If you’ve been pregnant and given birth, chances are you’ve already received some well-meaning but unwanted advice. You’ve probably also had some situations where you’ve wanted to start setting boundaries with family about how involved they are, or what kind of comments they make.
I don’t know what it is about people but a lot of folks seem to think that, once a woman is pregnant, they must want everybody’s opinion about it. Whether they’re in your face about birth choices, name shortlists, parenting ethos or how pregnant you do or do not look, some folks can’t help themselves.
My own experience of this makes me feel it’s partly to do with our society (in the Global North) not trusting women in general, mothers in particular.
It didn’t matter how much research I’d done, how steadfast my intuition was, how much I reassured people I knew exactly what I was doing. There was always someone that didn’t think I could be trusted with my baby, whether in regards to sleep, eating, discipline or anything else. There’s always someone who thinks they know better than the baby’s mother.
THOSE 👏 PEOPLE 👏 ARE 👏 WRONG
Gentle parents in particular tend to be on the receiving end of this because we’re doing things VERY differently to how previous generations did.
We’re responding to our babies in ways that our mothers and grandmothers were told (by ignorant male behaviourists) were wrong. It’s usually just because older generations don’t know the most up-to-date research in baby care, but sometimes it’s also a challenge to them see you doing the opposite of what they did. No-one likes to be wrong.
So how do you deal with the unwanted and unsolicited opinions and advice of others?
In this post I’m going to give you 10 steps on successfully setting boundaries with family and friends.
I’ll also give you tips for how to deal with unwanted advice and opinions, whether they come from family, friends or complete strangers. Before we do that though, let’s run through what we mean by boundaries so we know we’re all on the same page.
What is a boundary?
This seems obvious but I just want to quickly establish not only what a boundary IS, but what it IS NOT.
Let’s start with the Cambridge Dictionary definition of what a boundary is:
“A real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something”Cambridge Dictionary (online)
For our purposes, the line is usually imagined. There are, however, some very physical lines that people cross during the process of pregnancy, birth and newborn life.
Some people think it’s acceptable to touch a stranger’s pregnant bump, or take your baby from you without consent because they want a cuddle. Some family members turn up on your doorstep to see the baby with no warning or ignore what you’ve told them and try to give your baby solid food before they’re old enough. All with an annoyingly cheery, “Well it never did me any harm” 🙄
Boundaries mark the space around where you end and the other person begins, whether that’s personal space or perhaps the line between where your mother’s values and personal identity ends and your own values and identity begin. Setting boundaries with family, or anyone else, is about communicating to people where your personal line is.
And let’s be honest here, quite often we haven’t ever communicated to our families where our personal boundaries are. Even if we have, so much changes when you have a baby that those boundaries usually change. I know mine did and suddenly things I’d never really thought about before became incredibly significant boundaries I did not want to have crossed.
So it’s important that we begin the process by establishing with ourselves what our boundaries actually are before sharing them with anyone else.
It’s even more important to recognise that setting a boundary is not something that you give someone else to do.
I know this sounds odd, but boundaries aren’t actually about you giving someone an instruction, i.e. “You need to stop touching my bump/feeding my daughter meat/telling me to sleep train”
Boundaries are about what YOU are willing to tolerate in terms of other people relating to your personal space, your values and the lines that you have established around those.
Keep these questions in the back your mind as we go more in-depth around setting boundaries with family and other people:
- What do I tolerate that violates my personal boundaries?
- What am I willing to do when someone crosses a boundary?
- Have I communicated where my boundaries are and is it fair of me to expect people to know what they are?
- What do I want the outcome to be when I set boundaries with this person?
- How can approach this with dignity and empathy as well as strength and clarity?
So now we’ve established what boundaries are, let’s get into how to set them. I’m going to cover ten steps to setting boundaries in the context of pregnancy, birth and baby-care (although they are relevant with any topic). If you have a partner, it would be helpful if you went through the results of this process with them so you can work together to uphold your boundaries as a team.
If you don’t have time to go through them all right now, download my free workbook below. It allows you to go through all the ten steps at your own pace and provides you with space to write notes, responses and scripts.
It also includes powerful scripts and one-liners to help you get started with setting your boundaries and covers how to deal with whatever response you receive.
Step One: Do an audit of what boundaries are being crossed
First things first, sit down and figure out exactly what, where and when boundaries are being crossed in your life. Oftentimes we find ourselves getting overwhelmed by several different issues coming from different areas. Whether family members, partners, friends, colleagues and random strangers in the supermarket, it’s important to be clear on where the real problems are actually coming from.
I realise that if you’re a new mum with a baby to feed around the clock, spare time is not your ally. If you’ve got to the point where you’re trying to learn about setting boundaries with family or friends though, you need to find time somehow. Perhaps you can find ten minutes before bed, before the baby wakes from their nap, or while they’re feeding.
However you do it, it’s important to establish who is crossing a boundary and how/when/where they’re doing it.
If you’re feeling like it’s just “everybody”, start by asking your partner or best friend who you complain to them about the most. Even if you’re not sure exactly who is pissing you off, I imagine your partner knows all too well!
Step Two: Prioritise
If Step One resulted in a long list of different people, including everyone from your mum to that random guy at the bus stop, it’s time to prioritise.
What is most important to you to sort out quickly? Which one scares you the most or do you find most challenging to think about?
Prioritise the boundaries that are deeply fundamental to your core values but which aren’t so terrifying and huge they feel overwhelming.
For example, maybe you’re getting a lot of people telling you that you “have to” sleep train your baby and you feel very strongly about not doing it (as do I – see my article on why sleep training is harmful for more). Perhaps telling your mum to back off about it is scary because you were sleep trained and you still have attachment issues and trauma. However, telling Aunt Julie to back off might feel less of a big deal because you rarely see her. Go with Aunt Julie first.
Meanwhile, there are the day-to-day random encounters where people you either don’t know, or only know as an acquaintance, cross a less emotional but still significant line. For example, touching your baby or baby bump without consent or making rude comments about your name choices (this happened to me a LOT when I was pregnant with Ursula and it really pissed me off!). These are chance encounters where you want a quick, short one-liner to deliver.
Which feels scarier to you? Setting boundaries with family or speaking out in a chance encounter with an acquaintance? The conversation with Aunt Julie that comes down to your core values as a mother, or speaking out against a thoughtless word or deed committed by a stranger?
Most people find family the most challenging, because it is biologically engrained in us to try and preserve the peace and integrity of our family unit. If this is true for you, you may want to prioritise speaking up to strangers and acquaintances first to get some practice.
Step Three: Establish whether the remedy is a Difficult Discussion or a Quick Fire Shutdown
If we take the examples from Step Two, you can see that there are different approaches to setting boundaries with family, friends or other people depending on the person and the situation.
For the stranger touching your bump, you need a Quick Fire Shutdown – a ready-to-go line you can deliver with dignity, compassion and strength to stop that shit happening.
With Aunt Julie, you can also do a Quick Fire Shutdown, but you might go into slightly more depth as to why this subject is important to you. You don’t need to explain yourself to anybody, but with family you may wish to drive home the importance of the issue.
With your mum, you could go the Quick Fire Shutdown route if you wanted to. But if there are deeper issues here, such as your feelings about your own childhood, perhaps you need to get her to sit down for a Difficult Discussion.
We’ll look more at what specific words you can use later. For now, just establish what the particular circumstance requires.
Step Four: Be clear on what you want and what you will do if you don’t get it
If you could wave a magic wand and get any outcome you desired from this process, what would it be? For your family to support your parenting choices? For others to understand what is and isn’t acceptable in your eyes?
Work out exactly what outcome you want and, crucially, what you will do if you don’t get it. Is this particular issue a complete line in the sand for you? If Aunt Julie continues to hassle you, are you prepared to get up and leave the room and tell her why? Would you go so far as to cut her out of your life?
The only wrong answer to this question is “Nothing”. Remember the definition of boundaries where I said that it’s not something others do but something that YOU do? If you’re not willing to do anything to maintain the boundary you’re setting, it’s not a boundary.
Also, if you decide you’re not willing to do anything about it, you’re not allowed to complain about it anymore to anyone. Seriously. If the issue is that important to you, you either need to act on it or put up with it.
Step Five: What’s your motivation?
Step Five may sound similar to Step Four, but this is where we begin to prepare for the actual speaking of words to people.
As well as thinking about what results you want to achieve from this process of setting boundaries with family or friends, think about what kind of place you want to be coming from while you’re doing it. What’s your motivation for setting this boundary? What kind of person do you want to be when you have these conversations?
Do you want to come from a place of confrontational aggression or openhearted strength? Do you want to wake up the day after the conversation wishing you had spoken more clearly? Or do you want to feel like you showed up to the conversation as the very best version of yourself possible?
Take a moment to think about what is driving your need to speak your truth to others. Very often when it comes to the subject of babies and family or friends, it does come from a place of love. Even if right now you feel like you can’t stand your father-in-law and how he tells your toddler that “big boys don’t cry”, you’re motivated by love for your son and concern for his emotional wellbeing. I imagine too that you don’t really want to cause rifts and want to approach the topic with love for the integrity of the wider family unit.
Name all those feelings to help you approach the conversation with dignity and compassion rather than anger and blame.
Step Six: Script and rehearse your lines
Here’s where it starts to get interesting – and perhaps a little scary.
There’s a good reason to go through all the previous five steps before you start to think about what to say. That’s because you want to get the right mix of standing your ground, speaking up for yourself, your values and your children, AND also not being an asshole.
Speaking your truth and stating where your boundaries are doesn’t have to mean being aggressive, confrontational or rude. But given we’re talking about how to set boundaries with your family, specifically in relation to your baby and/or older children, things have the chance to get heated.
If you would like some super specific lines to help you with your scripting, you can download my free list of things to say to people who cross your boundaries or give unwanted advice. I think you’ll find it a really helpful starting point.
Meanwhile, try to remember these guidelines in your scripting:
- Deliver tough statements in a sandwich. This is where you drop one compliment or expression of kindness either end of the tough boundary. For example, “Mum, I love how much you adore Baby and want to be involved in our lives. And I’m finding it really stressful hearing you talk about how I should leave her to cry when that goes against my instincts as her mother. I need to ask you to stop telling me to do that. I do know you are trying to help me and I love and appreciate you so much.”
- Don’t over explain. In particular this is important for the Quick Fire Shutdown, but also for the Difficult Discussion. Either way, when setting boundaries with family or friends, you don’t have to go into a major monologue about why you are taking the stance you are. The fact that it is important to you is enough. Besides, using too many words will confuse them as to what your request is.
- Don’t wave research at them. I see sooooooo many posts in gentle parenting groups asking for the latest evidence again sleep training, or in favour of responsive parenting. “Can you give me your best peer-reviewed articles as to why father-in-laws who display toxic masculinity to their 1 year old grandsons is harmful to their brain development?” It might seem like the way to go because you’re presenting them with cold hard facts, but it won’t work. They are unlikely to read it. Even if they do, they may not understand it as scientific studies are very technical in their language. If they do understand it, cognitive dissonance (denial) may set in, especially if your facts go against what they did themselves. Besides, they can probably find an alternative view point to back up their own opinion and then what? Leave the academia out of it and connect with them as a person instead.
- Make a clear request. This can be “Please don’t touch my bump without my permission” or “I need you to stop feeding my daughter meat”. In combination with getting rid of all your explanations and truck-loads of evidence-based research, the clear request will make it easy for the other person to understand the boundary you are setting. You should also be ready to express what you will do if this request is not granted (because really, they don’t have to do what you say).
- Thank people where their intent is wholehearted. This is particularly useful for those well-meaning friends offering you unsolicited advice, such as telling you to leave your baby to cry or stop feeding them to sleep. My favourite Quick Fire Shutdown phrase for this kind of scenario is, “I’m very confident and happy with my choice in that area, but thanks so much for trying to help me. I really appreciate it”
- Don’t be afraid to disagree and move on with your life. There’s nothing wrong with just plain old disagreeing with someone. Half the time our frustration with other people is that they say shit we disagree with and we don’t object because we don’t want to cause a scene. But your voice and your opinion is just as valuable as anyone else’s. You get the right to have the last word on a subject too. Tell them you disagree and get them to move onto to talking about something else. A great phrase for this is, “I actually couldn’t disagree with you more on that, but we really don’t have to get into it. Why don’t we move on and you tell me all about your latest business venture, it sounds so exciting” (It’s a cheap trick but there’s nothing wrong with stroking their ego a bit to get the conversation moving on quickly!)
- Don’t take any bait. If the other person tries to turn things around and starts talking about you and your flaws, don’t rise to it. Say something simple like, “We’re not talking about that at the moment, we’re talking about…” Bring it back ’round to where you want the conversation to be. If they keep trying to derail or go as far as shouting, hurling insults or any other unpleasant tactics, you can say “I am happy to have a constructive conversation with you about this at another time, but I will not stay here and be spoken to like that”. Leave the room if you have to but you have the right to remove yourself from the presence of Grade A buttheads.
Alright, maybe not with one of those – let’s stick to dignity here, eh?
Anyway, after scripting everything you want to say, rehearse it again and again in the lead up to your encounter with that person. If it’s about strangers and unpredictable encounters, rehearse them any chance you get. Either way, make sure that when the moment arises, you aren’t fumbling in the dark and trying to think of what you’re supposed to say.
If you need help to get started on scripting, download my FREE Setting Boundaries workbook below.
Step Seven: Deliver your lines with dignity, empathy and strength
This goes back to you remembering what kind of person you want to be during this conversation. It also factors in what outcome you want from it. Most people don’t really want to fall out with their parents, in-laws or friends. However, there are toxic people that make it very difficult not to do that.
This is why it’s vital that you work out how important this value is, what priority it has in your life and what you are willing to do to maintain it. Sometimes that does unfortunately mean cutting people out of your life, or at least taking steps away from them.
As long as you go into the conversation from a place of strength, script your lines to incorporate empathy and kindness, and hold yourself with dignity, that’s all you can do. The rest is up to them.
Step Eight: Take responsibility for your intent and manner, but NOT their reaction
Remember, when it comes to setting boundaries with family or any other people in your life, you are not responsible for their reaction. They are perfectly entitled to respond to you in any way they choose and they might get defensive.
It’s likely that you haven’t ever stood up to them on this subject. Perhaps no-one has ever challenged them on their opinions. For example, there are members of my family who live in a real echo chamber. They never experience people disagreeing with them so they genuinely don’t know how to deal with it when it happens. Be empathetic towards those people but don’t take responsibility for their emotions.
Hopefully you will get a reasonable response. For all you know, it may even bring you closer. Quite often the difficult conversations are the ones that lead to most understanding between family and close friends.
Just keep in mind that all you take responsibility for is how you showed up to the conversation and held yourself throughout. Make yourself proud.
Step Nine: Follow through
No giggling. I mean follow through on maintaining your boundary.
Returning again to the original definition I discussed earlier, setting a boundary is your job and you need to make sure you keep on top of it. That means sometimes having to remind Aunt Julie (her again!) about your previous conversation: “Hey, Julie, do you remember how I said I really didn’t want to talk about sleep training anymore? I meant it you know, can we change the subject please? How’s your loft conversion coming on?”
This can be one of the hardest steps when it comes to setting boundaries with family and friends, because you may feel like you’re banging on about the original topic.
I know I find it hard to remind my mother of topics I’ve previously told her I don’t want to discuss. It makes me feel like I’m being even more “difficult” than I was by raising it in the first place.
Remember though, your boundary and your voice matter. In fact, it’s the other person that is making life difficult by returning to a subject you clearly stated you didn’t want to discuss.
Not only are you entitled to remind them that the subject is off limits with you, it’s important that you do if you want your boundaries to consistently be respected. If you don’t ever follow through on maintaining the boundary, it may as well not be there at all.
Step Ten: Remain consistent
And finally, you must stay consistent when setting boundaries with family and other people. It’s down to you to make sure the boundary is upheld.
If you’ve told your in-laws that they absolutely mustn’t feed your toddler certain foods when they look after him, but they keep doing it anyway, you need to consistently remind them of the boundary. If that isn’t enough, maybe you need to return to the Difficult Discussion with something like, “I’ve made it really clear that I don’t want you to feed my child meat but you keep on doing it, even though I’m sending alternative foods for him. Can you help me to understand why? It’s starting to feel deliberate so I’m not sure how else to solve this issue”
There may come a point where you have to make some tough decisions. In the example above, how important is it that the grandparents look after the child vs how important it is for your child not to eat meat? For many, family-based childcare is their only affordable option so perhaps the boundary has to be loosened. Or maybe your personal values and ethics surrounding food choices are so strong that you need to find alternative childcare. You may also decide to tell the grandparents they can’t spend time with your child unless you are present.
These are all decisions only you can make in your unique circumstances. Be sure to keep referring back to your original notes on Step Two (Prioritise) and Step Four (Be Clear On What You Want) to help you make decisions like these.
So those are the 10 steps you need to take when effectively and ethically setting boundaries with family, friends or strangers offering unwanted advice.
Remember, your voice is just as important as anyone else’s – more so when it comes to caring for your baby. You deserve to be heard and not lose your sense of integrity by silencing your authentic voice.
If all this feels like too much to take in right now, download my free workbook on setting boundaries with family or anyone else. It allows you to go through all the ten steps for setting boundaries with family, friends and strangers that I’ve covered, but at your own pace. As a bonus, it also provides you with worksheets and space to write notes, responses and scripts. The workbook also includes ideas for powerful scripts and one-liners to help you get started with setting your boundaries.
Wishing you all the best with setting your boundaries. I’d love to hear how things go – please do let me know if these steps worked for you.