How to Maintain Boundaries with Family Members During the Holidays

How to Maintain Boundaries with Family Members During the Holidays
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How to Maintain Boundaries with Family Members During the Holidays

The holiday season is known as a time to get together with family, it can come with its own stressors. With different family dynamics coming together under one roof, it can be easy to get stressed. 

How can you and your family maintain boundaries during the holiday season?

We sat down with Mariel Benjamin, LCSW, Program Director at the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and VP for Groups and Content at Cooper, to talk about how parents can maintain boundaries with family members during the holiday season and help kids set and maintain boundaries of their own. 

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What are some trouble spots that might arise when it comes to boundaries and family members during the holiday season?

Benjamin says there are three main “hot button boundary moments” that typically arise during family gatherings: meals (picky eating, screens at the table), sleep (naps, bedtimes) and discipline (handling squabbles between siblings or cousins). 

What would a healthy boundary look like for someone who is trying to set boundaries with their extended family members?

One general, healthy boundary parents can set is trying to be a consistent parent the way you would be in your own home, even when you’re around extended family. 

This can be easier said than done, especially if you’re spending the holidays with the family that raised you. Even as an adult and a parent, “we are still relatively close to our own childhood.” 

“Though we may have good boundaries with our kids when we parent by ourselves, when we parent around people who parented us, or family members like siblings and the types of parents they are, we have more sibling dynamics than we necessarily do issues with our parenting,” Benjamin says. “Like, your brother still triggers you feeling like a little kid, even if you’re 40 years old.” 

In settings like this, Benjamin says parents can work to create a “protective boundary” around themselves for things that make them feel like a kid again or put them back into a judged mindset. 

If you find yourself worrying about judgment from relatives related to your parenting, Benjamin says it’s helpful to ask yourself whether this is something you care about as a parent, or if this is a moment that’s impacting you because you’re worried about what they think of you. 

When getting together with extended family for the holidays, some boundaries that normally stand at home might have to go by the wayside temporarily. How can parents navigate this?

Take a look at the “norms” and typically boundaries that you maintain at home and pick the ones that really matter to you– and, unfortunately, it can’t be everything. 

“I definitely don’t recommend that you go into the holidays with your family and you’re like, ‘we’re going to maintain screentime, sleep, how we eat, where we go,’” Benjamin says. “I mean, that’s just going to be a nightmare.”

While routines and home boundaries are important, there should be some flexibility when it comes to things like family gatherings during the holidays. 

“You have to pick and choose,” Benjamin says. “Otherwise, I think you set yourself up for just way too much conflict and way too much drama.”

So, how can parents assess which boundaries should take priority and should be upheld during the holidays?

Benjamin recommends taking a step back and reflecting on what matters to you as a parent and what boundaries you would be able to return to after the holidays. While you’re doing this, have faith in the routine you’ve worked to establish with your family in your day to day lives. 

“Having strong routines and boundaries at home makes it so that your kids can understand expectations almost better,” Benjamin says. 

When looking for what boundaries and norms to uphold during the holidays, Benjamin recommends that parents look for spots where removing the boundary will cause an immediate issue or spots where “you’re worried you don’t know how to walk back” once the holidays are over. 

At some point, kids might have to set boundaries for themselves with extended family– and that can be scary. How can parents teach their children about setting boundaries, especially with people that are older than them?

As a parent, you can recognize “what that line is for your child and then help them find the language to communicate it,” Benjamin says. 

For example, many young children don’t want to hug their relatives. 

“It’s for you to help show them how to set that boundary and just say something like, ‘you know what, it takes us a minute to warm up. When we’re ready, we’ll come and say hello to you,’” Benjamin says. “And you basically give your child permission in that moment to not go and give everybody a hug and make that a natural boundary for themselves.” 

As kids get older, you can still help them establish boundaries of their own. This might look like helping them “rehearse” things they can say or how they can take a second for themselves if they need one. 

It can be hard to establish boundaries, even for adults who are parents themselves. How can parents maintain boundaries they have for themselves and their kids, even if there’s pushback from family members?

Benjamin says the most important thing is to be honest with yourself and have realistic expectations going into the holidays. If holding firm on boundaries is something you struggle with on a regular day, “I wouldn’t have expectations you’re going to be amazing at it at the holidays,” Benjamin says. 

In cases like this, it might be helpful to have a conversation with your partner ahead of time and give yourself permission to be imperfect. Benjamin says there’s “a lot of value in giving yourself permission to suck at it.”

“One of the ways that we really feel shame and guilt about our own behavior is when we expect so much more of ourselves and then we’re surprised when we don’t do it,” Benjamin says. “I don’t want people to be unrealistic about patterns that you might have had for 40 years, like they’re probably not going to change this weekend just because you try.” 

There also needs to be a level of tolerance for being uncomfortable maintaining boundaries, whether it’s with our children or with other family members. 

“We have to hold our children to a boundary, even if they don’t like it sometimes, and we have to get comfortable with that,” Benjamin says. “But we also need to get comfortable disappointing or not meeting the expectations of our family members when the way we parent is different.” 

This can be difficult to accomplish, especially in high-stress situations like family holiday gatherings. But Benjamin says that taking breaks when you need to can go a long way. 

“Try to take the moments that help you be regulated,” Benjamin says. “Because if you’re in a regulated state, it’s obviously easier for you to tolerate discomfort.” 

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