What To Do When You Have A Toxic Family Member

Here's how to cope with a toxic family member.

Here's how to cope with a toxic family member.

Disclaimer: This is purely hypothetical. My family is never dysfunctional or irrational or ever unreasonable. And neither is yours. (Insert hard side eye here.)

You know you have that ONE family member. The one that makes family gatherings risky at best and scary at worst. Or maybe that other one who makes racist or bigoted remarks with a twinkle in their eye like they’ve just crafted the snark of the century. Or maybe you don’t have that one family member, and you just have THAT family instead, and every interaction with them becomes a practice in avoiding emotional nuclear disaster. 

I feel. (Hypothetically, of course.)

So what do you do when you have family members you love, or at least feel a modicum of affection for and they act like a bunch of fools, and you don’t want to become infected with their toxicity, too? 

1. Create A Game Plan. 

All of our family lives out of state. When we go visit, we formulate a game plan for our time there. I intentionally build in breaks from difficult situations or family members who tend to absorb the lion’s share of emotional energy. I also put together an itinerary and email it to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, etc., well in advance. This is a tool for all of us and a clear way for the family to adjust their expectations accordingly without the drama. Okay, maybe with less drama. It’s much easier to refer to a neutral itinerary in times of potential conflict. As a courtesy to my family, I ask if they have anything they want to do while we are there or any time constraints that would interfere. Then I do my best to plan around them. 

*Side note: You might have family members who decide to completely disregard the plan and then get upset when things don’t go their way. That’s okay. They are exercising their right to choose something different. You are free to exercise your right to stick to the plan regardless.

2. Stop The Racist And Bigoted Jokes And Comments. 

Can you say awkward? Because this is awkward AF. Your unaware-of-his-own-racism racist uncle makes a “harmless” joke about black people. Your brother makes a low-key homophobic comment. Or maybe your sweet grandma drops a rant on you about fat people and how they need to go on a diet. WTF are you supposed to do with that? 

Clap back. 

Ask them to tell you more. 


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“Why is that joke funny?”
“What’s wrong with being gay?” 
“Why does that person need to lose weight? How does that affect you, Gram?” 

When you ask them to explain what they are actually saying, they might see their own bias. Or they might not. And in that case, feel free to tell them directly that what they are saying is wrong/uninformed/outdated/inappropriate and why. This will probably evoke anger. That’s okay. I would also be angry if I had a toxic life-long belief that someone dismantled in a matter of minutes. 

3. Know Whose Battles You’re Fighting. 

If you have family who is unnecessarily hard on your significant other or your S/O’s family is inexplicably hard on you, take a step back. You are walking into the historical structure of someone’s family and have taken a place in their generations-long dynamic. Maybe you or S/O have changed since joining forces. This is normal. Sometimes, family members don’t like it when other family members break rank and try living life differently. This can make you or your S/O the unwitting target of the ugly side of family dynamics. Unless there is abuse or some sort of mind-control taking place, the rancor you or your significant other is experiencing is likely the result of unfinished business within the family. 

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that your S/O’s brother or mother treats you with contempt without a solid reason. While you are on the receiving end of their poor treatment, it isn’t yours to fix. It’s up to your S/O to deal with their own family of origin and communicate with them about the conflict. And if your family is treating your S/O poorly, you need to have a heart-to-heart with them about why. 

4. Define And Hold Your Boundaries. 

This one is so easy to talk about but much harder to do. It also takes time. Tune in to your own experiences and ask yourself when you felt comfortable interacting with the difficult family member. Take steps to recreate those ideal circumstances. Maybe you met with them on neutral territory. Maybe that interaction took place apart from holidays or large family gatherings. Maybe alcohol wasn’t available or there were so many people present that you could fly under the radar. Whatever the special circumstances or tools were, use them again to create solid boundaries

Sometimes, though, unhealthy people don’t give AF about boundaries, or reconciliation, or any mutuality in relationships. THESE ARE NOT YOUR PEOPLE, and you are not required to continue drinking their poison or be in contact with them. 

You get to choose who you allow — and don't allow — into your life, even if those people are family.

You get to choose what you consider acceptable and healthy. You get to choose yourself and your well-being even if it pisses people off. And you get to be you — all of you — because you matter. 


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