What to Do with Toxic Relatives

by | Dec 2, 2019

It’s the holidays and possibly the only time you get together with extended family members. There always seems to be one who is toxic in some way, giving everyone else fear and foreboding. This person behaves inappropriately is a way that disrupts and disturbs your holiday 

Maybe he makes rude or cruel remarks. Or explodes in unpredictable anger. Or manipulates people to do what he—and only he—wants. Or contrives to be the center of constant attention. Or has to replay past grievances that should have long been forgotten or forgiven. Or arrives late, making everyone else wait until the ham is cold and the veggies are a coagulated lump. 

There is no changing this person without professional counseling. He either doesn’t notice how toxic he is or he doesn’t care. Whatever goes wrong is never his fault. But you know it is his fault by the deflated feeling you get when he sucks all the energy out of the room. And you feel like you have to gauge his mood before you can breathe. 

When you have a problem child like this, no matter what his age, you may feel like you are helpless to do anything about it. But the fact is, you can and should do something about it. The first thing you can do is not invite him to your gathering. If that is not an option, consider some of the following: 

What To Do With Toxic Relatives Nancy'S Counseling Corner

  1. Call things by their right names. Families often gloss over problems by using language that minimizes the situation. For example, “Uncle Rex sometimes says inappropriate things.” In fact, Rex’s words pierce your heart with their savage cruelty, leaving you in a puddle of tears. His verbal abuse can affect you for years afterward. And that’s what it is—verbal abuse. Call it what it is when you discuss his behavior with family and friends and Rex himself. 
  1. Admit the problem. Calling things by their right names is the first step in recognizing that you don’t have the perfect family. And guess what? No one does. When you admit that sister Emily is a toxic princess who attempts to control everyone, then you can begin to deal with the situation. But you have to define the problem and admit that you have it first.  
  1. Agree about acceptable conversation topics. The rest of the family knows this person is trouble, too. Make an informal agreement that certain incendiary topics will be out of bounds. Sure, you’re catering to the toxic person, but you’re doing it for the sake of everyone’s sanity. No one wants to get embroiled in a heated or angry exchange that ruins the event. 
  1. Agree about acceptable behavior. Excessive drinking or violent tantrums or abusive language should not be tolerated. When your family member exhibits this kind of behavior, they need to be told that they must stop. If they cannot stop you need to ask them to leave. If it’s not your house, you should leave, even if the dinner isn’t finished yet. Because this kind of behavior can escalate to the danger level, and you don’t want to be around for that. 
  1. Remember you are not responsible for someone else’s therapy. If the toxic person wants to draw you into his drama, don’t engage. Change the subject or say you think he should see a therapist, but you’re not going to discuss it. Do not allow him to take control of the gathering or to dominate the event. Refuse to let him bring you down when you should be enjoying your family and friends. 
  1. Look out for your safety. Just because you’re with family and friends doesn’t mean you are emotionally or physically safe. You may not be safe if the toxic individual gets out of hand. And remember that you are under no obligation, even if it’s family, to be hurt in any way. Remove yourself or call the police if necessary.  

So go to the holiday gathering with a positive attitude, expecting to have a good time. But have these tips in mind in case the toxic person threatens to ruin your gathering. You deserve to have a happy holiday. 


Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: https://nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact 



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