9 Women Reveal Their Best Strategy For Dealing With Toxic Family Members Over The Holidays

by Natalia Lusinski
Hannah Burton/Bustle

When it comes to families, there are several variations of the quote that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Regardless, you may find yourself still seeing your family over the holidays, even though they’re toxic and you feel the need to double up on therapy afterward. If you’re wondering how to manage your toxic family around the holidays, you’re not alone.

The All Suites brands by Hilton recently looked into this topic, too. On their behalf, Wakefield Research surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults ages 25+ and found that having more space to yourself could be a solution to handling stressful family situations — particularly during the busy holiday season. In fact, 87 percent of Americans found that having space to themselves makes them better people. And, 71 percent of people admitted to doing whatever it takes to get alone time, including feigning sickness, running a faux errand, and making an imaginary call.

“One of the best ways to manage toxic families is to consider whether to manage them at all,” Kryss Shane, LGBT, sex, and relationship expert, tells Bustle. “In some cases, using stress relievers, bringing friends as buffers, and limiting the amount of time being spent with relatives is necessary.” However, she says that in other cases, there isn’t a need to continue to have a relationship with someone who is toxic, including those who are related. “No one has the right to treat you badly, no one has the right to be cruel or disrespectful, and no one has the right to be in your life,” Shane says. By recognizing this, a person is better able to ascertain whether a family member should be enjoyed, tolerated, or removed, she says.

Let’s say you haven’t removed yourself from having a relationship with the toxic family member(s) yet and are going home for the holidays. So then what? Below, nine women share their best strategies on how they manage their toxic family members.


Melanie, 34

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

“When toxic family members start to get out of hand, I usually know when it’s about to happen — their language, mood, and so on. These are my cues to excuse myself and go into another room and do some deep breathing exercises or journal for a while. I then return to the room and try to tune my family out. If that doesn’t work, I leave and don’t look back … that is, until the next time I try going home for the holidays.”


Zoe, 29

As someone who’s bi, going home for the holidays is usually *not* fun since my dad is ULTRA conservative. ... Suffice it to say, during every family dinner, my dad loves to bring up my future — work, life, and ‘what you’re doing out there in crazy L.A.’ Plus, he loves to push the idea of MEN onto me more so than just accepting my bi life. Eventually, the ‘talk’ turns into a full-blown flight (sadly, I usually yell back at him, which I hate to admit), and I immediately regret having spent my hard-earned money on a flight back East. So now, my mom and I came up with a system that THEY can foot the bill for my flight since my going there usually backfires. I’m currently working with a new therapist on how to react to my dad in a healthier way, even though I never think he’ll get me.”


Chanel, 31

Ashley Batz/Bustle

“I deal with toxic family members (i.e., my mom) by doubling or tripling up on therapy appointments right before I fly home to see her (sometimes, even before I call her!). That way, I’m armed with non-combatative language to use once she starts pressing my buttons. It works more often than not, but nothing’s foolproof!”


Alex, 31

“Simple. I leave. If they won’t let up — which is usually the case — I first try one final time to get them to stop what they’re doing (i.e., insulting my life choices). If they still won’t let up, I excuse myself and leave — not just the room, but their place entirely.”


Jenn, 43

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

“I’ve had plenty of practice in this arena, so I have a few ideas: 1) Spend five minutes on Pinterest searching ‘how to respond to people with narcissistic and borderline personality traits.’ Arm yourself with the mantra that this is their issue, not yours. Repeat back what you hear; for example, ‘It sounds like you are saying that X is not acting like a good host,’ to which you can say, ‘My experience has been different,’ and leave it there. 2) Boundaries, boundaries and boundaries. Did I say boundaries? If you are a couple going into a family event, set up a clear plan if you are facing a toxic family member: Stay a team, have frequent check-ins, and have an SOS plan. 3) Set an alarm or multiple ones to have your phone ring/send a message, then high-tail it with an excuse to get out of the toxicity! Or, send yourself a message with the mantra: ‘ I will not take this personally’ or ‘This is their issue; I will not accept their energy.’”


Brianne, 39

“I still struggle with managing my family interactions, but I’ve developed an effective strategy as a result. Each year, I struggle with the same thing: How do I manage a visit to my mother as the holiday season approaches? Through years and years of trial, error, optimism, and pragmatism, I have learned this: Timing is everything. I’ve planned visits to happen before holidays, after holidays, on holidays; short trips, long trips, multiple mini visits. After all of this research, I have learned that my sweet spot is the second weekend in December. This allows me to take advantage of Black Friday travel deals while preventing me from having to ruin a perfectly good holiday by spending it in the company of someone who either says nothing at all, or nothing but cutting accusations and insulting statements.

Also, I stay for no longer than three nights, but ideally two. Then, I plan for multiple escapes over the course of my short visit, both to maintain sanity and to break up the uncomfortable togetherness inside my mom’s house. I don’t drink any longer, so I arrive with a personal stash of chocolate in my suitcase and a pack of Newport’s to stress smoke — the holiday season is no time for healthy choices, and time spent with family is no exception. Yes, smoking is horrible, but so is spending hours with someone who makes me want to gouge my own eyes out. I do whatever I need to do, just to get through to the other side.”


Josie, 35

Ashley Batz/Bustle

I set boundaries, not so much for them as much as for myself. That way, I’m in control, not them.”


Sara, 33

“To their faces, I pretend I am a strong, independent woman and tell them that what they say won’t hurt me. (It’s not worth arguing with them, trust me; I never win!) But behind closed doors, I go home and cry.”


Becca, 29

Ashley Batz/Bustle

“Honestly? Optimism. Before every holiday, I think, ‘This time, things will be different.’ But I couldn’t be more wrong. So, I go to Christmas dinner, or what have you, but I do NOT spend the night. Instead, I stay at a friend’s house, so that I can come and go at my parent’s house as I so choose. If I stay with them, then I’m stuck there (which I learned the hard way!). Then, it is also easier to leave if I just cannot take them anymore. So I say: Short and sweet is key!”

As you can see, the women above have various coping mechanisms when it comes to dealing with toxic family members, and if you’re in such a situation, you have to see what works best for you.

How To Manage Toxic Family Members, According To Experts

Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, MI, tells Bustle to keep in mind that you cannot control or change other people’s thoughts, behaviors, or emotions. “But you can focus on strategies that help you to set boundaries, self-soothe, or cope, rather than fixing another person,” she says.

Krawiec has three tips for managing toxic family members. “First, set reasonable expectations,” she says. “I love the quote ‘happiness equals reality minus expectations’ — meaning, we are the most happy when our expectations do not vastly exceed reality.” Krawiec says setting reasonable expectations means avoiding statements like ‘should’ or ‘should not.’ “Instead of ‘my dad should not bring up politics, assume that he will and plan for how you will respond,” she says.

Second, Krawiec says to predict problems and brainstorm solutions. “If you know your family party devolves into chaos as the evening wears on, suggest coming for brunch or making plans where you arrive early, but must leave by a certain time,” she says.

Third, set boundaries, Krawiec says. “Time is one example of a boundary, and space is another,” she says. “Identify places you can go if you need time or space to calm down, cope, or think clearly.” She says to also consider having an ally, like your partner, to make a safe word with in the event you are struggling, need to leave, or need some assistance navigating a conversation.

With all of the above ideas, should you find yourself in a toxic family environment, at least you’ll have some ideas on how to deal with it effectively.