Navigating Family Dynamics: Why Boundaries are Important and How to Set Them Effectively

Maintaining appropriate boundaries with friends, family, and colleagues is a common struggle. Once you become a new parent, setting boundaries around your parenting choices can be an even more daunting task. But, establishing clear limits with parents, grandparents and in-laws can help protect your own family’s functioning and wellbeing. Additionally, modeling how to set boundaries teaches your children this important social skill. 

Young girl watching her Grandfather water plants in his garden

Why are boundaries with extended family members important?

Extended family members can offer parents support, guidance, and a sense of community. But, their involvement can also create challenges. You’ve likely heard the saying “it takes a village” about raising children. It’s this idea that motivates extended family members to offer support. That is, their intentions are generally positive. But, issues may arise when priorities or values don’t quite align.

For example, when a grandparent is helping out by cooking dinner, but does not agree with your choice to eat a vegetarian-friendly diet. Or, when an aunt takes your daughter to a movie that feels a bit too mature for her because she believes it will be a valuable bonding experience for the two of them. In these situations, setting boundaries is important to maintaining a harmonious family dynamic.

There are several reasons why it’s essential to establish boundaries about your parenting choices:

  • Boundaries allow you to create a cohesive and nurturing environment for your children.
  • Boundaries ensure that extended family members respect your parental authority. 
  • Boundaries foster a sense of stability and consistency for your children.

How Can I Set Boundaries?

Before you set boundaries, you have to determine what those boundaries actually are. Begin by reflecting on your core parenting values. Think about things like discipline methods, dietary preferences, and routines. Consider how you want to handle approaches to education, and managing screen time. Identifying values provides clarity on what matters most in your child’s upbringing.

Types of Boundaries to Establish

  • Discipline and Parenting Styles
  • Respecting Routines
  • Health and Safety
  • Respecting Parental Authority

Communicating Boundaries Effectively

Once you’ve identified boundaries, the next step is to communicate these boundaries with clarity and empathy:

  • Open Dialogue: Have a conversation with extended family members. Emphasize the importance of mutual respect and understanding.
  • Expressing Values: Share your values and reasoning behind specific parenting choices. This allows them to understand the underlying principles guiding your decisions.
  • Setting Expectations: Talk about what you expect for their involvement and support in maintaining these boundaries.

How Do I Maintain Boundaries?

The most important thing to remember is that you— the child’s parent (and your partner)— have the final say. It is okay to set boundaries for yourself and your family. Boundaries do not need to get in the way of honoring and upholding important family relationships.  

It can be difficult to strike the balance of keeping family members engaged without them becoming overinvolved. Setting an external boundary might be the first step. As already discussed, this involves conversation and collaboration with your extended family members. Get on the same page as your partner and make a plan. Think about what exactly it is you want to communicate with the family member. Brainstorm and practice an announcement “script” (my daughter has nap time at 12pm, and it is important to stick to that schedule). Maintaining boundaries can feel uncomfortable. Remembering why you made the boundary in the first place can help you tolerate those uncomfortable feelings.

You may also consider setting internal boundaries by creating a “space” between your values and others’ actions. Give yourself permission to not let a crossed boundary ruin your day. Remember that you are doing the best you can. It’s inevitable that your child will see and hear things that don’t always align with your parenting values, and that is okay. When we expose children to a wide range of values, we create opportunities to discuss and debrief. These moments foster empathy and perspective taking.

Mother with her arm around her daughter while hiking on a trail

What Do Boundaries Look Like in the Real World?

There is lots to say about boundaries. Why they’re important, what kinds to have, how to establish them…but talking about boundaries isn’t the same as actually seeing what they look like in the real world. Here are some examples of boundaries that you and your partner might implement:

  1. How should I manage political discussions with family members? 
    • One of the biggest concerns we hear from parents is that others’ political views will “rub off” on their child. First, remember that talking about differences (in a positive and respectful way) is actually beneficial for your child. These conversations can be an opportunity to solidify your family values. Through them, you can teach your child how to interact with others who may have different perspectives. If you find yourself getting heated or emotional during political discussions, take a breath and try to remember that these discussions won’t erase what you have taught your child.
  1. How should I deal with excessive gift giving from family members?
    • You may find that you want to create some boundaries around gift-giving, but aren’t sure where to start. Begin by thinking about what kinds of gift-giving behaviors you’d like to avoid. Do your in-laws overdo it with the number of gifts in a way that feels overwhelming and conflicting with your values? Try asking them to contribute toward a larger, more meaningful gift instead. If they insist on doing more, consider having them donate to a cause of your child’s choosing. It is also okay to be direct with family members. You might say something like, “I know you love Billy, but too many gifts can cause too much stimulation. Please only send one this year.”
    • Maybe you want to create boundaries around the types of gifts your child receives. Do your cousins tend to overdo it on electronic toys? Encourage them to give experiential gifts instead. Or you can set the expectation that this year, you’d only like books.
    • When external boundaries don’t quite work, you can take action by implementing your own. For example, if you continue to get battery-operated toys (despite your request for puzzles), take out the batteries. Or keep some toys in a closet to rotate or save for special occasions. Go through the toys with your child and identify a few items for donation (bonus: this helps teach children generosity and gratitude).
  1. What should I do when my family wants to communicate too much (or not enough) with my child? 
    • It’s natural for grandparents and other family members to want involvement in your children’s lives. But, sometimes the amount of communication they expect doesn’t align with your family’s routine or scheduling preferences. You can manage this by establishing time-limited calls. For example, you can set up a video call between your son and his aunt in the 15 minutes before dinner.
    • Alternatively, sometimes extended family members need encouragement to be more communicative. One way you can try to increase connection is by sending them your children’s artwork or other creations. This keeps family members in the loop, and also provides something concrete to chat about during the next visit or call. 
  1. Do I need to make my child hug a family member?
    • External boundaries often come up in the context of body safety rules. Loving and well-intentioned grandparents sometimes expect physical embrace. For example, grandma might say, “Come on, come give me a hug!” In these cases, we may want to set a boundary on behalf of our child. Consider our three step framework for setting a boundary. First, find and label the positive intention (I know you want a hug to connect with her, because you love her). Next, describe how this conflicts with your family values, or what you are trying to teach your child (we are teaching her that she is in charge of her own body). Finally, offer gentle redirection– if she doesn’t want to give you a hug, I need you to respect her no. Following this plan helps maintain a boundary while still honoring the relationship.

How Can I Maintain Relationships While Also Setting Boundaries?

Setting boundaries can be a lot like juggling. Think of the different balls you have to keep in the air: there are the many relationships involved, your own values and objectives, and your feelings and need for self-respect. The key to successful juggling is prioritization. Think about times it may be more (or less) important to honor the relationship. As important as it is to set boundaries, there is also value in preserving relationships to maintain family harmony. It’s okay to let yourself off the hook sometimes when it comes to maintaining a boundary. But, it’s also okay to continue to have direct conversations with family members in the service of maintaining a boundary. 

Remember, confrontation does not have to mean conflict. In fact, respectful and productive confrontation often strengthens a relationship, and everyone involved benefits.

Are you looking for more support around complicated family dynamics?

If you are struggling to find this balance, and could benefit from support in setting boundaries with others, the clinicians at Upshur Bren Psychology Group are here to offer you support and guidance. Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation call to learn more about how we can help you.

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