Setting healthy boundaries in a dysfunctional family can be challenging, but your well-being (and family) will thank you.
Every family, to some extent, has some level of dysfunction. Do you get a little too stressed about your kids’ grades? Do you and your parents still fight over the little things? It’s completely normal!
Dysfunction is often caused by pressures and stresses on the family, whether it’s from outside or internal forces. It could be mental health, financial status, divorce, unhealthy expectations, abuse, substance abuse, poor communication, or even differences of opinions and values. One or more of these factors can be at play, causing a wide range of symptoms that hurt your family. Additionally, the severity of dysfunction can be hugely different from family to family, so it’s important to begin setting healthy boundaries when they’re needed.
Setting boundaries can be difficult, particularly in a dysfunctional family where patterns and dynamics have been around for many years. It may take time and persistence to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, but doing so can protect your emotional and mental well-being, and improve your family relationships.
What Are the Signs of Dysfunction?
According to Mental Health America and Biltmore Psychology and Counseling, there are many (so many!) signs of dysfunction. Although these signs don’t necessarily mean that your family is dysfunctional, if you are experiencing one or more of these signs and feel like your family dynamics are impacting your well-being, it may be time to take a closer look at your boundaries.
- Communication Problems: One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional family is poor communication. This can manifest in various ways, such as frequent arguments, yelling, or passive-aggressive behavior.
- Lack of Trust: In a dysfunctional family, members may not trust each other or may feel like they have to keep secrets to avoid conflict.
- Controlling Behavior: A family member or members may exhibit controlling behavior that removes children’s autonomy, such as dictating what others should do, what they can say, or who they can spend time with.
- Emotional Distance: Dysfunctional families may lack emotional closeness or have a sense of disconnection between family members.
- Substance Abuse or Other Addictions: Substance abuse or other addictive behaviors can be common in dysfunctional families and can lead to a wider range of problems, including financial troubles, legal issues, and health problems.
- Neglect or Abuse: Neglect, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can all be present in a dysfunctional family.
How Do I Set Healthy Boundaries?
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can be challenging, especially when it comes to setting healthy boundaries. When family members struggle with addiction, mental health issues, or abusive behaviors, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line and protect yourself. However, setting healthy boundaries will improve your level of happiness and help you establish a sense of control and safety in your relationships.
Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries in a dysfunctional family:
Identify Your Needs and Limits
Before you can set healthy boundaries, it’s essential to identify your needs and limits. What behaviors or actions from family members feel unacceptable or damaging to your mental health? What kind of relationship do you want to have with your family members? Once you answer these questions, you can begin drawing your boundaries. For example, you may need to set limits on how much time you spend with certain family members or on the types of conversations you have with them.
Here are some types of boundaries you may want to set in your family relationships:
- Physical Boundaries: If you’re uncomfortable with physical contact, set boundaries around hugs, touching, or other types of physical contact.
- Time Boundaries: Establish boundaries around your time and schedule, making it clear when you’re available and when you’re not.
- Emotional Boundaries: Establish boundaries around emotional conversations, and let others know when you’re not comfortable talking about certain topics.
- Financial Boundaries: Establish boundaries around money, and be clear about what you’re willing to lend or give to family members.
- Communication Boundaries: Set boundaries around how you communicate with family members, and establish guidelines for respectful and constructive conversations.
- Social Boundaries: Establish boundaries around social events and gatherings, and be clear about your preferences for attending or not attending.
- Parental Boundaries: Set boundaries with your parents, particularly if they continue to treat you like a child or interfere in your life inappropriately.
- Personal Space Boundaries: Set boundaries around your personal space, such as your bedroom or other areas of the house where you want privacy.
- Responsibility Boundaries: Establish boundaries around responsibilities within the family, and make it clear what you’re willing and able to take on.
- Expectation Boundaries: Set boundaries around what you expect from family members, and be clear about what you’re willing to tolerate and what you’re not.
Communicate Your Boundaries Clearly and Firmly
Once you’ve identified your needs and limits, it’s important to communicate them clearly and firmly to your family members. This means being direct and specific about what behaviors or actions are unacceptable and letting your family members know what you need from them in order to feel safe and respected. Be assertive.
Assertive communication is a skill that can help you express your boundaries and needs in a clear and respectful way. It involves using a confident and direct tone, maintaining eye contact, and standing up for yourself. Use “I” statements to express how you feel and avoid blaming or criticizing language that can put others on the defensive.
Plan for Resistance
Your family members may not be happy about your new boundaries, and you may encounter resistance. Be prepared for this and stick to your boundaries despite any pushback you receive. Although it may be rocky at first, your relationships will thrive once you get past resistance and into acceptance. The boundaries you set will be better for everyone in the long run.
Learn to Say “No”
Saying no is an essential part of setting healthy boundaries. It’s okay to say no to requests or invitations that don’t align with your needs or values, but remember to clearly reiterate your boundaries when doing so. Practice saying no to small requests or invitations. This will help you build your confidence and establish your boundaries more effectively.
Create Physical Space
Creating physical space is another way to set healthy boundaries in a dysfunctional family. This might mean limiting contact with family members who engage in toxic behaviors or taking a break from family gatherings that trigger negative emotions.
Cutting people off and removing yourself from family gatherings might be painful at first. You may even experience a sense of grief at losing who you thought that person had been or who you thought they could become. But healing requires looking at who you both actually are today. Over time, physical space will help you view your family dynamic more clearly and create space for healthy boundaries.
Setting healthy boundaries in a dysfunctional family can be challenging, so it’s important to seek support when you need it. Talk to a trusted friend or family member, join a support group, or seek the help of a therapist or counselor who can help you navigate these complex relationships and establish healthy boundaries.
Finally, practicing self-care is an essential part of setting healthy boundaries in a dysfunctional family. Setting boundaries is about taking care of yourself and your well-being, so prioritize your mental health by engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature. Set aside time each day to practice self-care, and prioritize your well-being above all else.
Can My Dysfunctional Family Change?
Although change in a dysfunctional family isn’t guaranteed, you may begin to see a healthier dynamic as you set your boundaries. Some family members might begin to see, like you did, that something is wrong. Or even if they don’t understand the dysfunction, the boundaries you set will lighten your load and you may even begin to enjoy your family relationships again. However, change doesn’t always happen, and continual boundaries are a necessity for keeping things healthy for yourself and them.
Setting boundaries is an ongoing process, and it’s important to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate this journey. With time, practice, and support, you can learn to set healthy boundaries and create a sense of safety and control in your family relationships.
For more helpful tips in helping your kids navigate a dysfunctional family, check out our articles “What Causes Childhood Trauma?” and “7 Top Tips for Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event.”
Books to Help You Raise a Dysfunction-Resilient Family
- Are You Living with a Narcissist?
- Autonomy-Supportive Parenting
- Does My Child Have PTSD?
- Unlocking Parental Intelligence
- The Best-Kept Secrets of Parenting
- Stressed Out! For Parents
Shaelyn Topolovec earned a BA in editing and publishing from BYU, worked on several online publications, and joined the Familius family. Shae is currently an editor and copywriter who lives in California’s Central Valley.