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Dealing with Toxic Family During the Holidays

November through January is full of time with family. There is a lot of laughter, love and memories made during the holiday season. Tis the Season for joy! For many, however, the holidays bring a sense of dread. When big groups get together, especially when there has been past conflict, it is a recipe for drama. Many people harbor feelings of resentment, hurt, or even fear during family gatherings. In this article, we will discuss:

  1. Recognizing toxic family members
  2. How to set boundaries and stick to them
  3. Being gentle to your own feelings

What does “toxic” mean?

You would be hard-pressed to have an online social media presence and not hear about “toxic” people. But what does that even mean? Any person who consistently goes out of their way to hurt you, guilt-trip you, or causes chaos for those around them. You could have a toxic friend who never shows up when you need them to, or you could be dealing with a coworker that frequently takes credit for your work. Everyone makes mistakes and can easily repair damage that they have done. A toxic person, on the contrary, refuses to acknowledge pain that they inflict on someone else and continues to engage in the same sorts of behaviors.

A toxic family refers to a family dynamic characterized by unhealthy and harmful behaviors, often involving patterns of manipulation, control, criticism, and emotional or even physical abuse.

Some examples of toxic family dynamics include, but are not limited to:

  1. Passing down disordered eating behaviors and exercise regimes.
  2. A family of sports players singling out the one family member who doesn’t play.
  3. Comparing siblings, citing one “doesn’t live up to expectations” that the other can achieve easily.
  4. Families that encourage secret-keeping, even to the detriment of other family members.

There is a myriad of examples that can be labeled toxic. The bottom line, if you are consistently made to feel not good enough, labeled “crazy” for your opinions, or are set apart from others, you are dealing with a toxic person.

A metanalysis from the journal of BMC Public Health combined 112 studies of “household chaos” and its lasting traumatic effects.  Household chaos is defined as anything that disrupts or causes confusion in the household. This could be divorce, domestic violence, manipulation, parental mental health problems, and more.

Toxic family members usually deal with their own mental health problems and stressors in negative ways. Their choices in behavior regularly create chaos and confusion for others.

“There was consistent evidence for significant correlations between household chaos and adverse outcomes across all seven categories in diverse populations with respect to age, disease status, and socio-economic status (SES).” (Marsh, Dobson, and Maddison (2020). 

This shows that the more chaos and confusion you experience during childhood, the more likely you are to have negative mental and physical health issues as an adult. 

How do we even begin to break the cycle? Sometimes avoiding that person or persons completely just isn’t feasible. The holidays are a prime example. You may have kids who love their grandmother and want to spend time with her, but you would rather stay away. You may be pressured to see someone “because they won’t be around much longer.” Maybe you want to visit family members you ARE excited to see, but they live with someone you’re anxious to be around. It is hard to put yourself first.

When To Stand Your Ground and When to Leave

Firstly, remember to be kind to yourself. Your feelings and experiences are valid. Reach out to another trusted family member beforehand and let them know how you’re struggling. In many cases, you are not the only family member who feels a certain way. Friends work well for this, too! When we express our feelings out loud, it shares the emotional load. It also makes it feel more real and not “just in our heads.” If you do not have a trusted family member or friend, state your feelings out loud to yourself and accept those feelings without rationalizing them away. 

Secondly, make a plan before you go. Decide how long you are going to stay and who you want to actually talk to before you leave. Gravitate towards common areas where there are more people who can steer conversations away from touchy subjects, or who can call out the person’s negative behavior. 

Thirdly, if you must speak with a toxic family member, try to keep things cordial and pleasant if all possible. If they begin to pry, “nit-pick”, or bring up harsh memories, remind them that this is a pleasant family gathering and you would rather not talk about specific things right now. Sometimes giving them a limited reaction is enough for them to stop in the moment. If they can’t “get a rise out of you”, they may drop the subject for the time being.

Lastly, if a family member is determined to cause problems with you and A) won’t stop bringing up a specific subject and/or B) won’t leave you alone, it is perfectly okay to remove yourself from the situation. If that means spending time outside, in another room, or leaving the premises, that is okay. Repeat that: It. Is. Okay.  

If you have exhausted all resources to make things pleasant, you are going to feel anything from fear, sadness, anger, or embarrassment. If you feel that others aren’t sticking up for you, the healthiest thing to do is remove yourself from the situation.

Conclusion

 Navigating the holiday season with a toxic family can be challenging. Establishing clear boundaries is crucial, prioritizing self-care, and seeking support from friends. Sometimes that is not enough, and therapy is needed to feel more confident. There are many therapy techniques and modalities to help you feel most fulfilled going forward. Choosing selective participation in family events and focusing on positive interactions can also contribute to a more tolerable holiday experience. Remember, it’s okay to prioritize your mental health and create a space that fosters positivity during this festive time. If you blame yourself for separating from the family, remember that you are just as important as every other family member. Your life MATTERS, and you deserve to feel emotionally healthy all year round.

HopeNation wishes you a happy and emotionally healthy holiday season! Please reach out us if you want to live more confidently, assert more boundaries, and be more at peace!

Casey Merrill

Casey Merrill

LPC-MHSP

Christal Pennic

Christal Pennic

LPC-MHSP