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Family Boundaries: Sliding Door vs. Brick Wall

Blurred family boundaries have repercussions. At best, they can be annoying. At worst, they’re completely soul-crushing. We’ve all seen examples: The siblings who constantly pester each other. The helicopter parent. The grandparents who take control from the parents.

When I talk to my clients about establishing boundaries, there’s always a bit of resistance. “Won’t that make me a bad family member? I’d feel guilty for saying no. You’re always supposed to be there for family.” However, setting healthy boundaries creates a relationship where both parties can be genuine and grow together. That’s ideal, but it is not always (hardly ever) easy to achieve. Establishing limits in family life is worth the work, and it doesn’t have to be as scary or mean as you think.

Myth-Buster: Boundaries are not brick walls.

A common mistake is thinking that space in a relationship means holding someone off at arm’s distance and pushing them away. Instead of a fortress wall, think of a boundary as more of a sliding door. It’s like a two-way partition that’s easily implemented when necessary. The key to protecting your space and sanity is that you get to decide when you open the door, not the other way around. A boundary is not a concrete barrier; it is a way to take care of yourself and respect your needs.

Use Open Communication, Define What You Need.

The most intimidating part of setting boundaries is speaking up. Bottling up frustrations for the sake of keeping the peace may seem like a good option, especially when it comes to family. Unfortunately, this may set both parties up for a huge fall-out later when you eventually reach your fill and all the frustrations boil over.

If something is bothering you, find a way to express it. You can be direct and bring it up right at that moment – just remember to be as respectful as you are firm. If direct isn’t your style, write a note, send a text, or ask if you can carve out some time to speak later once you’re prepared. Once you’re talking, define what you need. “I need space.” That request can mean something different to everyone who hears it. It could be physical (your own part of the home), personal (less delving questions), emotional (less intimacy), or any number of things. Make sure you are both on the same page.

Common Ground and Compromises are Your Friend.


The strongest borders are protected by both sides. A limit is difficult to respect if it is imposed against one person’s will. Take a child who needs space of their own, for example. Locking a child’s parent out is less constructive in the long run rather than agreeing to certain privacies. If a partner wants more autonomy, discussing those needs will serve both better than just one person withdrawing from the relationship.

When resolving conflict and setting boundaries with family, find common ground for increased understanding. Compromises come in handy here. If possible, try to find a solution where both needs are met. Examples: “Mom, I have plans with the kids today so I can’t come visit you, but perhaps we could grab lunch tomorrow.” “Dad, I need my space right now, but I’ll give you a call in 30 minutes.”

Exercise Practice and Understanding.


Nothing happens overnight. Especially coming from a family who is used to crossing boundaries and having you available 24/7. It will take a lot of practice and time for your family to get used to these new terms. Be gentle and understanding during this transition. Use gentle nudges and reminders if anyone slips up.

Family life can easily feel like a labyrinth. Without healthy and mutually-beneficial limits, it could easily become a frustrating maze or entrapment. However, with careful communication, compromise, and practice, those limits can create a safe space where everyone’s needs are met.

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Maigen Pham

Maigen Pham is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern and Certified Sex Therapist-Candidate at Amy Wine Counseling Center in Cypress, TX. She specializes in relationship-related issues and works with adolescents, adults, and couples.
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