10 Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries This Holiday Season



Estimated Reading Time 5 Minutes

The holidays can be a tough time for many people, with difficult gatherings and family interactions. Dr. Christine Korol gives us expert tips for setting healthy boundaries.

Every year when the holidays approach, I get questions about how to keep the peace with extended family. Is there anything that can be done to stop Uncle Greg’s racist rants in front of the kids? How can I stop my mother from criticizing my parenting? Is there any way to get my in-laws to stop bringing up conspiracy theories and scaring the kids?

The bad news is that you can’t change people. The good news is that you don’t need to change anyone to have a peaceful holiday. But you do need a plan, and to give yourself some time, because it does take some practice.

I feel the need to add one caveat: You should never have to tolerate abuse, gaslighting or demeaning comments. If that is the case, it is necessary to limit contact to protect yourself.

If you are safe to proceed, here are some tips to get yourself through challenging conversations and setting healthy boundaries with your composure intact:

1. Don’t take the bait. One strategy is to treat the whole situation like a game where you do your best to stay calm. They win if they get a reaction from you and you win if you appear indifferent to their opinions. The best way to be victorious in a power struggle is to not take part in the first place. This can be a fun game to include older children in where they get bonus points if they don’t react to Grandpa’s outrageous remarks.

2. Dial down the danger. Another trick is to imagine that they are a small child or a stranger. This isn’t to belittle others, but to make them less frightening to you. Usually, we are reactive when we feel threatened. If you can make someone who is being aggressive seem less scary, you have a better chance of keeping your cool through the encounter. If you can be patient with a screaming toddler, you definitely have it in you to practice patience with an unreasonable family member. The strategies and skills you need are similar in both situations.

3. Be a broken record. This is a good technique when you find yourself in a situation where you must disagree. For example, “No, Uncle Gary. I’m not going to spank Billy. I understand that’s what they did in your day. That’s not what I’m going to do now.” Repeat as often as necessary and be impervious to their criticism.

4. Have a few one-liners in your back pocket. It’s hard to think on your feet when you feel like you’re under attack. I have a few favourites that I find work in many situations. When somebody tells me that I’m wrong or making a mistake, I’ll often say something like, “Probably” or “I’m okay with that.” I saw an interview with RuPaul recently where he gave a few good one-liners like, “I don’t see how that’s any of your business” or “I’ll be the judge of that.” Find one that suits your personality and keep it handy when you want to move on from a heated conversation. When it comes to criticism of your parenting, I often suggest that parents reply with, “Interesting. I’ll be sure to discuss that with the paediatrician.”

5. See the humour in the situation. One time I was at a dinner where someone was telling an inappropriately dark story in front of the children who were present. I responded by saying that what I loved about them was their ability to see the bright side of any situation. Everyone burst out laughing, including the person telling the story. Use this one carefully as the intended target must also have a sense of humour. When appropriate, this is one of the more effective ways to deal with someone difficult. 

6. Be respectful. Remember, just like you want to be respected for who you are, you must respect others for who they are. It can help to imagine that you are someone you admire who is also diplomatic. Whether it’s someone you know or someone famous (talk show hosts and some politicians are good for this exercise). It can help to search for examples of more famous people handling hecklers and remaining calm and respectful. It is also a good idea to talk to your kids about what you are doing so they can learn by watching you how to disagree while being respectful toward others.

7. Imagine that angry people are really crying. This is a strategy that a colleague told me about recently and I thought it was brilliant. Many times, people shout and get angry when they are frightened or sad. Imagining that they are crying can help you stay more patient with them in the heat of the moment. By the way, this is also a really good parenting strategy when you are dealing with an angry tween or teenager! It can make you a great deal more patient if it’s your child who is angry at you.

8. Ask questions. When dealing with someone argumentative, don’t try to convince them that they are wrong. Instead, have them convince you that they are right with questions like: Why do you think that’s true? Are there any reasons that evidence might not be true? What is the source of that information?

9. Set boundaries. You do not have to answer every question or continue every conversation. You can tell people, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” or “No politics on the family Zoom call, Aunt Barb. Let’s have a nice visit and agree to disagree.” Let people know your limits.

10. Walk away when necessary. If you don’t feel open to spending time with people who don’t like or care about you, then don’t. Focus on putting energy into relationships that nurture and sustain you. This is a harder one to follow through on because so many people feel guilty about making this choice. But it is important to take care of yourself and restrict your circle to only people who lift you up.

Learning to set healthy boundaries with difficult people is no easy task. However, it feels so much better to feel calm, cool and collected than to react in anger. We are all human and will lose our cool at times. But if you start practicing now, you will be better prepared for your next family gathering. It’s also never too early to start showing your kids how to set limits with people who treat them poorly or are unkind. Lead by example and you’ll start them on the path to taking good care of themselves when they have their own families one day. It’s the gift that will keep on giving.

Dr. Christine Korol is a registered psychologist, founder/director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre and an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Korol is a trusted media source, with bylines in Psychology Today, ParentsCanada and Thrive Global, and is a regular on-air expert for CBC, Newstalk 1010 and many other news outlets across Canada.  You can learn more about Dr. Korol at https://www.vancouveranxiety.com, or follow Dr. Korol on Twitter @DrCKorol.

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