How to deal with a toxic family around the holidays

For some of us, the holidays can feel like a war zone.

I grew up with very fond memories of Christmas and the holidays in general. I’m a Christmas baby, born at the end of December, so that also helped.

But my wife is another story entirely. Going to my family’s home over the holidays, typically on Christmas Eve, was warm and welcoming. But going to my wife’s felt dead and awkward, like the ghosts of old, painful memories walked the halls.

The holidays are difficult for a lot of people for different reasons. One of the most common is toxic family members. All year-round you’re free of the tyranny of your family, or a specific person, that seems to have made it their mission to break you.

And as soon as you get out of the car or off the plane to come home for the holidays it feels you’re dodging bombs and ducking over figurative bullets continuously.

If that’s what the holidays feels like for you, you need to deal with it or risk losing your sanity this holiday season (all over again).

My father once said, ‘If you’re in the desert and you’re dying of thirst, are you going to drink a glass of blood or are you going to drink a glass of water?’ I think what he was trying to say, interesting coming from my blood father, is sometimes there are people in your family that can be toxic.

– Nicolas Cage

War made Rambo lose his head. That doesn’t have to be you. Here are some strategies for dealing with toxic family members around the holidays.

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1. Make a plan

I know, you’re busy enough. But the last thing you want is for the holidays to hit you over the head like a wave because you’ve been too busy with work and other responsibilities.

If you know what’s to come, that you’re going to have to deal with what you go through every single year, then do yourself a favor and instead of ignoring it until it’s physically impossible, take some extra precautions beforehand to help you deal with it.

This will not only give you more of a sense of control, which can be a big comfort, but it will allow you to have some pieces in place for dealing with things if they get really bad.

This all depends on the kind of toxicity you experience with your family. However, a plan for injecting some positivity into your holidays — whether it’s an audiobook, podcasts, videos, outside social gatherings with friends — and counterbalancing the negativity is one useful strategy pretty much anyone can use.

Look back on previous years at the kinds of things you experienced to get a better idea of what you’re likely to go through. Maybe it’s a specific person you need to avoid or a specific event that conjures memories of disappointment in your parents towards you like a parade that you can avoid, or something else.

Or maybe it’s about time. Maybe you can take a day or two or three of the mind-numbing nagging or piercing insults but anything more than that and you feel like curling up into a ball. Maybe you just need to cut your trip down by a few days to save your sanity.

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Looking back like this will help you craft a strategy that makes the holidays more manageable for you, so don’t overlook it and allow yourself to come barreling into things without planning ahead.

2. Call in the troops (Get some social support)


The best way to deal with toxicity is positivity, love, and support from others. Always and no matter what form it takes. Nothing else comes close.

So, once you’ve made some plans to deal with the holiday threat and you feel like Rambo with Christmas ribbons tied across your bicep and forehead, it’s time to marshall in some backup.

Talk to some friends about possibly staying with them, spending some time together, or simply talking in case things get really bad. Whatever form it takes, just get a commitment from a few friends or (non-hostile) family members that will offer support when you need it the most.

It may backfire to ask if they’d come and spend some time with you and your family, though, so be careful about going that far. Certain types of toxic people find pleasure in tearing you down in front of other people, especially if they’re your acquaintance.

3. If all else fails– retreat!

If you’ve gotten this far and nothing is working, it’s important to remember that true love isn’t toxic.

Sometimes, sure, someone that loves us can be so far stuck up their own bum that they can’t bring themselves to say I love you and instead are constantly trying to tell you how disappointed they are in you or why they don’t like you, approve of your life choices, or all of the above.

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But, in general, love isn’t toxic. You don’t need that toxicity in your life and you’re not bound by a tradition that seems designed to break your spirit.

Don’t be afraid of crafting an exit strategy in case things go really wrong. Don’t feel guilty about executing that exit strategy when you’ve had enough. And don’t look back on the holidays like you’re the aggressor. Because if all of this is true of you so far, you weren’t.

So, take some time to craft an exit strategy that will allow you to retreat from battle in case things go too far or you feel yourself starting to break down including travel, excuse, and maybe replacement plans.

I’m not here to tell you whether you should employ a white lie to get out of there or not (“Work called me in, we have an emergency with our most important client”) because your sanity is that important.

Your the only one that can decide how you go about doing it. But make sure you have something in place that allows you to throw up the white flag and get out of there when you’ve just had enough.

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