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5 Strategies to Cope With Toxic Family Members

How to deal with blood relations that make you bleed.

Key points

  • Dealing with toxic family is more complicated because relationship makes it harder to break off contact.
  • Some basic characteristics of toxic behavior are manipulation, blaming, lying, being judgmental, and rarely taking responsibility.
  • Key strategies are setting boundaries, limiting contact, and not engaging in toxic interactions.

I’ve written a few posts about toxic people but I think toxic family members deserve a piece of their own. Probably all of us will experience one or two toxic people during our lifetime—co-workers and bosses, lovers and former spouses, people we thought were friends, acquaintances of friends, uncooperative neighbors, and many others.

Family members represent a group unlike any other because we are related to them. And that means it may be much harder to deal with them simply because we think we can’t get rid of them. It’s much more complicated when people are blood relations, and when, because you are family, you will probably need to be around them on many occasions.

Up close and personal, toxic family members may be your parents, your siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and anyone distantly related to any of them. It’s hard to cut people off when others close to you are still involved with them. It’s hard to cut people off when other family members have definite opinions and try to weigh in. Being related complicates matters but the fact is, when all else fails, we can and often need to exclude certain family members from our lives.

But before anything, just to review, what makes a person toxic? Here are just a few of the basic characteristics.

  • They are manipulating. They will do whatever they need to control you and any situation that they feel is in their best interest.
  • They blame others for everything, especially things about themselves they don’t want to acknowledge. They rarely ever say they’re sorry for their actions.
  • They take no responsibility for their own actions. In their mind, they can do no wrong.
  • They have no concern for anyone else’s thoughts, feelings, and needs.
  • They are often critical, judgmental, and cruel. There is simply no emotional filter and see no reason to control how they express themselves—yelling, name-calling, and worse.
  • They make you feel guilty for things you didn’t do.
  • They lie and cheat to get their way.

Here are five ways to cope with toxic family members.

1. Create boundaries. OK, easier said than done, but very essential to do. Certainly, it’s easy to get caught in the web of toxic behavior if you’re new at the game, meaning you’ve just begun to experience what it’s like to be in the company of a toxic person. If you’re experienced, it means you’ve already probably gone a few rounds with family members and are getting the hang of it. (In reality, you never really get the hang of it, or want to.)

How to set boundaries may take some time to figure out, especially if there are few or no boundaries within your family, or with specific family members. The point is toxic people don’t want you to have boundaries because it’s harder to control someone who is not easily accessible to them. A toxic person lives for invading other people's boundaries. That way they can say and do anything they feel like anytime they want to. Creating boundaries limits a lot of their behavior.

2. Limit your contact. This may be hard to do, especially because family members often get together on various occasions. And although you may not be able to totally avoid that contact you can find ways to make sure you surround yourself with people you do get along with as a way to insulate yourself from toxic family. And for heaven’s sake, don’t allow yourself to be cornered alone in a room.

Don’t confide in a family member that has turned out to be someone you can’t trust. Don’t share personal information that can be used against you. If you have to communicate at all, keep it straightforward and simple. The second you sense argument or confrontation, don’t engage. Rather, leave the space as fast as you can.

3. Don’t engage. Aside from limiting your contact, it’s important to not play into any interaction, especially when it is provocative and argumentative. It’s hard at times to hold your tongue when someone is saying and doing outrageous things but it’s important to learn to do it for your own sake and sanity. Anything you might say may be held against you and nothing you say will change anyone’s mind anyway.

Remember, the goal of a toxic person is to control you and break you down so that you can be easily manipulated.

4. Create a solid support system. Given all the negative behavior, you can definitely use the support and strength of good-hearted people who want to know you for the person you are. Surrounding yourself with people that really care about you and don’t want to see you hurt goes a long way to diluting all of the negativity you may have surrounding you in the family. These friends and supporters will act as a buffer between you and those that want to pull you in and control you. They will also function as a reasonable sounding board in case there is any doubt about what you are experiencing.

5. Cut off all contact. When all else fails, when you’ve gone as far as you can go, when no different outcome (or a worse outcome) is expected, it’s time to cut all ties to a toxic family member. Obviously, you try whatever option you can to change behaviors. And maybe you try over and over to communicate differently in an attempt to make the relationship work, at least in part.

When you’ve done everything you can and things stay the same, you’ll know you tried whatever is possible. No guilt, no remorse, no shame. The final and only solution is to preserve your own integrity and health, and let your relationship with your toxic family member go. I call it “letting them play solitaire.” The toxic game requires at least two to play but when one person bows out, there’s only one left to play the game—and that’s no fun for them.

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