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Setting Boundaries During the Holidays

The holiday season has a tendency to magnify family dynamics, so it’s important to prepare some strategies for setting boundaries with loved ones. It’s normal for this time of year to elicit a mixture of feelings including dread and anxiety. I recommend you check out the book Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries & Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy by Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD. Try some of Gibson’s steps if you choose to spend time with challenging family members:

  1. Step out of your rescuer role Sometimes people feel the need to take on too much responsibility for their family members’ feelings; this is a form of codependency. Experiment with stepping out of this role and see what it feels like - remind yourself that you are lovable and valuable even when you do not take on other people’s problems as your own. Accept that you may not be able to instill this belief in others, but you can protect it for yourself.

  2. Be slippery and sidestep Instead of responding with flat-out refusal, you could use phrases like “I’m not really sure what to say about that right now” or “I don’t know.” This could potentially disrupt the normal flow of an escalating argument. Another suggestion is to agree with the loved one’s feelings while detaching yourself from them - this may be hard if you struggle with step one. Remember that they are allowed to feel the way they do just as you are allowed to feel the way you feel. You do not have to do what they are asking of you to simultaneously agree with the emotions they are experiencing.

  3. Lead the interaction Emotionally immature (or EI) family members can be stubborn, rigid and can become easily frustrated. Growing up with them, you may have learned to be their subordinate audience instead of an actual participant in the conversation. Direct the conversation using alternative pathways in your adult mind - ask questions you may not normally ask, change topics when you start to notice patterns and challenge yourself to make the interaction more complex.

  4. Create space for yourself Spend time with yourself before interacting with EI family members to plan a place to retreat to. Limit the length of time you plan to spend with them and communicate it. Determine what topics are off limits ahead of time and hold strong if you are tested.

  5. Stop them If you start to feel like you are losing control of yourself and freezing up, have a phrase rehearsed to stop your family member and declare the rules for future interactions. Feel free to borrow phrases from Gibson’s “Bill of Rights for Adult Children with EI Parents”.

But most importantly? Remember that it is okay to grieve for the family you wish you had this holiday season. Celebrate your courage by spending time with chosen family members and give yourself the love you have always deserved.

November is Native American Heritage Month and Looking Glass Counseling is proud to support the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness (MCNAA). MCNAA strives to preserve Native American cultural traditions; to assist Native American residents with basic needs and educational expenses; to advance public knowledge and understanding that helps dispel inaccurate information about Native Americans; and to work towards racial equality by addressing inequities across the region.


Hillary Brown, LICSW is an adaptive and playful therapist interested in helping her clients improve their interpersonal relationships as well as their relationship with themself. Hillary is unapologetically fat-friendly, LGBTQ+ affirming, and committed to noticing the systemic stressors of our world that can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Together with her client, Hillary detects what changes can be made within them and around them, while fostering resiliency and hope during times of disempowerment in oppression. Hillary believes that priorities do not have to be competing with one another and instead can find a harmonious balance through boundaries, awareness-building and self-compassion.

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