3 Ways to Deal with Toxic Family Over the Holidays

toxic family holidays austin therapyAh, the holidays! That time of year when families and loved ones come together to celebrate the season. But for anyone with toxic family members, the holidays can be one giant eye roll, or worse.

You feel obligated to attend events, even though you’d rather be doing literally anything else. Maybe it’s so bad you’re debating cutting certain people or gatherings out of your life completely.

If you or someone you know is dreading an upcoming holiday but are still planning to attend, here are 3 tips to get through it with your sanity intact:


Use mindfulness to keep your cool

You walk through the door and already your parents are criticizing your outfit, your hair, or even life choices. Maybe your uncle goes into a drunken tirade in the middle of dinner or your cousin won’t stop bragging about how successful they are. It’s barely been any time, but already you feel like saying “Screw it!” and storming out. How do you keep your cool? The first step is practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about bringing our full attention to the present moment. It’s about the ability to be present with what’s happening inside of us, as it’s happening. This allows you to be an objective observer of what’s happening around with, without getting swept away.

If you start to feel the anger or frustration rising inside of you, or feel tears welling up, take a few deep breaths (excuse yourself to another room if needed) and check in on what you’re feeling. If you’re alone, say what you’re feeling out loud (or in your head if you’re around others).

“I’m feeling really angry right now because mom is criticizing me. She does this whenever I visit home and I wish she wouldn’t.”

By giving yourself that extra space, you can ride the emotional wave and decide how you want to respond instead of immediately reacting and putting yourself back into a familiar pattern or argument. If you have time, try practicing mindfulness before your trip so it’ll be easier to call upon this skill in the moment.


Respond strategically to insults and criticisms

As a general rule, it’s better to respond than react. You’ve started using mindfulness to give you a moment to respond, and here is where you want to work on responding strategically. When someone is being critical, they are typically trying to send a poorly communicated message. Try to figure out what might be going on underneath their statement and use reflective statements to deflect.

“That’s what you’re wearing?”
“You don’t like what I’m wearing.”

“When are you ever going to get married?”
“I hear your concern, I’m perfectly happy right now.”

“No one ever helps out around the house!”
“You would like some help around the house.”

“[Person] is so much smarter/more successful/better than you.”
“You really admire [person].”

The goal right now isn’t to change the person (which isn’t possible anyway), but rather the way you’re responding to whatever they throw at you. Whether they’re purposely trying to get a rise out of you or it’s just a bad habit, these types of statements help you keep your cool and not take it personally.


Block out negativity

It’s hard to get bombarded with toxic negativity, whether it’s constant complaining or ignorant statements. It’s a constant internal battle between saying something or swallowing our disgust. Depending on who the person is, it may be unlikely you’ll ever change their mind. Often people get the most defensive when they’re called out in front of others and will even escalate their behavior.

If it’s someone you’re close to, consider pulling them aside and letting them know that their statements bothered you. If they start to get defensive, use your reflective statement skills to defuse the situation. Let them know you don’t mean to hurt their feelings and are merely reflecting how you feel and that you wanted to share your perspective.

If they’re more distant, consider whether it’s better to just let it go. I’m not advocating for always turning a blind eye to ignorance, but it’s important to gauge whether we will be effective or not. If you’ve tried and failed in the past, it’s unlikely this year will be any different. Remind yourself that their attitudes reflect poorly on them, not on you. We aren’t responsible for the way others think and behave, sometimes all we can do is carry on and do our best.


Remember: we can’t change people, but we can change the way we interact with them. Do your best and forgive yourself if you still blow up or storm out. New skills take practice and will eventually become second nature! Try them the next time you’re having a rage-inducing interaction with someone and see what works and feels comfortable for you.

These are some of the first steps to employ when you’re dealing with toxic people. Keep an eye on our blog for some upcoming features that will continue to build on these skills to help transform your challenging relationships.

In the meantime, if you need more help I offer a free 20-minute consultation and convenient online booking. 

Happy Holidays!