Boundaries for Family Holidays

Boundaries for Family Holidays

Holidays often bring a large amount of stress for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that we may be around family members for an extended period of time. For many, just the thought of that can invoke major anxiety.

So, why do we feel obligated to be around family members for the holidays if we know it causes so much stress and tests our mental strength? There are two answers to that: society and culture.

Let’s look at the societal pressure of spending time with family for holidays. Think about all the commercials or ads you see about the holidays. What do they all have in common?

Expectations of Holidays

Every single one of them depicts families spending time together and being happy. That is consciously and subconsciously telling us that we should be with family on holidays. Not only that, but it’s also telling us that if spending time with family doesn’t make us happy then there is something wrong with us.

When we are slammed with what holidays are “supposed” to look like for us, anything outside of that feels wrong, selfish, weak, or whatever negative adjective you can come up with for that. There’s not a single person in the world who has not been hit with those expectations about holidays and time with family.

Culture is also responsible for a lot of holiday stress as well. That is for the same reasons as the societal pressure. From the moment we are born, we are shown what our culture expects. Our birth comes with cultural expectations.

Dealing with Family Holidays

I can remember the first holiday I spent by myself. It was depressing, but only because of the societal and cultural expectations that were forced upon me. If you’ve read some of my posts, you’re aware that I come from a pretty toxic family.

Holidays with my family were so incredibly stressful because I knew I was “supposed” to put on a happy face and keep it on until I left. The more family holidays I endured, the harder that got. Finally, it got to the point where I just refused to do it because of what it did to me mentally.

As a psychotherapist, the holiday season of November through December is the busiest time of the year. My own experiences with family holidays are quite similar to those of my clients. There is typically such dread of the holiday season simply because we are “supposed” to be with family and be happy about it.

Lack of Boundaries with Family

Before I began my healing journey, I spent every holiday with family, and it was miserable. I had no boundaries and had been taught to keep my mouth shut and ignore all the toxic behaviors that were sure to take place every time.

One of my biggest triggers every holiday was thanks to my mother’s husband. Every time we were eating a holiday meal, he would make negative comments about how much I was eating. For years I just ignored him as I was taught that was what I was supposed to do according to my mother.

The first holiday after I began therapy, I thought I had found a solution for putting a stop to his numerous comments about my weight and how much I was eating. I had a talk with my mother about his behavior. I asked her to tell him to refrain from those comments.

Oh, how I thought I was being strong to have that conversation with her. Surely if she knew how upsetting it was to me then she would ask him to stop. Well, that’s where I greatly misjudged my mom because I had hope that she would understand and want to protect me.

Her response was that she would not dare say anything to him about it because he’s just making jokes and he doesn’t mean anything by it. Well, that’s quite debatable and a topic for another day. So, that holiday season I just continued to endure his negative comments.

That left me feeling angry and sad as I drove home from the family holiday time that year. I made a vow to myself that would be the last holiday season where I allowed him to make those kinds of comments to me while ignoring them and putting on a happy face. I stuck to that vow and that resulted in major issues at the next family holiday.

Attempting to Navigate Boundaries with Family

At Thanksgiving the next year, I got up to get a second helping of food. As with every holiday and occasions that weren’t holidays, my mom’s husband began his verbal attacks. He asked me if I thought I should be getting more food. I responded that I wanted more food and didn’t care what he thought.

The look on my mom’s face was utter disgust. How dare I respond back to him like that? I could tell she was so scared about how he would respond and what it might cause. Next, he began reminding everyone that I gained about twenty pounds my first year of college and said that I better watch out or I was going to do that again.

Everybody laughed, but me. I had already rehearsed my response because I knew the comments would come. My response was something like this, “I am the healthiest and smallest person in the entire family. So, maybe you should pay attention to what I do instead of attempting to be funny while knowingly being rude and hateful.” Dead silence for several long minutes as I sat down to continue eating.

Looking back, my response was not healthy. It was vindictive and was coming from my hurt inner child. However, I still felt better about my response than having no response at all for all those years. After that holiday, I made another vow.

When the comments came, I would respond by setting a boundary about what could be said about me. Of course, my mom’s husband presented me with that chance just a month later at Christmas. Another comment came and I informed him that I would not tolerate comments about my appearance or how much I ate.

The Fallout from Setting Boundaries

The response from him and my mom was that I was over-reacting and “too sensitive.” At this point, I knew that their behaviors meant nothing about me. It was simply about their own inner struggles with themselves. Guess what I did after that family holiday.

I made another vow. I promised myself that I would not participate in anymore family holidays or gathering with my mother and her husband. Now, the negative comments from my mother’s husband were just one of the MANY toxic things that occurred at every holiday. I could write a million blog posts about those, but I’m just using this one to iterate my point.

My mom actually helped me out with that vow because I was informed that I was no longer invited to her house for family holidays. That hurt because I knew that I was not the one who had caused issues. However, when you set boundaries, they shake up what is normal, even though dysfunctional, within a family.

The common response to that for those who are not on a healing journey is to make the boundary setter wrong, crazy, sensitive, a troublemaker, etcetera. That is often why people pull back or forget about their boundaries. Not only that, but if you enforce your boundaries with an unhealthy family that can result in your no longer being included as it did for me.

Spending Holidays Alone

Now, back to the societal and cultural expectations of spending holidays with family. My first holiday alone was miserable, as I mentioned. I was really depressed because it had been ingrained in me that holidays were supposed to be spent with family and my healthy boundaries got me kicked out of family holidays.

The next year, I began doing some deep work on having peace and enjoying time with myself, even on holidays. So, the next holiday rolled around. I made a peach pie and brownies. I ate pie and brownies for breakfast and lunch. I slept in and stayed in pajamas all day.

It was wonderful. I can even remember thinking how I’d enjoyed that holiday more than any holiday I’d ever had as an adult. There was no more shame or sadness about how I was “supposed” to be with family because it was a holiday. Instead, it was I am NOT supposed to be with family on a holiday because I value my peace.

Compromising for Family Holidays

Now, fast forward to my having my own family. Those societal and cultural pressures are right back. It’s expected of me to have my in-laws to our house or go to their house for holidays. My preference would be to stay at our house with nobody coming over and us not going anywhere.

However, I try to be respectful of my husband’s desire to spend holidays with his family. So, I compromise to a degree. Our first Christmas together I was pregnant. We were “supposed” to go to his mother’s house on Christmas Day.

We did, but I told my husband that when our baby is here for Christmas next year that I did not want to go anywhere on Christmas Day or have anybody come to our house again. He has respected that. Now, his father comes over Christmas Eve morning and we go to his mother’s house on Christmas Eve for lunch.

My boundaries had to shift since I am married, but that doesn’t mean that they go away. I spent many years with no boundaries and a few learning how to set them. Boundaries around holidays and family are not something that will ever go away for me now.

Are you thinking about what it’s like for you and your family for the holidays? Are you wondering what kinds of boundaries you might want to set for family holidays? What if you had peace on holidays, whether that was with family or not?

Here are some examples of boundaries that have helped my psychotherapy clients and myself to set boundaries for family holiday time. Print these. Screenshot them. Save them. Do whatever you need with them or create your own.

Boundaries to Set with Family for Holidays:
  1. No discussion of religion or politics.
  2. No questions about when about marriage, dating life, or having children.
  3. No comments about physical appearance.
  4. No use of derogatory words or phrases.
  5. No criticism or criticism disguised as jokes.

Now, it should be self-explanatory as to why religion and politics should not be discussed. If you don’t understand that, then I can’t help you. The ONLY exception to this is if you one hundred percent know that EVERY single person in attendance is of the same religion and political stance AND is open to those discussions. If not, don’t do it and remind others that this is your boundary.

Families can often feel as though they are entitled to ask about your marital status, dating life, and having children. A holiday with multiple family members is not the place for this discussion as it is often a difficult subject for many to discuss. Not only that, but you are NOT obligated to discuss that if you do not want to do so.

Negative Comments from Family

Negative comments about physical appearance seem to one of the most harmful things that family members can do to someone. I cannot think of one reason that it is appropriate for a family member to make a negative comment about your appearance. That doesn’t stop family from doing it though or your need to set that boundary.

Derogatory words or phrases should not need an explanation just like discussion of religion or politics. I’ve had two family members in the past think that it was acceptable to use words that should NEVER be used. That’s a boundary that I will never allow to be crossed again, especially in front of my baby. If it happens, there will be a very strong consequence.

Another common boundary that should be set is not criticizing or making jokes disguised as criticism. Hopefully, I don’t need to explain that further. If you are curious as to why people do that, then you need to read my post Constant Sarcasm/Criticism: 6 Steps Helpful Steps for Dealing with It.

Figuring out and Setting Your Boundaries

There are many other boundaries that you may need to set for your family at holidays. Figure out what your boundaries need to be for you to have an enjoyable holiday with your family if you choose to be around them. Remember, if you choose not to be around family for holidays that is perfectly okay and might actually bring you the most peace.

Also, you need to determine what the consequence will be if a boundary is crossed. Typically, I let people know what my boundary is up front if it’s not one that I’ve previously made clear.

My “go-to” consequences are for me to take a break from the people who crossed my boundary or to leave in a calm manner. It’s important that you do those in a healthy way. That’s the hard part!

Trust me here. I have made huge, loud exits in the past when my boundaries were crossed. That resulted in my having a lot of anger and causing a lot of chaos. That’s not necessary.

Instead, just calmly communicate your boundary that was crossed and that you are taking a break for yourself, or you have decided it’s best that you leave. Whatever response they may have, says nothing about you.

That’s hard to grasp, but keep in mind that a mentally healthy person usually won’t need you to set boundaries in the first place. There are occasions where a healthy person may truly not be aware of the harm their behavior or comment caused. If that’s the case, then they will respond in an apologetic, positive way.

If you get a negative response to your boundary that just shows his or her need to do some healing work. Also, be aware that may never happen but don’t let that stop you from setting and enforcing your healthy boundaries.

Whatever you choose to do for the holidays, I hope you have peace and joy. I don’t often give “shoulds,” but I think it’s appropriate here. Holidays SHOULD be enjoyable. If they aren’t, do whatever you need to do to make it enjoyable. You deserve that!


This site is only intended for people who are truly willing to look at themselves with an open mind and have the ability to truly be vulnerable with themselves and others. Please understand that this site is in NO WAY THERAPEUTIC ADVICE. However, this site can be very beneficial in learning the causes of your Not Good Enough Stuff. This site is not intended to provide or replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Mary Beth HIGHLY RECOMMENDS finding a licensed therapist to help you process the information from this site and all that you learn about yourself. Visit Psychology Today to find a licensed therapist in your area.

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