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The Winter Issue

Navigating Dinner Table Topics Starts with Healthy Boundaries

With the holiday season approaching, large family gatherings can mean bringing together a mix of political and religious beliefs that don’t always blend well. For some, it might also bring an onslaught of questions about your personal life from distant relatives that you just don’t want to answer. Family reunions like this can be a great opportunity to reconnect with relatives you don’t get to see often—but it can also be difficult. 

Studies show that strained family relationships—especially when arguments, criticism, or demands are frequent—can create enough stress to damage a person’s mental and physical health, including impaired immune function, increased risk for cardiovascular problems, and an increased risk for depression.

If you’re bracing for a more difficult reunion, here are some strategies for setting boundaries to protect your mental health and prevent conversations from escalating into conflicts.

Define Your Comfort Zone

Before you arrive, take some time to decide what is on and off the table, so to speak. What topics are you comfortable discussing? What questions are you willing to answer? What topics are absolutely off-limits for you? Going in with a clear sense of what your boundaries are will make it a lot simpler to clarify and enforce them in the moment. 

If you’re bringing a partner along and worried your family might make offensive comments—such as LGBTQ+ folks bringing their same-sex partner home for the first time—talk to your family ahead of time so you can establish some ground rules on what is and is not appropriate to say.

Your Boundaries Don't Need Justification

When someone asks for additional information you’re not comfortable giving or just keeps pushing an issue you don’t want to get into, all you have to say is, “I’m not comfortable talking about that.” You don’t have to convince the person of your discomfort or justify your refusal to talk about something. 

Just state clearly that you aren’t going to discuss it and repeat that statement as often as you need to for the person to hear you and accept it. No excuses or persuasive arguments are necessary. 

Establish Consequences

Sometimes, you have that relative who simply will not respect your boundaries, no matter how clearly you state them and how firmly you hold to them. “You put up a boundary, that's in your control. What is not in your control, is if they respect that boundary,” Jeshanah “Nikki” Siangio explained.

A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and Youth Director of Riverside Pride, Siangio helps schools and workplaces create more inclusive, safe, and culturally responsive spaces for students and professionals.

You put up a boundary, that's in your control. What is not in your control, is if they respect that boundary.


In situations where your boundaries aren’t being respected, you need to show that there are consequences for overstepping them.

“[Give] a consequence that you are committed to following through with, such as, ‘If or when I hear any of you ask ‘Who's the man in the relationship?’, we won't be answering that.’ Or ‘If I hear any of you say "You're pretty for a Black girl," we are leaving because that's not appropriate,’” Siangio advised.

Boundaries can be general too, such as, "I'm going to leave if you start talking about x,y,z," or "If I hear comments about x,y,z, I'm going to disengage from the conversation."

Many times boundaries are about the person taking action—like removing themselves from the situation, changing the conversation, or choosing not to respond to questions asked. When this isn't enough, then the person can be more vocal about what they don't want, and what they will do if it continues.

Come up with consequences that you’re confident you can follow through with. That means meeting yourself where you’re at. If you struggle with insecurity or still feel that gnawing pressure to people-please or keep the peace, you might not be ready to get up from the dinner and go home—but maybe you could manage to leave the house to take a walk around the block or pick up your dinner plate and go sit at the kids’ table.

The consequence doesn’t have to be big or dramatic to work. It just has to be real.

Bring Support

“It is possible to stick to your boundaries alone,” Siangio says. “But with a healthy support system, it can be a lot easier.”

“Even to this day I have a hard time confronting my mom over certain things and I saw that the best way to work through that is for my wife to keep me accountable," Siangio says, "not for my wife to confront her for me, but for her to prompt me into having a conversation and [help] me to deescalate.”

While it might not seem like simply having someone there with you would make much of a difference, research shows that social support has a strong stress-buffering effect. Even when that support doesn’t directly affect the amount of stress an individual experiences, simply having that support makes them more resilient and better equipped to get through stressful events.

Just knowing you’re not doing this alone has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.

If there’s a chance you could find yourself in a situation where you’re singled out in a room where no one is on your side, bring your partner or a friend with you. This person can back you up as you try to establish boundaries and serve as a reminder that you’re not out of line or rude for wanting to protect your mental health.

For best results, tell your friend ahead of time what kind of issues you anticipate and work together to figure out how they can best support you through them.

Even to this day I have a hard time confronting my mom over certain things and I saw that the best way to work through that is for my wife to keep me accountable.


Turn Heated Debates Into Constructive Discussions

Family gatherings bring in a mixture of political beliefs and some of those beliefs can verge on bigoted or insensitive.

You probably know by now that arguing with people whose beliefs differ from yours doesn’t change anyone’s mind. If anything, heated debates just make all participants dig their heels in further. Although “change is possible,” Siangio says, it just “may not come easy and it may not be as progressive as we'd like.”

Here are some tips for de-escalating an argument and trying to turn it into a constructive learning opportunity:

  • Try to distinguish ignorance from bigotry. “Was it coming from an unconscious judgment or was it intentional harm?” Siangio asked. “We may not know until we further a conversation to get more context.” Before you leap to the worst conclusion, ask questions and listen to try to get the extra context you need to figure out whether their comments are coming from a place of hate or a place of ignorance.
  • Try not to take the bait. Sometimes, relatives might try to provoke a reaction out of you by intentionally saying something inflammatory. “When we're escalated, it can be easy to be reactive rather than responsive because of the many big feelings we might be going through,” Siangio cautions. Letting someone goad you into escalating the conversation into a screaming match will only make it harder to get back to a place of constructive discussion.
  • Be ready to let it go if you’re not getting through. While change is possible, it’s not necessarily going to happen in one night and the person may not be ready to reexamine their beliefs just yet. “Are they willing to hear what is being said in the present moment? Are they able to accept what is being said?” Siangio asks. “If they shut down or shut the conversation down, they will not be able to engage in that opportunity.”

It’s OK Not to Engage If You Feel Unsafe

Standing up for what you believe in is a noble and courageous thing to do, but not at the expense of your own safety. For LGBTQ+ folks going home to an intolerant and homophobic family gathering, for example, outing yourself or even just standing up for LGBTQ+ rights could make you the target of bitter and abusive reactions. If your mental or physical health is at risk, it’s OK to choose not to engage.

If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Be an Ally to Vulnerable Groups

When your own safety is not at risk, it may be worth challenging casually racist comments or bigoted views at the dinner table. Just as you enforce boundaries around your own mental health, you can enforce boundaries around harmful or hateful opinions.

You may not change the speaker’s mind, but your courage in confronting those things could inspire others at that table and could open the door to new perspectives for someone who might not have really thought about the issue in depth before.

If your racist uncle says something racist and everyone lets it slide, it sets a precedent that that was an acceptable thing to say. Calling it out might never change your uncle’s mind, but for the kids who might be listening, you’re ensuring that they don’t grow up believing those intolerant views are above scrutiny.

That courage to be an ally can have an even more profound impact on closeted family members. Challenging a homophobic comment can show your cousin who’s scared to come out that they have at least one ally in the family. You could end up being the support system someone needs to embrace who they are.

Make a Plan to Rest and Recharge After

A day of constantly having your boundaries tested can wear out even the strongest people so it’s important to make time and space to recover after the fact. To make sure you actually do that, it helps to have an actual plan.

For the more introverted folks out there, that might mean clearing your schedule the next day so you can treat yourself to a good breakfast and a few hours of reading a book at your favorite café.

For extroverts, that might look like inviting your cool cousin out for a drink and debriefing after dinner. The important thing is to plan an activity that will help you release any tension that builds up during the family dinner.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.