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Setting Boundaries with Your Most Difficult Family Members

Setting Boundaries

Are you ready to step into the ring with your most difficult family members this holiday season or at your family’s next event?

Read on for ideas.

In this blog, you will learn how to effectively set boundaries with:


1. The Instigator

2. The Critic

3. The Debbie Downer

4. The Competitor

5. The Therapist/Doctor

I know personally and professionally how stressful and daunting these important family events can be~ that is until you learn these practical strategies and FIND YOUR POWER!

What are relational boundaries exactly?

According to couples therapist, Terry Real, “Boundaries are for connection and protection.”

Both opening your boundaries for connection and closing them for protection are healthy relationship practices we do every day in life with people outside our family. And yet, many people struggle the most to fully be themselves and set normal, healthy limits with their family of origin or in-laws.

Why is it difficult to set boundaries with our family and in-laws?

It’s due to 3 legitimate fears:

1. Family members often fear (consciously or unconsciously) that if they do set a boundary… their family members (or in-laws) will reject or even abandon them. Although this fear usually does not come to pass (because their family members also care deeply about their connection and so often come around), estrangement sometimes does occur. We all know stories of “family cutoffs” and no one wishes to experience this.

2. Family members fear causing a conflict, being verbally attacked, or blamed for ruining the holidays, vacation, or other event.

3. Family members fear their relatives will respond defensively and dismiss their needs by not being willing to make any changes. When I have suggested that adults give one of the Guidelines for a Family Visit” a try, I often hear, “That’s impossible!” or “They’ll never agree to that!” – without even having tried to broach the topic of setting a boundary with a difficult family member.

What are the benefits of setting boundaries with your family/in-laws?

1. By clarifying your boundaries with those you love, or at the very least those you have to encounter at family occasions, you can actually increase your honesty, authenticity, and if you choose, intimacy in your relationships.

2. You can protect yourself from being treated disrespectfully. This is a basic human right. No family member should be allowed to be abusive to anyone else.

3. Be a ROLE MODEL for the children at the event! Effectively, confidently, and calmly setting boundaries is a skill I feel proud to pass on to my son.

Who are these MOST difficult family members?

1. The Instigator

a. The Instigator LOVES drama, a good debate, or possible argument and doesn’t think twice about bringing up a highly contentious topic at the table in front of children or guests. They like an audience.

b. The Instigator might be the one to drink or drug too much and pressure a family member in recovery to use. This family member might also be unaware of appropriate physical boundaries.

2. The Critic – After so much life experience with this type of family member, I have to admit, this is MY personal FAVORITE! Today I say, bring on the critic! I’m ready for YOU!

a. The Critic appears on the outside like a big BULLY. However, we all know that if negative words and actions pour out from someone, these were created from within. Thus, the Critic actually struggles with the same level of judgment toward themselves that they spew at others. Their words are coming from a dark, sad place and are simply a reflection of how they see themselves.

b. The Critic chooses easy prey whose tendency is to freeze or please. They deliberately do not go after “fighters” or family members they care most about.

3. The Debbie Downer- a character from SNL (Saturday Night Live)

a. The Debbie Downer always seems to find something negative. You can tell Debbie Downer that they’re welcome to join you on an all expense paid trip to a tropical island and they’re response might be, “Awww, I heard there were hurricanes there.”

4. The Competitor

a. The Competitor always has a one-up story to tell you. They initially seem genuinely curious about how you’re doing personally or professionally, but with everything you share, they let you know how they’re doing better.

5. The Therapist/Doctor- It’s only fair that I laugh at myself and get honest about my role at family events as well!

a. The Therapist/Doctor asks you deeply personal questions about your emotional and/or physical well-being even though they haven’t seen you for a year. They think it’s normal for you to share your most intimate feelings and thoughts with someone you might only talk to at family events.

b. The Therapist/Doctor might also have advice for everyone!

c. Or, this difficult family member acts more like a Patient/Client in that they disclose to you their recent relationship struggles or gory details of a recent medical procedure during the holiday meal.

What are some practical strategies in dealing with the 5 MOST difficult family members?

1. The Instigator

a. Express your wishes about boundaries before the event (ex. certain conversation topics or behaviors are off limits). BE AWARE though that this family member might refuse to agree to your request, and then you’ll need to decide what’s more important~ CONNECTION or PROTECTION?

b. Exhale often.

c. Don’t sit near this person.

d. “I love you too much to argue with you.”

e. “Nice try ;)”, change the subject, redirect them in a dignified way, maybe put away the alcohol, or don’t serve it at all.

f. Use the “Magic Formula”- “I feel… when you…, I need you to…”

g. If all else fails, firmly say, “NO!” Model setting boundaries for the children at the event who deserve to learn healthy boundary setting. This is FAR more important that worrying about “making a scene”.

2. The Critic- My personal FAVORITE! 

a. Sit at the opposite end of the table

b. Don’t be alone with this person ANYWHERE

c. Don’t let this “shark” smell your blood (Present yourself in a confident, strong manner)

d. If a “DRIVE BY” occurs (When the Critic whispers something hurtful or demeaning in your ear and then leaves the scene or stays in close proximity), AMPLIFY it! Respond with the Critic’s name and repeat back exactly what they said out loud so everyone can hear they’re bullying comment, “_________, did you just say….?”

e. If you hear the Critic criticizing you to someone else from across the room, respond directly. Repeat letter d above or begin with the Critic’s name and respond to the criticism. Try to avoid arguing about “content” though. Address your hurt head on by saying loudly, “Ouch! (Critic’s name) When you said…, I feel hurt.”

3. The Debbie Downer

a. Lead with empathy and/or validation, then redirect. For example, “Yes, I can understand your fear about hurricanes, and I’m still hopeful it’s going to be a wonderful vacation. You can decide any time if you want to join us.”

b. “Let’s keep it positive. This is a holiday/celebration!” (Keep redirecting/changing subject or ignore.)

4. The Competitor

a. “That’s awesome!” (View the Competitor’s sharing their good news and/or accomplishments in a positive light as a way to contribute something positive to the conversation.)

b. If they continue one-upping you though, “You must be so proud of yourself!” (to send them a clue)

c. If the Competitor won’t stop, throw your hands up in the air and say with a smile or laugh, “You win!” and walk away.

5. The Therapist/Doctor

a. Lead with empathy or acknowledgment of their caring first.

b. Use the “Magic formula” to set a boundary and redirect the conversation. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you ask me such personal questions. Can we keep it light? It’s a holiday!”

What if your most difficult family member is your SPOUSE or partner?!

1. Set boundaries in advance. For example, “If you… (a behavior of concern, ex. drink to excess), I’ll leave the event early with the kids. You can stay and enjoy yourself and will need to find a safe ride home.”

2. Speak with your partner respectfully at the holiday or family event (if your partner is not following through the boundaries they agreed to) beginning with a message of love and use the “magic formula”- “I feel… when you…. I would appreciate you…”

3. Follow through with the boundaries you set.

4. Discuss how you experienced the event (did you feel closer or farther from your partner) to help your partner understand the impact of their behavior and plan for the future.

My story

I used to have only two responses to conflict- PLEASE and FREEZE. This pattern began to shift two decades ago when I entered my M.S.W. program. As I began to work with clients, I felt compelled to work through my own areas of needed growth, and began having extremely courageous conversations with family members (in and out of therapy) beginning with my parents.

Then, close to a decade ago when I opened my private practice and began doing Al-Anon work, I began to find my voice in other relationships as well. Finding my voice and especially striving to change family dynamics are no small feats. There was a difference though between how strong I began presenting myself on the outside and how anxious I continued to feel on the inside when setting boundaries.

Changing from the inside out

The three most effective interventions in changing my inside out were:  

1. Discovering my own POWER & VOICE by participating in IMPACT’s Personal Safety of Colorado’s self-defense and empowerment classes (full force fighting men twice my size and yelling “NO!” 1200+ times) and Toastmasters (public speaking organization). These life changing experiences created the internal transformation I dreamed of. I finally could immediately set boundaries with my most difficult family members (& others) and feel less if any anxiety before, during, or after the experiences.

2. My husband having my back 100% (with his family of origin) as a result of our own couples work (therapy, retreats, and private work) . The rationale for spouses putting one another first and THEN their family of origin is explained well by John Gottman, PhD, a prolific couples therapy researcher and author of The seven principles that make marriage work among many other books.

3. Continuing to process and integrate my healing and growth through working with my amazing Al-Anon sponsor and individual therapist.

In closing~

Setting boundaries allows us to stay protected by making decisions and speaking up for our needs in a way that also enables us to stay connected to our loved ones to the extent that is possible.

I wish you all the best in becoming more skillful in knowing when to accept your family member’s humanness or imperfections (since you want them to do the same for you) and when to hold to your boundaries and put your emotional well-being first.

Because this topic can be painful to talk about, find some humor in these situations to help you laugh a little at these common family challenges as I have found that laughing at myself (“the Therapist”) was one approach that helped me increase my compassion and acceptance for my family members in order to stay CONNECTED to them. (One of my favorite family dynamics SNL skit is called “A Thanksgiving Miracle” with Adele’s music). If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you check it out.

If you would like help in finding your voice and setting boundaries so you can stay connected and protected, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III today.

I can help you at my Wheat Ridge or Lakewood, CO office. You can reach me at: 720.432.5262, [email protected], or set up your first session or free 15 or 30 minute consultation here on my online calendar.

Also, here is a link for the website for IMPACT Personal Safety of Colorado.