Dysfunctional Familial Relationships: Setting Boundaries!

Just a few weeks ago I discussed how to train people to treat you well.  I want to expand on this subject a bit more, because there is another element to this conversation that we should explore.  And that is, what do we do when the individuals that are not treating us well are related to us by blood – whether it’s a parent or a sibling.

I believe this is worth discussing, because while it’s easy to set boundaries with friends, co-workers, and even our employer, somehow  when it comes to family, we instantly lose the ability to exercise our power.

Before I go any further, I want to just prefice this by stating that there’s obviously a huge range for dysfunction in families.  Dysfunction can range from alcoholism to drug abuse, to physical and mental abuse, and so on.  I am not addressing the specific type of dysfunction that may be present in these relationships.  Only you can determine what you deem to be dysfunctional, based on your core values.  For the purpose of this post, I am only addressing how you can set boundaries.

The first thing you have to do is make peace with what IS.  You need to completely accept that you can’t change anyone but yourself.  You’ve heard me say this before – in every single relationship you encounter – the ONLY individual you can control or change is YOU. So start there!  Focus on YOUR own feelings and on YOUR  reactions.

Ask yourself…

How AM I  being triggered?

How can I set boundaries?

What behaviors AM I engaging in, that maybe be enabling the dysfunction to continue?

Do I take on the responsibilities for dysfunctional family members?

Unfortunately, sometimes this dysfunctional relationship is with our own parents.  I have personally struggled with this, and if I had to be honest, I would say that my relationship with my mother has been one of the MOST challenging relationships I have had in my life.

In the case of dealing with parents, as we grow up – and they get older –  our relationships becomes even more challenging.  It could be that they are not emotionally intelligent, or perhaps their ability to reason is just not there.  Maybe they are toxic and overly negative, or they display destructive habits that keep them from being the parent you’ve needed them to be.

For those that have a less than ideal dynamic with their parents, there comes a day in your adult life when you realize that your parents are human.  You understand that aside from being your parents, first and foresmost, they are a flawed man or a woman, just like you.  And what that means is that they too are carrying around much emotional baggage and trauma, and many limiting beliefs which they have not learned to leg go of.

When you come to terms with that, it allows for more understanding and tends to shift  the dynamic between you.  And if you are lucky, you are able to meet each other somewhere in the middle, with a common understanding that you’re both adults.

And then sometimes you just have to come to the realization that while you intrinsically love your parents, you don’t actually like their behavior.

And whatever your situation  – whether you are dealing with a sibling, a parent or an aunt or uncle –  I want you to know that it is totally okay for you to establish some boundaries, without feeling guilt and without surrendering yourself to shame.

In my case, I have accepted WHY I am not able to enjoy a ‘normal’ relationship with my mother.  I have made peace with it.  And what that means for me is that in order for me to maintain my peace of mind, and in order for me NOT to be triggered whenever I am around her, I have some set ground rules for myself. I stick to those pretty firmly.

Here are some of the steps I have found necessary, in order to be able to maintain  my peace of mind, my integrity and my sanity when dealing with this situation:


Personal boundaries are important in EVERY relationship. They define you as an individual and clearly outline your likes and dislikes and what you are willing to tolerate from others.   And this includes physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries.  It involves your beliefs, emotions, intuitions and it also involves your self-esteem.  Because remember,  self esteem is how you regard yourself.   So how you regard yourself also extends to what you tolerate from others.

And the truth is that the mere idea of saying NO to our mother or father instantly reduces us to feeling like children all over again.  And unfortunately, the parent child relationship takes on this almost dysfunctional push and pull of manipulation. The parent may want something and the adult child isn’t really comfortable with the demand or request, but goes along with it,  in order to keep the peace.

Or maybe the parent wants to push themselves into spaces of the adult child’s life where they haven’t been invited, even if they’re trying to be helpful.  So it is important for you to know that it’s TOTALLY okay for you to establish that you’re an adult with your own rights, choices, and preferences.


You need to be specific and clear! If your boundary is that they are not allowed to comment on your weight, your job, your marriage or your partner, family gossip, or whatever triggers you, you have to to clearly and unapologetically express it.  Make it absolutely clear what behavior will NOT be tolerated.

Don’t allow guilt to consume you and don’t give wiggle room… meaning… don’t allow it out of guilt one time… and then try to enforce it the next time: be consistent… and stick to your boundaries… because doing so will reduce the drama.


You have to anticipate that there will be some resistance.  Because IF they just don’t get it, they WILL push back.  Our parents often resist our boundaries because the image they still have of us is of when we were dependent on them. They may even verbally attack you as being ungrateful for everything they’ve done for you, when you try to exert your autonomy as an adult. So it’s important to not allow guilt to control you when you experience this.

If you are serious about setting boundaries, you will want to have canned responses ready.  Responding with … “I will not be discussing _X__ with you”… or … “you are not allowed to bring up  _X__”,  are acceptable in getting your point across that you intend on having your boundaries honored.

If you are dealing with a parent that you have to have regular contact with,  a good way to offset any panic or shock that might occur when they’re presented with the boundary is to maybe come up with a compromise.  For instance, if you don’t want to talk about your weight, talk about a movie you saw instead. If you refuse to go to their place for Christmas, offer to go for dessert on Christmas Eve. And whatever you do,  don’t fall into the trap of offering far too much in return as an “peace offering”.  Otherwise you will risk doing it out of guilt for establishing your boundary.

In fact, to avoid falling into that trap, I suggest that you have a pre-determined list of possible “compromises” that you feel comfortable offering before you even start the conversation.  And all of these ‘compromises’ should feel right for you and not make you feel like you are compromising on your boundaries.  This way, you know what you have to offer and you won’t budge from it.

I know this sounds rehearsed and unauthentic, but if your goal is to be emotionally healthy, you have to be intentional about it  and this requires forethought.

I would also say that is this particularly important if your parents have the power to completely hijack or take control of your conversations. Some parents are really good at this. Having scripted or canned responses on hand before you pick up the phone to call will minimize your stress, especially if you lack the self-confidence or ability to stand up to their manipulations.

Saying things like… “I’m sorry you feel that way!” or  “I don’t want to talk about that. .. or “Can we change the subject’ are all good responses. Again, these responses may seem passive-aggressive, but if your parent tends to be manipulative or negative, these responses just don’t give any room for their guilt trips, threats, or general negativity.


Whatever you do, you HAVE to be consistent!

When your parent brings up something you’ve asked them not to, or calls your house past the cut-off time you’ve given them, or violates a boundary in any other way, you HAVE to be willing to leave the conversation, leave the house; put down the phone; refuse to continue to engage any further.  I know it sounds harsh, but you have to be consistent to make it clear that you’re serious about the rules you’ve set.

This is important, because often times they know exactly what to do or say to get a reaction (or the wrong type of attention) from you. And by continuing to allow this behavior, you have conditioned them to believe that this is the best way for them to get your attention.  This might make them angry at first, but after a while of you standing your ground with your boundaries, they will realize  that you mean business and that things HAVE to change.

For those of you that are parents, how many times have you told your child that you are not buying them candy, only to give in, after they’ve worn you down by asking you 1,000 times?   I know I’ve been guilty of that.  And I can tell you that my children take me less seriously, the next time I say ‘no candy’.

I think the same principle can apply when setting boundaries with dysfunctional family, whether it’s our parent or a sibling.  If you give in after setting those boundaries, you will be sending the message that your boundaries don’t really matter.


If you find yourself being consumed by guilt, at the thought that you are rejecting that person.  Remember that  the truth is  you are rejecting the behavior, not the person person.

And if you are a parent to small children, I want you to consider the fact that  you are modeling for children what healthy relationships should look like. You are teaching your children how they should be treated by others, by the way you allow yourself to be treated.

Ask yourself… ‘do I  want my children to be able to feel empowered enough to set healthy boundaries in ALL of their relationships’?  Are they learning that from you?

Do you want them to allow others to manipulate and disrespect them, because you never had the confidence to model for them how to train others to treat you well – including grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles, etc.

Our children are always watching.

So take some time this week to examine where more solid boundaries can be set in your life and set the goal to start with one or two boundaries. Once you’ve established clear, consistent boundaries, you may be surprised by how your relationships change!

And as always, if you need one one one help unpacking and releasing some of the things that you’ve been carrying around as a result of  this difficult relationship, please reach out to me so that we can chat.  You deserve to be set free from it!


xo Arianna

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