It's true when they said that you can't pick your family because if we could, how smooth sailing would life be!?
Family is so important, especially when you have kids, and the truth is that we love them all from the bottom of our hearts. Still, there's always 'that person', you know, the one. They've got no concept of personal space, they pretty much have no boundaries, they always have their opinions, a rock-solid personality that intimidates every hair on your arm, and most important of all, they just don't get the hint!
I wasn't at all surprised when I found out that 72% of the Mamamade community have toxic in-laws or overbearing family members. It's just so common nowadays, especially with everyone wanting to do their own thing, be their own person, stand on their own two feet and because they (most of the time) know what's good for them, their kids and their family.
Firstly, I'd like to start by saying that 'that person' probably just wants to help, but may not know the best way to share their experiences, thoughts, and values. So, it's important to look at things with positive intent, but you can only do that for so long before your blood starts to boil! If that's the case and things start to get repetitive, it might be time to re-evaluate your approach.
The toxic behaviours to look out for
Are they judgemental?
Do they interfere?
Are they opinionated?
Do they respect you and your boundaries?
Do they criticise your decisions?
Are they not willing to help out?
Do they lack respect when it comes to you?
Are they old-fashioned and not willing to adapt?
Do they expect too much?
Or is it the need for constant drama?
What are boundaries?
When it comes to boundaries, the earlier you set them, the better! It helps you pave the way forward with everyone aligned and on the same page. It also gives you a little peace of mind; we all know how important that is when it comes to family matters! Boundaries help people maintain a level of personal space and respect along with letting that person know (politely) that you are capable and want to do things your own way. We asked our community who they struggle with most to set boundaries, and it was clear that most people seem to struggle with their in-laws!
Things to consider when implementing boundaries, the before, during and after effects.
Setting boundaries is easier said than done! When younger, we are always taught to be adjusting and considerate of others and their feelings, especially when it comes to our parents and elders. But there's only so much we can take, and there are only so many ways that we can hint or steer the conversation in our favour before we reach the internal urge to scream! If you are done with the lack of respect, unannounced drop-bys, constant opinions and advice, then it's best to stop it before it all becomes a habit that gets harder to break.
Have no fear; I've got a few ideas up my sleeve that might help in setting boundaries with your in-laws or overstepping family members.
Communicate with your partner and become a tag-team
This first step is so important! Communication is always key, and when it comes to sensitive topics like boundaries, I can't stress how vital it is to have a sit-down talk with your partner. Take this time to express how you feel, why you are feeling this way and what you both as a team can do to change this family dynamic. The truth is that they are their parent, and they probably understand the best possible way to approach the conversation (they've known their parents for most of their life). If not, then tackle this together with a strategic plan.
Don't think of it as a competition of authority, but more like a challenge that can be overcome with a calm outlook and a change in approaching the conversation. When planing this intervention with your in-laws, make sure that you and your partner avoid the use of blaming words by replacing them with more elaborated phrases such as, "I understand", "made me feel", and "I appreciate".
Your partner might not agree with all your viewpoints, but be open-minded and don't let things go unnoticed when there is clearly a problem. Understand that you shouldn't always have to defend yourself and fight your own battles alone; let your partner take the lead and jump in if and when required.
Consider all narratives
This might be a little difficult to do when you know that you're not in the wrong! But it's something that needs to be done. Think about everyone involved and consider their perspective; how would this affect your partner, the kids, your in-laws and yourself; how do they see this situation playing out in their heads. It might just help you understand their outlook. I'm not asking you to justify their behaviour; remember how it made you feel, but don't use it as an excuse to state 'the wrongs' in your partner's family.
Everyone is raised differently, and every family has its own traditions, norms and approaches. If their family approach makes you feel uncomfortable, it might be worth letting someone know that and the feelings behind it so that they can understand your point of view to then later justify the boundaries.
Give your partner and the overbearing family member some time to adjust and understand your point of view, but whatever you do, don't let them dismiss or string you along while they avoid conflict because this would only make things worse.
Create a plan of action
Once you and your partner have effectively communicated your feelings and understood everyone's viewpoints, it's now time to create a plan that you can both keep to as a framework going forwards. Create clear boundaries that you both can agree on and brainstorm specific scenarios and how you and your partner would go about them. This would help you prepare for the moment so that you can handle all obstacles. For example, one scenario can be your in-laws wanting to give the toddler a dessert before dinner, let's intervene and say...
"I understand you want to give him/her something sweet to have before dinner, he/she will probably love it. But we'd appreciate it if you give him/her that for dessert instead so that they are more likely to finish their dinner."
By doing this, you both understand when to intervene with overstepping family members who try and sway away from the rules created.
Realistically, this won't all come into play instantly, and it takes courage, practise and understanding. So, be patient and keep persisting! It won't be easy to begin with, but at least you've taken the first step in creating a balanced and transparent family dynamic.
Enforce and hold your ground
After you've decided on the action plan, you might need to hold yourself accountable when implementing these rules, which means making sure that you aren't letting things slide under the rug. So, start as soon as possible and hold your ground, even if that means changing your behaviour and routine. If there are things that they aren't aware of, educate them on it... So that they see your perspective! They don't have to agree with it, but at least you've done your part.
You'll have to enforce rules the same way as you would with a toddler. No means no, and their actions have consequences. So, whether that be a little chat about what happened or something more drastic depending on the situation. Let them know what the protocol is! Because if they are toxic, unaware, or just annoying, they won't change unless they are told they have to and that their behaviour won't be accepted regardless of their relationship.
I know that seems harsh to read! But when implementing all these behaviour and rules, make sure that you approach them with empathy, respectfulness and a certain level of authority because you are the mother, the wife/partner and a self-respecting woman/man who isn't going to be pushed around.
Things might get ugly.
Yup, the reality is that boundaries aren't for everyone, and some people really just want to do their own thing and not take someone else's rules into account. We've all heard the "I've raised my own kids this way, look how good they turned out" - to which my internal voice screams, "OKAY, YOU'VE DONE YOUR OWN THING, BUT NOW IT'S MY TURN. SO, LET ME BE!" I'd advise not to say that unless it all goes to pot and there's no turning back, in which case LET IT ALL OUT! 😅
You have to accept that not everyone will like you, and that's alright. But that does mean that if you don't have a good or a respectable relationship with your in-laws or a family member, what you say can be taken negatively even when you didn't intend it. In which case, throw your partner into the deep end and let them be the referee. As I said, they won't go after their son or daughter the way they'll defend themselves agent you.
You and your partner both must protect one another from harm, whether physical, verbal or emotional, which means that even if you don't agree with something, you still need to acknowledge and confront harmful and disrespectful behaviour. You cannot expect someone to keep silent to keep the peace within a family because if that were the case, most family dynamics would be miserable, and that's no good for you or the kids. Sometimes, if worst comes to worst, you un-wantingly need to let some people go if they can't put aside their ego and honour for the family's good.
Messages from our community
I asked our Mamamates community about their anonymous recommendations on setting boundaries, and here are a few things I got back 💜
"I have to tell my sister-in-law that I am able to care for / know what my child's needs are without her".
And that is alright, and sometimes it is so necessary! Because the truth is that you do know what's best for your child! Your sister-in-law might be coming in from a helpful perspective, but sometimes it's better to ask if you need any help, and if the answer is no, they need to respect that and take a step back. What some people need to understand is that if someone needs help, they'll ask.
A way to approach this would be to say:
"I appreciate your concern for —, but I am doing okay. I think I need to handle this situation myself."
"I limit contact 😬 and this relative is far too defensive and hostile to listen to what I have to say."
If you've tried everything and nothing seems to be working, then you have to do what is best, even if it's a hard decision to make. You need to keep your family's best interest at heart, along with your sanity. So, if that's working for you, then keep at it. There's nothing worse than trying to break through to someone who doesn't want to be open and understanding. In which case it's better to meet in the middle or not at all. I hope the limited contact is working for you; if things still don't seem to be working, I'd advise maybe seeing a family councilor for help.
"Food (trying to sneak "treats") & use of bad language (they don't see her enough to realise she now repeats!)."
I think everyone has encountered this situation at some point! It's always one rule in your home and another in there's that can really confuse little ones and even encourage them to act out because they get away with it elsewhere! This is exactly where boundaries should be applied because it is causing you stress and ultimately encouraging a behaviour within your child that you feel should be avoided.
A way to approach this would be to say:
"I would really appreciate it if we avoided giving —— treats and using bad language around him/her. I've noticed that he/she thinks that they can act out because of it, especially when I don't allow the same things at home. I'd be more than happy to tell you what we do at home so that we can share the same rules and send out a clear picture of what is expected along with what is and isn't allowed for ——."
"SPEAK UP! Your child is your family and they matter more than Aunt Karen's feelings!!"
Yeesss! 🙌🏼 I couldn't agree with this more. If something is wrong, it's wrong... and it has to be addressed.
"We are staying home and people have to come to us 🎄💙."
This is getting more and more common nowadays, and that's absolutely alright! The festive season can sometimes be the accelerator of stress and mental health issues. We always have to pretend that everything is good and that we're in the festive spirit, even if that "particular person" is picking at your last nerve before you lose the plot. During this time, people are expected to push away/hide their natural feelings to create this sense of "a perfect Christmas". The idea of a perfect Christmas doesn't exist when families have underlying issues and expecting that is lying to yourself and others.
"Repeat! If they sway away even slightly, make the boundary clear again, don't give an inch."
Exactly! Be strong and enforce the rules you've created until they become second nature. It can be scary, but we have to let go of our people-pleasing ways.
And just remember...
You are allowed to set boundaries and express your feelings.
If someone gets upset when you set a boundary, it doesn't mean that you are wrong for setting them!
You are allowed to walk away.
Your partner, kids and your sanity comes first
You don't have to explain your situation.
You don't need to have their approval.
I hope you've enjoyed my ted talk on setting boundaries!
Lots of love,