Kati Morton LMFT

Thoughts From a Therapist

Surviving the Holidays

How to deal with toxic family members.

Posted Nov 20, 2018

Simple/Unsplash
Source: Simple/Unsplash

While many are gleefully stringing up their lights, sending out cards, and picking out Christmas trees, some of us cannot wait for the season to be over. Holiday stress is often talked about when it comes to keeping budgets and managing all of our social events, but what’s frequently left out is the distress of having to socialize with difficult family members.

While it is often assumed that people themselves are toxic, I don’t believe that. Instead, I think there are just bad recipes. Your aunt may have wild political beliefs, or your grandpa could constantly bother you about not being married yet. Whatever it is, when we are all together, it can be overwhelming, upsetting, and at times suffocating. By setting up some healthy emotional and possibly physical boundaries, we can keep a safe distance, while participating in the enjoyable parts of the holiday season.

The hardest part of dealing with toxic family members is that they are family, and we can feel we must treat them differently or put up with their behavior, because we are related. Remember, family can just mean that they are related to us, and that's it! In order to keep ourselves safe (and sane) during the holidays, here are five tips and tools we can use to better manage being around them:

1. Figure out when you know your boundaries have been crossed.

Usually, our body gives us signals, like feeling anxious or wanting to avoid certain people; we may feel angry all of a sudden or even sad. Whatever it is you are feeling, know that it’s your body's way of telling you that this situation isn't right, or you don't really like that person. Make sure you listen to it!

2. Pretending that their behavior is okay is not okay.

It only ends up hurting you. If we don't tell them that speaking to us that way isn't acceptable, they may not know. We can’t ever expect those around us to read our minds. That’s when disagreements, misunderstandings, and even fights happen. That's why communication is so important in setting up and maintaining healthy boundaries.

3. Give yourself permission to not have a relationship with them.

You do have the right to only keep positive and supportive people in your life — it is your life, after all. The word permission is important, because it’s often all that we need, but we can struggle to give it to ourselves. So pay attention to whether or not you are seeing these relationships as a choice or as something forced upon you. 

4. Toxic relationships just don’t work.

It doesn't matter if we happen to be related to them; when it doesn't work, it doesn't work. The only way that a toxic relationship can become healthy is if both parties are willing to work on it and better manage the way they interact with each other. This could mean that you both try to communicate more clearly and more often, or you try not to bring up touchy subjects. However, you both have to work at it; if one or both don't want to, it's not going to get better.

5. Passive-aggressive behavior is what these relationships thrive on.

Not communicating things directly, expecting people to read our minds, or even talking poorly about them behind their back is all passive-aggressive behavior. That type of behavior is not okay and does not leave any room for a relationship to grow. We can do our best to communicate more directly with them, but they must do the same. We can even call them out on their passive-aggressive behavior and ask what’s going on, but just like I mentioned before, if both won’t work on it, it can’t get better.

The holidays can be stressful and difficult for many reasons, but I hope after considering these tips and tools, dealing with toxic family members isn’t one of them.

For more information on how to manage toxic relationships, see my book Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.