Managing the holiday season with challenging family communications and relationships

Managing the holiday season with challenging family communications and relationships

Some people love the holiday season. It can be filled with excitement with plans to catch up with family, a time to slow down and consider the nearly finished year and the one to come. For other’s it can be an extremely isolating and challenging time.

If spending time with family evokes feelings of dread or concern for unwanted comments this recourse may be useful for you. Our psychology team has put our heads together and have come up with some responses that can be useful for boundary setting with families over the holiday period.

Let’s take a look at what boundaries are:

Psychologist Karen Farrar describes boundary setting like “Gate Keeping”. Further clarifying it like having the choice to stand at our gate and decide whether or not we open the gate to comments/behaviours or whether we keep it closed or open it only part way, keeping us safe inside our own safe place.

Psychologist Julie Brady likes this saying: “the only people who get upset when you set boundaries are the ones who benefited from you having none.” Julie also suggests using statements that start with “I prefer” such as “I’d prefer to not discuss that” or “I’d prefer you didn’t comment on my weight”.

Healthy boundaries consider what is appropriate behaviour within our relationships. They are behaviours that consider both parties’ needs and are developed to keep people and the relationship safe. Setting healthy boundaries is essential for self-care and positive relationships. Personal boundaries could be considered the limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships.

If the definitions provided above aren’t what is practiced during your holiday period catch ups, perhaps some of the phrases and suggestions below may be useful:

One strategy might be to do your best to stick to ‘safe’ topics of conversation that don’t bring up any uncomfortable feelings, if possible. If this isn’t possible then redirect with something like “Let’s talk about something else”.

I will now explore some ways to respond to those awkward and inappropriate questions that can be raised during the holiday period. If you are asked a question about a topic you are not willing to discuss, perhaps acknowledge and then redirect. “That’s quite a difficult question to answer. What’s everyone up to for the holidays?”

An alternative response could be acknowledging your discomfort, stating “I don’t feel comfortable discussing this, can we talk about something else”. Or perhaps “this is a sensitive topic for me, can we change the topic”.

If there is further resistance you may need to be very clear with your intention of not continuing with a response like “I’m going to have to leave if this conversation continues”. Alternatively you could try “It’s obvious we don’t agree, I think we need to change the topic”. I acknowledge that this may be challenging, boundary setting definitely can be, but so can keeping quiet.

Psychologists often talk about making “I” statements when communicating and expressing our needs. If you have an opportunity to engage in the conversation further it might be helpful to be clear expressing what is important to you with something like “When I hear you say (or when you do) _____, I feel ______, because ______ (your need or value). Would you be willing to _______?”

You might have a family member who makes comments about your body. This never feels comfortable. A response to consider here might be “Please don’t comment on my body” or “I am not taking feedback about my body at this time”. Inappropriate comments disguised as jokes could be addressed with “I’m not sure I understand the joke. Will you explain it to me?”

Other options to discuss could be:

  • Set the tone about certain topics, i.e. “maybe this year we will not discuss politics, or COVID”. 
  • If your food choices aren’t respected, you could consider bringing your own. 
  • Choose to leave early if people become intoxicated.

Remember that no-one is good at anything when we first start. Setting boundaries takes practice and awareness. Try not to use a term like “I am not good at boundary setting”, as this can set up a mind set of failure before you have begun.


Written by:
Cheryl Gale


Anxiety, Depression, Psychology
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