5 Steps for Setting Boundaries with Family This Holiday Season

Kyler Shumway, PsyD
President & Chief Clinical Officer

The holiday season is (supposed to be) a time of joy, celebration, and togetherness. However, it can also be a time of stress, anxiety, and tension, especially when it comes to spending time with family. In this article, we will explore some tips for setting boundaries with family during the holidays.

How to Set Boundaries with Family Over the Holidays

Step One: Value Yourself and Your Time

First, recognize that your time is precious, and if you don’t value how you spend it, nobody else will either. Actively opt to surround yourself with people who build you up instead of tearing you down. Imagine what your life would be like if you exclusively spent time with people who adored and valued you.

You deserve to be treated well. If the people around you don’t appreciate and respect you, family or otherwise, ask yourself whether you actually want to spend time with them, and how much. You get to choose what you do, with whom, and when. And limiting time with toxic people is an act of self-love. 

Step Two: Free Yourself From What Others Want

Cultural norms suggest that you’re supposed to spend time (not to mention holidays) with family – and that if you don’t, something is “wrong” with you. 

But time around family may be uncomfortable, maybe even triggering. Many people experience interpersonal trauma and attachment wounds rooted in their family relationships. To make matters worse, survivors of family trauma often report feeling invalidated and gaslit about their experiences. As the saying goes, the ax may forget, but the tree remembers. And even if your family members remember what happened, they might not have the capacity to admit it right now. 

Be your own best advocate and supporter. Give yourself permission to do what’s best for you. Not what your family wants, and not what society tells you to do. It’s about what you care about. And maybe this year, you need to care a bit more about yourself.

Step Three: Make a Values-Based Decision

Any decision you make is an act of prioritizing things you value. 

You might care about watching a movie late at night with friends, but you also care about being rested and ready for work the next day. The decision then comes down to what you need and want most. If you need rest, you might need to prioritize your sleep. If you want to have fun and enjoy time with friends, you might prioritize the movie. Both decisions mean you are following what you value, but each comes with a cost. 

Let’s say you really value time with your family, even though it’s stressful. A values-based decision might look like spending Christmas with your parents and siblings and enduring the discomfort. If you need to rest and spend time alone, then you might make the choice that fits your value of well-being, even if it means enduring the discomfort of being guilt-tripped or pressured to change your mind. 

The beauty of this is that you get to make whatever choice you want. But that choice should be your own. 

Step Four: Communicate Your Boundaries

Whether you decide to spend the holidays with family or not, you will need to share the decision and explicitly state your boundaries. 

Boundaries are if-then statements that tell others what we need and how we plan to meet our own needs:

  • If you decide to get drunk at the holiday party, then I will head home early. 
  • If the family decides to go skiing, then I will make other plans.
  • If your boyfriend is planning to attend, then I will not.

Boundaries can also have multiple levels:

  • If people talk about politics, then I will ask that we change the subject. If we can’t change the subject, I will leave the room. 
  • If you tease me and call me names, then I will give you one reminder to stop. If you do not stop, then I will hang up the phone.  

Healthy relationships are respectful of boundaries and considerate of needs. Unhealthy relationships will disregard and attempt to break your boundaries through manipulation. Manipulation is when someone tries to control you through fear, guilt, bribery, or shame. If your family has a healthy relationship with you, they will respect your choices. 

Step Five: Enforce Your Boundaries 

If you let your boundaries slide, others will treat them like requests. 

Follow through with your boundaries and be comfortable with letting your family live with the consequences of their choice. If they try to manipulate you, then they are making a values-based decision to put their needs over your own. 

Rather than create drama in the moment, try to communicate your boundaries in advance. If your family gets upset, that’s okay. You aren’t responsible for their feelings, and your boundary isn’t causing harm.

How to Back Out of Holiday Plans

If you’ve already agreed to have family time this holiday season, you aren’t obligated to follow through. No one signed a contract or made a blood oath, right? (…right?)

Keep in mind that going back on a promise means you may lose trust with others. But, doing so may be worth the cost if it means making a values-based decision to take care of yourself. 

Here’s how to respectfully but clearly back out of holiday plans with someone else. In short, the formula involves three parts. One, an expression of gratitude. Two, a clear statement about your decision. Three, some sort of greeting or sendoff to round out the message. These don’t have to be given in that order per se, but that sequence does tend to work well for most situations. 

Start by thanking your family, especially the person hosting, for including you in their plans. If you are the one who is supposed to host, changing plans might be a bit trickier to work through.

Then, simply state your decision. “I will not be able to attend as planned.” You don’t need to apologize, although it does help communicate respect to the other person. But more importantly, you don’t need to give reasons or justify the decision. In fact, doing so makes it easier for people to push your boundaries. For example, if you said “I will not be able to attend as planned due to not having a ride to Houston,” then your family might try to arrange transportation. Tell them what you’ve decided, but don’t defend the choice. 

Finally, end with a “hope” for them as a way to conclude the message. “I hope you have a wonderful time together!” works best, in my opinion.


  • Thank you so much for inviting me for Christmas! I wanted to let you know I will not be able to attend as planned. I hope you have a wonderful time together!
  • Hi mom! I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to be at the holiday party after all. Please enjoy a piece of pie for me!
  • I’ve decided I will need to stay home this year. I appreciate the invitation and hope to be able to join next time.

Having trouble deciding what to do or how to do it? You don’t have to do this alone. Our Deep Eddy therapists are here to support you year-round.

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