Handling toxic family members at Christmas

Handling toxic family members at Christmas

Setting expectations and avoiding awkward conversations to turn a difficult festive season into a happy one

Toxic family members come in all shapes and sizes—the mother who you’ve never been good enough for, the sibling who always has to be the centre of attention, the stepparent who manipulates and controls, the cousin who can’t wait to start an argument—and on and on it goes.

The truth is most families have one, but for some the toxic family member causes so much distress, Christmas is something to be dreaded instead of something to look forward to. It’s easy to avoid your toxic family member through most of the year, but at Christmas there’s an expectation of being together. It’s even harder if your toxic family member is married to someone you love or is loved by your parents despite their behaviour.

The good news is, there are some things you can do to help yourself through this.

Don’t expect too much

A couple pointing at each other and arguing in front of a Christmas treeBe realistic about the festive season, it's often not like in the media. Credit: CreativaImages

There’s a lot of stress and pressure at Christmas and we expect a lot of the season, and the day itself. Much of this is to do with how we view other people’s holidays and the images of a happy family Christmas presented to us in the media. Your Christmas reality with a toxic family member is never going to match up, so adjust your expectations.

The sad fact is, this toxic person is not going to change and they will behave how they behave at Christmas, just like they do the rest of the year. In some cases, their behaviour may be even worse at Christmas due to the stress and pressure of the situation.

Deflect difficult conversations

If you’re dreading the family Christmas meal because your toxic family member always starts asking you difficult questions about your life, prying, or looking for any excuse to put you down, prepare how you’re going to deflect these conversations. One of the easiest ways to do this is by giving a very short answer and then immediately changing the subject to include other people around the table.

"Lighten the tone and steer the conversation towards the food or the decorations"

Lighten the tone and steer the conversation towards the food or the decorations, and you’ll soon find other family members get onboard with that and your toxic family member is left hanging. No one else around the table wants to listen to awkward conversations either.

Understand your limits

A mother and daughter in an argument at ChristmasIf staying at your parents' house will be stressful, just make a short vist instead. Credit: JackF

Don’t be afraid to set your own time limits on visits and your own boundaries on where and when you spend time with toxic family members. If you know that staying overnight at your parents’ house is going to end in arguments and tension, arrange the trip so you don’t have to do this. Visit for the day or check into a hotel for the night. It’s worth it for your own happiness and comfort.

If spending more than two hours in the presence of a toxic sibling is going to cause you anxiety, schedule your visit so that you won’t be in their presence for long, or for when they aren’t there at all. Visit for a quick lunch or a drink and explain that you have to be somewhere else. Never feel you are obliged to spend more time with family than you are comfortable with.

Remember you are an adult

A common problem when dealing with toxic parents at Christmas is the ease with which we slip back into child mode. This is especially true if your parents are overbearing and criticise you a lot. The tendency for the child is to become the child again and to strive to please that parent, or to simply take the abuse. Remind yourself you are no longer a child.

"Remind yourself you are no longer a child—stand tall and be the adult in the room if you have to be"

You are an adult with accomplishments and your own life. Stand tall and be the adult in the room if you have to be. Suggest activities, like walking the dogs or going to Christmas markets together, instead of being back in your family home. The family home can be the place where you are most likely to feel like the child again.

Just say no

If visiting certain family members makes you stressed, consider staying home instead. Credit: Irina Gutyryak

It's your Christmas too, and if spending time in the company of certain members of your family fills you with dread, you simply don’t have to do it. There’s no law that says you must spend your Christmas with family, or see them at all over the holidays. Most of us feel obliged to visit family at this time of year and feel guilty if we don’t.

"There’s no law that says you must spend your Christmas with family, or see them at all over the holidays"

In many cases it’s that toxic family member who makes you feel guilty if you don’t go. But sometimes you have to put yourself first. Remember, it isn’t your fault your family member is the way they are. And you don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of it.

Allow yourself to pull back if you need to and forge a new kind of Christmas for yourself. You owe it to yourself to have a happy Christmas.

Banner credit: Tero Vesalainen

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