How To Deal With Giving & Getting Presents From Toxic Family Members


The holidays can be a difficult time if you have toxic family members. Given that the holidays emphasize family and togetherness, it can be hard to square the glossy, warm-and-fuzzy hype with the sometimes difficult realities of toxic families. One particular area in which toxicity can flower is the tradition of presents. We all hope for a charming experience of giving and receiving thoughtful, lovely gifts, but the reality can be very different; gift exchanges can open up a world of insults, narcissism, passive aggression and outright bad behavior. It's tempting to think about whether you should give toxic family presents over the holidays at all.

For starters: No, you don't have to get anyone presents during the holiday season at all. There are many reasons people might want to avoid this tradition entirely, from wanting to bring the focus away from material objects, to wanting to avoid spending money. But avoidance isn't always the best route with toxic family, especially since it might be interpreted as a slight — and start the process of toxic behavior.

The holidays and accompanying gift catastrophes might serve to highlight the fact that your family member (or members) are toxic to you. If that's the case, it's a good idea to seek help. "If you’re feeling like this toxic person is having a negative impact on your life, and you’re having trouble staying non-reactive when you’re around them, you may want to consider talking to a therapist about this dynamic in your extended family," therapist Heidi McBain tells Bustle. Beyond professional help, which can be invaluable as you deal with these relationships, here are five ways to manage holiday gifts when you have a toxic family member.


Mentally Prepare

Chances are that the toxic family member's behavior (around presents and everything else) follows a pattern, whether it's throwing tantrums about perceived slights, using gifts to cause arguments or enforce power struggles, or simply being outright rude. "Whoever the toxic family member is, you can be sure that they’ll have something to say about their gift (and most likely everyone else’s too)," Caleb Backe, a wellness expert at Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "Realizing this before the gift-giving process will give you the time to mentally prepare and prevent you from getting triggered when the inevitable comment occurs."


Don't Focus On The Outcome

It's all about the intent when it comes to presents — and experts say that's an important fact to keep in mind when you're dealing with a toxic family member. "When giving a gift to a toxic family member, try to come from a positive place within yourself," advises McBain. "Try not to be attached to the outcome of if they like it or don’t like it, and simply know that your intent was good and that you truly though it was something they would appreciate." That way, you know you did the right thing, and their reaction is their business.


Be General

Actually picking a neutral gift can be tricky, and trying too hard can be a bad idea. "If you’re the one buying a gift for this family member, try and stick to something universal and useful to avoid any unnecessary comments," Backe tells Bustle. "Whether it’s a gift basket or a fancy bottle of alcohol, don’t overthink it too much so you’re not invested in a reaction that will ultimately disappoint."


Manage Expectations

Receiving presents from a toxic family member can be awkward, traumatic or difficult, particularly if they're using the gifts to try and "make a point" or make you upset. "When receiving presents from a toxic family member, try to keep your expectations low," McBain tells Bustle. "Try to come from a place of appreciation and grace, even if you’re not feeling this way inside about their gift." It can be hard if they've bought you something extremely hurtful or deliberately "forgotten" you, but try to remain aloof.


Recognize That You Can't Control Their Actions

The most important part of managing toxic family members around gift-giving time is also part of managing them in general: recognizing that you don't have control. "Try to remember that the only part of the situation that you can control are yourself and your own feelings and emotions," says McBain. "If the toxic person overreacts or is mean and ugly towards you, try to maintain your composure and not let their negativity get to you." It's their problem, not yours, and your holidays don't have to be ruined by their hideous behavior. Don't feel guilty if they do manage to upset you — that, after all, is often what they're good at — but recognize that that's their choice and you didn't do anything to deserve the behavior.

While unwrapping the presents under the tree can be a very fraught time, hopefully these tips will help you navigate the potential minefield of bad behavior with grace and self-care.