Setting Boundaries To Keep The Peace At Holiday Time

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

Let’s see: Step One — invite family members and friends who haven’t seen each in months or years to spend time together. Step Two — Make sure everyone is invited, even those with wildly differing political or religious views. Step Three — Serve some alcohol to make things interesting. What could go wrong?

It may sound slightly crazy, but that’s the recipe many families cook up for the holidays. Most people lay down some vague ground rules before family gatherings. No politics or religion. Cut off Uncle Bob when he pours that fourth glass of wine. But setting boundaries at holiday time should be given a bit more attention to keep the peace and make get-togethers truly joyous occasions.

Writing for, Jillian Wilson interviewed a variety of family therapists and came up with seven important boundaries that might help.

Time you’re expected to spend with others. Many people have relationships with a wide variety of people. They may be invited to attend parties with family members, friends, professional colleagues, church or temple members, service organizations, business networks and more. Say yes to every invitation and you’ll be exhausted. A good way to say no may be to simply say — I’m overbooked this season; how about getting together after the holidays?

The number of family events you’re attending. Traditions by definition develop over time. Doing something year after year can be very reassuring; it can also be a source of stress. “Sometimes these traditions are what’s best for everyone in the family, but sometimes they’re not,” Writes Wilson. “For example, Christmas Eve with your mom and Christmas Day with your cousins may make everyone around you happy, but may require you to drive across the state to appease everyone’s needs.” If that’s a burden and you do it anyway, you may be building up resentment — which means it may be time to develop a new tradition.

Financial and gifting limits. Everyone’s financial situation changes over time. It’s especially important to communicate a financial boundary when two people aren’t in the same situation. Otherwise a gift exchange can get awkward very fast. Wilson cites professional recommendations to set:

  • Spending limits.
  • Boundaries around who you are buying for, like doing a white elephant instead of gifts for the whole family or friend group.
  • A decision not to exchange gifts at all.

Physical space and closeness. Being a “close talker” may be a good comedy bit, but it also reveals a simple fact: people are comfortable with different amounts of physical space. A little body language can go a long way, like holding up your hand when Uncle Bob dives in to squeeze you a bit too tightly.

Comments about your body or the amount of food you’re eating. People may not mean any harm with a comment about eating too much or too little, but they also probably have no idea about a family member’s personal situation which may be contributing to weight loss or gain. Communication is once again of primary importance, and making a general announcement may be in order. It can be as direct as, “It’s holiday time, everyone, please enjoy eating as much or as little as you’d like — and please no judgmental comments from anyone about how much we’re eating.”

Topics like politics and religion. This is a pretty obvious boundary, especially in these divisive times. Being direct here may be the best route: “Listen up, everybody: no discussions of politics or religion, got it?”

Topics regarding parenting styles, kids and relationship status. Parents get enough free advice from well-meaning friends and family — no need to get more in a potentially stressful gathering. The host or hostess could do worse than simply announcing, “We have a lot of kids here today, folks. If things get a little chaotic, why don’t we all just allow the parents to take control in whatever way they feel comfortable — no need for any input from the rest of us.”

With all that in mind, have a wonderful, peaceful holiday season and best wishes for 2024.