How to set boundaries with family this Christmas

I’ve noticed that many of my clients are beginning to talk about Christmas, specifically, about family visits around Christmas. In this article, I explain how to implement flexible boundaries in order to meet your own needs this festive season.


Rob is my client who came to me about issues that he was having with his parents, specifically around boundary setting with them. Rob sees his parents a few times a year due to the physical distance of living in different towns. Each year, Rob has noticed that his parents are becoming more difficult to communicate with. He feels that he is beginning to become anxious around the times that he sees them. The build-up to Christmas is a particularly difficult time due to certain topics of conversation that he feels should be 'off the table'.

Rob has also recently celebrated the birth of his son and was upset that his parents were not showing any interest. He is beginning to feel that he would rather not see his parents at all.

“I already feel stressed about Christmas coming up. I know what it can be like, and I am anticipating this year feeling similar. I feel that I have to shield my wife from their passive-aggressive comments."

Rob continues, "They can be rude and seem to have less filter the older they get. Instead of asking about their grandchild when I last spoke with them, they complained about how much petrol has increased and how expensive it is to drive over to me. I just feel like it’s not worth it. I want to spend Christmas with my wife and baby and feel at peace.”

If this sounds familiar to you, read on.

The importance of boundaries 

Sometimes we have to put boundaries in place in order to protect our well-being. Like Rob, you may find yourself becoming anxious and stressed at Christmas due to expectations of bad behaviour or too many demands within the family dynamic. If this is the case, then it’s time to put in some boundaries so that you can begin to enjoy the holiday season once more! Notice that Rob knew how he really wanted to spend Christmas; you probably do, too.

What do we mean by boundaries?

Think of boundaries as being about how you wish to be treated by the people in your life. If something feels unacceptable to you then you are allowed to say that you will not tolerate that behaviour from that person.

If this seems harsh then consider this; people will continue to treat you with disrespect if you allow it. If you do allow it, then you are sending the message to that person (and yourself) that you don’t deserve to be treated better. Is that what you want in your relationships?

Boundaries are about honouring yourself; your time, your energy, and your limits. Without boundaries, you may find yourself burnt out from committing to too many events around Christmas.

Consider life without boundaries:

  • This might look like people pleasing and saying yes to everything even though you are short on time and energy.
  • It might look like enmeshment and co-dependency – feeling overly responsible for other people’s actions and/or emotions.
  • At Christmas, it might look like saying yes to making Christmas dinner for 20 relatives, even though you can’t afford it financially and you will find it stressful!

How to set boundaries at Christmas

Let’s look at how to begin to set boundaries before the big day. Usually, what happens at Christmas is similar each year; we are, after all, creatures of habit. Perhaps you have immediate family over and cook for them? Perhaps you always say yes to that annoying aunt even though you would prefer not to have your day spoilt by her passive-aggressive comments.

Know this – you are allowed to change things this year and/or say no.

How would you like the Christmas holidays to look for you when you imagine this? What is it that you want?

Perhaps you might say, “I’d like to go away from all of the drama and find myself on a deserted beach.” This is where we can have what we call flexible boundaries. This means having what you want with a certain amount of compromise.

Flexible boundaries versus inflexible boundaries

Rigid boundaries might sound like:

  • “Absolutely no family around for the Christmas holidays.”
  • “No travel to see anyone.”
  • “No parties.”

If this is you and this makes you happy then that is also OK, but first consider what flexible boundaries might be like for you.

Flexible boundaries could sound like:

  • “We are having Christmas day with just the kids this year. However, we are free on the 28th if you would like to go for a meal then?”
  • “Yes, we would love for you to come over on Christmas day. We will cook the turkey, so perhaps you can bring desserts? We would also like for just Mary, I, and the kids to watch a family movie together around 7pm; just the four of us.”
  • “We have decided to go to stay in a holiday cottage for a couple of days between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. We return on the 27th. We are free from the 29th to meet up with you.”

I can already hear the protests from some of you reading this! Yes, you might feel guilty and, yes, you will have some pushback. This is normal. After all, you are changing behaviour patterns by putting in boundaries for yourself when perhaps previously there have not been any.

Pushback also usually indicates that boundaries are crucial. The person that you are setting boundaries with may also become passive-aggressive or upset. Ask yourself what is behind their passive-aggressive behaviour. Is that because they are used to getting their own way and are angry with you for wanting to be an individual in your own rights?

Separation or distance? 

This can sometimes feel like the difference between separation from family or distance. Separation might feel like protection but, if we want family to be in our lives, then we are allowed to create distance. Distance allows us some space and self-protection but we can be flexible within this; which means that we still see family but on our own terms.

Setting boundaries with family is crucial to your well-being. It gives you a sense of separate self and this is healthy. Ask yourself how would you like your relationship with that family member to look. Can you work towards this? 

Flexible boundaries allow you to create some distance by protecting your health, time and energy. This doesn’t mean that you need to cut that person out of your life altogether.

Know that you might feel guilty as this is a brand new behaviour for you. Sit with that emotion for a while; it will pass. It is completely normal and does not mean that you have to act on it.

If you are struggling to set boundaries with family members, then please reach out for help. Make this Christmas holiday a time for fun and enjoyment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, trauma, anxiety, depression, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, domestic violence.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Family issues

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals