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7 Ways to Deal with Toxic Family Members Over the Holidays

Woman sitting next to man at dinner table with head turned, rolling her eyes

Getty Images/JackF

If you know there’ll be at least one toxic relative to face this holiday season, here's how to protect yourself and navigate your way forward as sanely and serenely as possible.

The holiday season can sometimes be more about survival than celebration, especially when it involves dealing with toxic family members. In and of themselves, the holidays are often stressful enough. But throw in an alcoholic uncle, controlling mother, or a hyper-critical sister and you’ve got a recipe for disaster on your hands. 

If you know there’ll be at least one toxic relative to face this holiday season, here are seven ways to protect yourself and navigate your way forward as sanely and serenely as possible.

1. Practice Extreme Self-Care

Now is not the time to skip your meditation practice, start binging on fast food, or neglect getting a full night’s sleep. When preparing yourself for a possible confrontation, your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical space needs to be sound. The calmer your nervous system, the more likely it is you’ll go the distance without getting reactive over the holidays. Making self-care a priority is the foundational building block to surviving the festivities.

2. Christmas Dinner is Not the Time to Work Out Your Childhood Issues 

Drinking four glasses of Chardonnay and yelling at your parents about what happened when you were in junior high isn’t going to accomplish anything for anyone. The holidays aren’t the best time to unpack a lifetime of trauma. Save those thoughts and feelings for the therapist’s couch, brunch with a close friend, or a well thought out meeting with a family member. Throwing a gravy boat at your brother or kicking your father’s chair during dinner isn’t going to solve any of your issues, even if you think it’ll feel good.  

3. Begin to See Being Triggered as an Opportunity

No one can get to you like your family can. But, getting triggered by the same scenarios when spending time with relatives can actually be viewed as an opportunity. Old childhood drama that can arise during family holidays should be seen as an opportunity, not a conspiracy to make you lose your mind. Look at the triggers that appear as a chance to get more clarity about past trauma or dysfunctional family dynamics. 

4. Understand How Your Family Views You

Does your Aunt Edna look at you as a rebellious teenager, even though you’re long past being 19 years old? Does your dad view you as a bohemian with no direction in life? If we get in their heads and see what they see, we’re more able to defuse our own reactivity to their condescending attitudes or behavior. Once I figured out and accepted that my immediate family still saw me as a twelve-year-old girl, it helped me put things in perspective. And once we have perspective on a situation, we have power. Equipped with a frame of reference for the person you’re dealing with will empower you and protect you from the toxic soup being served.

5. Spend the Least Amount of Time You Can Around Toxic Relatives 

If you’re planning on staying at the home of a toxic family member during the holidays, think about alternatives. Could you stay at a hotel or friend’s home? If that isn’t possible, try to keep yourself busy and out of the pathway of the toxic relative. Take regular walks, go to the movies (perhaps with another family member), help around the house, anything to keep you occupied and, in turn, less available to the toxic person in your life. 

6. Have an Exit Strategy

Let family members know in advance you have a short amount of time to visit because of prior obligations. By giving them fair warning about your departure date, you lower the chances of having a confrontation. Toxic people tend to feed off of others. That means they’ll want you in their presence as much as humanly possible. By announcing ahead of time your visit will be brief, you’re keeping the odds in your favor of encountering less friction or conflict. And if all else fails, show up late and leave early.

7. Go “No Contact”

If you feel you can no longer tolerate being around a toxic family member (or members), cutting off all contact might be your best solution. The bottom line is: We must take care of ourselves—if any person in our lives is causing us mental or emotional anguish, with no end in sight, walking away may be the right course of action. Don’t overthink this, either. Trust your gut and do whatever’s necessary to save yourself from toxic torment. 

Spending time with family over the holidays can be stressful, but with some pre-game planning, you can keep your cool and even enjoy yourself. This year, go in calm, knowledgeable, and strong. When a toxic family member approaches, make use of one (or more) of these empowering options. 

Also try these three ways to connect more with your family.


By Valerie Gangas. Click here for more!

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