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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

A Guide for Parentified Adult Children on Setting Emotional Boundaries

The holiday season is often portrayed as a time of joy, connection, and celebration. However, the reality for many families is that it's a time where unhealed wounds, deeply ingrained patterns, and unhealthy ways of coping all rear their ugly heads. In many family dysfunctional family systems, there's often a member, sometimes more than one, that can be considered "the parentified child." For parentified adult children, the festivities can bring a unique set of challenges. Having taken on adult responsibilities at a young age due to parental neglect (could be physical or emotional) or dysfunction, these individuals often struggle with setting emotional boundaries, especially during the holidays.

Understanding Developmental Trauma and Parentification

Developmental trauma refers to the adverse experiences that occur during a person's formative years, impacting their emotional, cognitive, and social development. Parentification, a specific form of developmental trauma, occurs when a child is forced into a caregiving role for their parents or siblings, taking on responsibilities beyond their years. This premature role reversal can lead to a range of challenges in adulthood, including difficulties in forming healthy relationships and setting appropriate boundaries. Parentified adult children often carry the weight of unresolved childhood issues into their adult lives. The holiday season, with its emphasis on family and togetherness, can trigger a myriad of emotions and stressors for these individuals. Common challenges include:

  1. Overwhelming Sense of Responsibility: Parentified adult children may feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to ensure the happiness and well-being of others during the holidays, neglecting their own needs in the process.

  2. Difficulty Saying No: Setting boundaries becomes particularly challenging as these individuals may fear rejection or abandonment if they assert their needs or decline requests from family members.

  3. Navigating Dysfunctional Family Dynamics: The holiday season often involves family gatherings, which can be emotionally charged for those with a history of developmental trauma. Unresolved family dynamics may resurface, creating additional stress.

  4. Struggles with Self-Care: Parentified individuals may struggle with prioritizing self-care, as their ingrained pattern of prioritizing others' needs often takes precedence over their own well-being.

Setting and maintaining emotional boundaries is crucial for the well-being of parentified adult children, especially during a time year that invites so much togetherness. Emotional boundaries help individuals define their emotional space, protect their mental health, and foster healthier relationships. Here are some key reasons why emotional boundaries are essential:

  1. Preserving Mental and Emotional Well-being: Establishing boundaries is an act of self-preservation. It allows individuals to protect their mental and emotional well-being by preventing the intrusion of toxic or overwhelming emotions.

  2. Enhancing Self-Awareness: Setting boundaries requires a deep understanding of one's own needs and limits. This process of self-awareness is crucial for personal growth and healing.

  3. Building Healthy Relationships: Clear emotional boundaries contribute to the development of healthier relationships. By communicating and respecting personal limits, individuals can create connections based on mutual understanding and support.

  4. Encouraging Personal Growth: Establishing and maintaining emotional boundaries is an empowering journey of personal growth. It allows individuals to break free from the patterns of parentification and reclaim their identity.

Strategies for Setting Emotional Boundaries During the Holidays


  • Take time to reflect on your triggers and past experiences during the holidays or during family events.

  • Identify specific situations or relationships that tend to challenge your emotional boundaries.

Clarify Your Values and Priorities:

  • Define your values and priorities for the time spent with family.

  • Consider what activities and interactions align with your values and contribute positively to your well-being.

Communication is Key:

  • Practice assertive communication to express your needs and boundaries.

  • Clearly communicate what you can and cannot commit to during the holidays.

Learn to Say No:

  • Embrace the power of saying no without guilt.

  • Recognize that setting boundaries is a form of self-care and not a rejection of others.

Create a Support System:

  • Surround yourself with a support system of friends or chosen family who understand and respect your boundaries.

  • Lean on your support system - friends, chosen family, healthy family members, therapists.

Establish Rituals for Self-Care:

  • Develop self-care rituals that help you recharge and maintain emotional balance.

  • Prioritize activities that bring you joy and relaxation.

Set Realistic Expectations:

  • Manage expectations, both your own and others'.

  • Accept that not everything will go as planned, and it's okay to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

Plan Breaks and Time for Yourself:

  • Schedule breaks during family gatherings to take a moment for yourself.

  • Use this time for deep breathing, mindfulness, or a brief walk to reset and refocus.

Seek Professional Guidance:

  • Consider seeking guidance from a therapist specializing in developmental trauma.

  • Therapy can provide valuable tools and insights to navigate the challenges of setting boundaries, especially during the holiday season.

For parentified adult children, setting emotional boundaries during the holiday season is a vital aspect of self-care and healing. By understanding the impact of developmental trauma, clarifying values, and implementing practical strategies, individuals can navigate the holidays with greater resilience and authenticity. Wounds that occur as a result of developmental trauma are complex, and often times unhealed wounds and trauma without resolution can begin to rear it's head during the holiday season. If you or someone you love is on their journey to heal from deeply rooted childhood experiences, consider connecting with a professional specializing in developmental trauma. Nobody deserves to go it alone - even when that may have been what you've done for your entire life.

family eating a holiday meal together
setting emotional boundaries for a health family holiday



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