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Tips for thriving with toxic family this holiday

Mind KEY / Energy  / Tips for thriving with toxic family this holiday
Create boundaries for toxic family holiday survival
Surviving toxic family members can be tough during the holidays. Here are some tips to help you thrive through those trigger moments. Photo courtesy of RODNAE Productions

Tips for thriving with toxic family this holiday

by Danielle Rose

Holidays can be tough on families. Getting everyone together in one room has the potential to trigger even the most well adjusted. Sometimes the most obvious choice for holiday survival with toxic family is the most difficult: avoid gatherings where the family member will be. As Rachel Zoffness Ph.D. wrote in her 2019 article in Psychology Today, your time is precious, and sometimes that most precious commodity is better spent elsewhere than navigating bad behavior.  When that isn’t possible, boundaries and action plans can save the day.

“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in a WebMD article on stress management over the holidays. “That’s not the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”

When avoiding toxic family members isn’t possible, practicable or desirable, some thoughtful preparation can provide the tools needed for holiday survival in the face of Aunt Joan’s next meltdown.

Tip #1: Anticipate and prepare for holiday survival

We know ourselves best. So rather than trying to (usually unsuccessfully) manage other people’s behavior, the best thing we can do is deep dive into our own. If you know that your mother’s nagging, your sister’s one-upping or your brother’s snide remarks are likely to trigger you, then prepare for them ahead of time. Plan out responses, pre-make a list of easy-to-access self-care activities (walking the dog, holding your sister’s baby, calling a friend, or finding a quiet corner to play Candy Crush), and remember your coping tools (we all have them, and this is not the time to take them lightly!). 

The US Department of Health and Human Services “Action Planning for Recovery” pamphlet recommends creating an action plan, and suggests a daily maintenance outline to ensure that you are at your most optimal. This planning is just as important when gearing up to face difficult situations as it is for those recovering from illness or trauma. Make sure you have had plenty of sleep, are well-hydrated, have taken all your regular medications and supplements, and have checked in with yourself and acknowledged your needs prior to walking into a potentially triggering situation. Preparing yourself for your own reaction to bad behavior can go a long way in skirting bad situations.

Tip #2: Give up on expectations with toxic family

The holidays are full of expectation. Sometimes we are living in such a different world from our loved ones that it’s impossible for them to understand where we’re coming from (and vice versa). It’s one thing to invest time into finding, making or hunting down a gift for someone who will appreciate the gesture. It’s quite another to drive yourself crazy trying to please the unpleasable. Sometimes the best gift is no gift at all. “We decided not to do gifts this year,” is a completely suitable response. So is, “Instead of gifts this year, we donated $XX.XX to our favorite charity in each of our family members’ names. 

It’s also okay to have a meal catered rather than cook, or to bring your own tofurky to grandma’s house. It’s likely that no matter what you do, you won’t get any closer to pleasing the unpleasable, so why not spend your time and energy where you feel it’s best deserved. 

Maybe more important is to give up on personal expectations of yourself. Despite what we may have been led to believe, the holidays are not the time to be perfect. Instead, give yourself permission to make mistakes, say the wrong thing, or mess up your designated side dish. If you can move through a snafu without beating yourself up over it, it’s likely no one else will notice.

Tip # 3: Avoid alcohol; Avoid toxic encounters

As tempting as it may be to chill out with a drink, if your family has a tendency to trigger you, try to avoid imbibing if possible, or keep it to a single glass of wine at dinner, or the traditional family toast. Alcohol (and drugs for that matter) might loosen us up and make things feel more tolerable, but they also have a tendency to loosen tongues too. Not only that, but mood-altering substances have a tendency to hit us harder when we’re already emotional. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that self-control decreases as alcohol consumption increases, sometimes leading to aggression, fights and other forms of violence. As people consume more alcohol, reaction times get longer and behavior becomes poorly controlled and sometimes even aggressive—leading to fights and other types of violence. 

 If you don’t want to accidentally say or do something you’ll regret in the morning (like asking your aunt why on earth she would wear such a hideous hat), or cause an argument, steer clear of mood altering substances. Most alcohol-induced trauma-bombs aren’t even necessarily “bad.” But if you know your father hates your sense of humor, and that second or third beer brings out the Tarantino-quoter in you, you’ll be glad you avoided it.  If Uncle Bob is pushing that snifter of scotch after dinner, give an excuse: I have to drive home, or I can’t mix with my blood pressure medication. Or feel free to take a sip and simply hold onto it (or pour it down the sink when no one is looking). Chances are that by the time they finish their glass, they won’t even notice you haven’t drunk yours.

Tip #4: Set boundaries and create an action plan

Boundaries are important for all relationships, particularly so when it comes to toxic family. Be upfront with what you will and will not tolerate. If you don’t want anyone to arrive before 5 p.m., say so! Then enlist other family members to back you up. Maybe your sister-in-law can offer to carpool with her mom so they arrive on time, rather than two hours early. Be firm about your no-pets rule. Give reasons if you feel you must, but know that this is your holiday, and your home, there is truly no need to explain your needs to anyone who refuses to understand.

If visiting someone else, let them know that you don’t plan on bringing a large dessert this year, or staying late to help clean up. A boundary can also be set around bad behavior (“I decided this year that I’ll leave if our uncle continues to berate me for my life choices”). It’s okay to say no, and likewise, it’s also okay if your boundary upsets someone. But letting them know ahead of time where you’re at helps you both to not only manage expectations, but also to be prepared. You may even find that openness redefines your relationship in a positive way! Then again, if it upsets someone, it’s highly likely they’d be upset with you even without the boundary. Rather than trying to unsuccessfully avoid their behavior, why not choose the healthier route for yourself? If nothing else, you will leave the day with confidence in your ability to take care of you. 

Tip #5: Toxic politics? Dig deeper…

Know a political naysayer just seeking to rile up the family dinner? These toxic family members can often be some of the most difficult to navigate. Jeanne Safer, is a psychologist who is also in a blended political marriage—she is a Democrat and her husband is a staunch Republican. Their marriage spurred her e-book: “I Love You, However I Hate Your Politics: Tips on how to Defend Your Intimate Relationships in a Toxic Partisan World.” She believes the result of a political disagreement usually isn’t actually about politics, but rather the psychology of how we see the world. She boils it down to the difference between manifest and latent content material. 

“Manifest content material is what you suppose you’re speaking about,” Safer said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “In this case, that’s politics. Latent content material is what you’re actually speaking about, which is emotions and what the disagreement, or the act of disagreeing itself, stirs up.”

In other words, the argument is really more about how you feel about a certain situation… politics becomes the way to have that discussion. 

She agrees that a political conversation should be avoided if you believe it will lead to an argument. “You may have a dialogue should you each do it civilly, without elevating your voices,” she said. “However the important thing … is to hear greater than you discuss. You may at all times say: ‘We simply see this very otherwise.’

“What you need to keep away from is a political battle in a relationship of any variety. It’s only a lose-lose scenario—not the disagreement; however, the battle. It’s important to have a certain quantity of self-control and know what to keep away from in a relationship.”

Look at it this way: Are you able to discuss your most personal feelings with your father-in-law? Would you know how to respond if he began discussing his with you? When the conversation shifts to politics, take a step back. This goes deeper than who is in the White House. Understanding those deep-seated feelings takes more than just conversation about facts. If you’re not able to go there and truly listen to the other person more than you engage, then definitely steer away from the politics and give yourself (and your family member) some space to feel (and express) the feels in their own way without adding fuel to the fire.

Tip #6: Be an active bystander. Prevent violence

It is important to recognize the difference between toxic behavior and abuse.  For those in abusive situations, holiday survival takes on a whole new meaning.

According to Jessica Walsh, director of Rhode Island’s Women’s Resource Center, “Domestic violence is defined by a pattern of abusive behaviors used to establish and maintain power and control over another person. The violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial, or psychological. It can include any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone, and this can happen to anyone – regardless of age, race, gender, religion, place of residence, or socioeconomic status.”

Walsh said that if you see or are the recipient of domestic abuse, to seek help. That it’s important to be an active bystander and offer support by listening without judgment and providing resources. Let them know that you are there for them, and honor that each survivor knows his or her needs best.

Trained advocates are available via the confidential statewide Helpline for all victims of crime 24/7, by calling 1-800-494-8100 or using the chat feature at

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