Dad, so I wanted to talk to you about it.”

Mom: “What are you talking about? You always spend Christmas with us. Your father will be so hurt.”

You: “I’m so sorry you feel that way. I would never want to hurt you. But this year I have a really good group of friends that I want to spend the holidays with. It’s not about not caring about you; it’s about wanting to be involved with these people at a deeper level. I’m looking forward to being with you on your birthday soon.”

Mom: “Can’t you do that at another time? I mean, it will ruin our Christmas.”

You: “I hope it doesn’t ruin things for you. That’s why I’m telling you this several months in advance, so you can make sure you have time to make any other arrangements you need to so your holiday will be good.”

Mom: “Don’t you care about how we feel?”

You: “Yes, Mom, I care very much. And I do like spending time with you. If you think that I don’t care, then maybe we can talk at some other point about your feelings, because I would like to reassure you that I care. But the point of this phone call was simply to give you a heads up so that we can plan and adjust for this change.”

Distinguish Between Hurt and Harm

Ultimately, you may have to distinguish between hurting and harming your family. You might cause your parent or relative discomfort in the conversation, which hurts, or you might say something unkind or unloving, which harms. The truth you want to communicate may be painful for your family (hurt them), but it will not injure them (harm them). Some adult children perceive their family members as fragile and brittle, and they do not confront needed problems because they fear any hurt will injure them.

Give your family time and space to evaluate their reactions, and see if they are being hurt or harmed. If they are angry or somewhat pouty, that is one thing. But if they seem more deeply affected—for example, withdrawing from the relationship due to pain, rather than in a manipulative “Look what you did to me” way—that is another thing. Consult with others who know your family to see whether they are genuinely unable to digest feedback without injury or is merely reacting.

You shouldn’t avoid setting boundaries over holiday issues because someone responds with hurt or anger. Deciding to set boundaries is difficult because it requires decision making and confrontation, which, in turn, may cause pain to someone you love. We need to evaluate the pain caused by our making choices and empathize with it.

Take Sandy, for example. Sandy chose to go skiing with friends instead of going home for Christmas vacation. Her mother was sad and disappointed, but she was not harmed. Sandy’s decision caused sadness, but her mother’s sadness should not cause Sandy to change her mind. A loving response to her mother’s hurt would be, “Oh, Mom, I’m sad that we won’t be together too. I’m looking forward to next summer’s visit.”

If Sandy’s mother respected her freedom to make choices, she would say something like this: “I’m so disappointed that you’re not coming home for Christmas, but I hope you all have a great time.” She would be owning her disappointment and respecting Sandy’s choice to spend her time with friends.

We need to evaluate the pain our decisions cause other people. We need to see how this hurt is helpful to others and sometimes the best thing we can do for them and the relationship. As adults, we are to respect our family, but we are no longer under their authority. The holidays represent unique challenges where you may make a decision that your family dislikes. But, as you and your family give the freedom to make your own choices, genuine love can be expressed that works to strengthen your relationship.

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Comments

  1. anonymous says

    I just told my family that I want to spend it at home with friends and my boyfriend instead of flying out to see everyone on the other side of the country. I’m worried I harmed them…they are clearly hurt and I even made my mom cry. Another reason why I don’t want to go is because I tend to be under criticism much of the time we are all together, and I am tired of it, but whenever I speak up my feelings are overlooked and belittled. I’m feeling super guilty about it now. I just talked to my mom tonight. Should I have compromised by letting them know that I will go as long as we can avoid certain topics that I tend to be criticized for? And see if it works? I’m just so worried I made the wrong kind of boundary :/ I’ve never done this before and it’s not popular in our family.

    • I'm no Dr. but.... says

      Stick with your decision. You clearly hurt them but did not harm them. In fact, you are doing yourself harm, and them, should you acquiesce. I suspect remaining firm in your decision will earn you respect. Perhaps at future gatherings your family will begin to see you in a new light and treat you with the respect you deserve.

  2. MRI says

    My husband has never been able to do this with his mother and didn’t even try until about a year ago, 11 years into our relationship (10 being married). Unfortunately when he defines a boundary she pushes it like a toddler until he gives in. Her response to boundaries is ignore completely and then play dumb like she forgot. Deflect, deny. There is no respect on her part. She still sees him as “her little boy” (her words). He is motivated by guilt based on her age and declining health. Yeah, not what I’m wanting my kids to learn. And I’m the bad guy for pointing out the unhealthy behavior. Go figure.

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