You Asked! Sibling Relationships

You Asked! is the column where the Center for Healthy Relationships (CHR) answers. Please send your questions to or text 479-308-8508

Q: How do I get my siblings to understand that I’m busy and not always available to take a call?

You know how it goes. You’re sitting in class with your phone in your bag. You’re right in the middle of the mid-term exam. And it happens: your phone rings and you forgot to silence it, so you quickly pull it out and set it to vibrate. As you do, you see that it’s a call from someone in your family. You make a mental note to call back later and slip your phone back into your bag.

And then, it vibrates.  Repeatedly. Because, not only did you get another call from the same person, then you started getting texts because you didn’t answer immediately. What’s a college student supposed to do?

Healthy boundaries are important for any healthy relationship. Cell phones can complicate things because their perpetual presence leads to assumptions of perpetual availability.

Here are 5 tips for having healthy cell phone boundaries with parents and siblings:

1. Know your boundaries and protect them. It’s actually okay to define your boundaries first and enforce them with things like “Do Not Disturb” mode. You don’t have to negotiate boundaries with family ahead of time. You’ll likely identify your needs for boundaries before you have a chance to talk with your family.

2. Be gracious. If you are judgmental and critical about attempts from your family to connect with you, then you’ll likely be more reactive to their attempts to contact you. Keep in mind that they’re not aware of the variability of your schedule.

3. Be kind. When you tell your siblings or parents about your limited availability, do so in a way that doesn’t attack them. Speak for yourself and your situation. For example, “I’m happy that you want to talk with me. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t always allow me to immediately answer.”

4. Be Specific.  Let them know about your limitations and your intentions to get back with them. You might say something like, “If I don’t answer your call or immediately respond to a text, please know that I will as soon as I can.” Some families have an agreement that “emergency texts” will start with “911,” so you’ll know how important the issue is.

5. Be Consistent. Whatever agreement you can reach with your family, be consistent on your end. You’re going to be training them to have more patience about your availability to respond. But, if you don’t stick to your boundaries, you’ll be teaching them that the boundaries don’t matter. And then you’re right back where you started.


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