Right now many folks are beginning the countdown to their highly-anticipated trip home for the holidays. But if you have a toxic family, visiting relatives isn’t always a joyful or relaxing experience. In fact, it can be downright distressing.
While some families are toxic all year round, the holidays really bring it out in full force, says Ruifan Zeng, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma. This time of year is extra stressful, which is why it can start to feel like an advent calendar of anxiety. “It can be very tough to deal with because it's harder to separate ourselves from people and environments we don't typically interact with,” Zeng tells Bustle.
Toxicity plays out differently from family to family, but there are typically a few common traits to watch out for. “It might come in the form of overly-harsh and critical comments about your choices, lifestyle, and appearance, or persistently asking intrusive questions,” Zeng tells Bustle. It’s also possible to witness toxic treatment happen to other family members, she adds, which can be equally upsetting. Yelling, blaming, over-generalizing, or refusing to take accountability all fall under the toxic umbrella. The same is true if you find yourself caught in the middle of an argument or trying to keep the peace during conflicts. If any of this sounds familiar, Zeng says there may be some toxic traits at play.
While it can be tough to get through totally unscathed, rest assured there are plenty of ways to handle toxic family members during the holidays. If you choose to go home and are hoping for the best, here are some tips to get you through the season as smoothly as possible.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
Even though it’d be nice if the season was packed with loving, cozy gatherings where everyone laughs and gets along, it may help to go into your holiday with neutral expectations. Think of it this way: “There's no need to place additional pressure on ourselves or family members to 'behave better' during the holidays,” Zeng says, especially since stress runs high this time of year and can put even the most chill relative on edge. It’ll help to brace yourself, so you can be pleasantly surprised if things go well.
2. Don’t Try To Change Anyone
Before you show up with casserole in hand, remind yourself that it’s not your job to change your family. “The likelihood that your problematic relative is going to change this holiday is very low,” says Marjorie Jean, LICSW, LCSW-C, a trauma-informed therapist. They are who they are, and no dinner table chat will get through to them.
While it may sound negative, Zeng says this mental shift is all about preserving your mental well-being. If you release the idea that you need to educate family members or mediate arguments, suddenly it all seems less stressful. Instead, take deep breaths and focus on finding small moments of happiness so you can stay grounded.
3. Plan Neutral Conversation Topics
If your family’s toxicity stems from tough convos, it may help to go into the season with a mental checklist of things you’d prefer to talk about. “It can be helpful to come to gatherings prepared to divert the topic of conversation to a handful of topics that you feel comfortable discussing, or that you know won't be so controversial among family members,” Zeng says.
The moment a family member starts talking about politics, for instance, ask if they have any fun travel plans coming up, interesting projects at work, or a fave TV show. “Be prepared to steer the conversation away to these safer topics if you find yourself in the middle of a conflict,” Zeng says.
4. Practice Redirecting Tough Convos
You can even practice redirecting problematic convos before the festivities begin. “As strange as it sounds, I encourage people to practice interrupting a conversation with a friend or partner until they feel confident about doing so when needed,” says Peggy Loo, Ph.D., NYS, a licensed psychologist and director of Manhattan Therapy Collective. “We're often socialized not to interrupt others while they are speaking, but in the context of an unwanted or unhealthy conversation, this might mean we get stuck if we're waiting for a natural place to jump in.”
Ask a friend to start talking about anything, and then interject with a prepared statement like, “OK, I’d like to talk about something else.” According to Loo, this trick will help you wriggle out of stressful convos so you can spare yourself the toxicity.
5. Politely Decline Pointed Questions
You can also spare yourself by declining to answer unwanted inquiries, however much a family member needles, pokes, or pries. “You can tell them you understand their interest and curiosity about something, but then firmly say that you don't feel comfortable talking about this topic at the moment,” Zeng says. “If they persist, you can let them know you will be exiting the conversation if they continue.” Again, change the topic and stick to your boundaries.
6. Schedule Games & Activities
Does your family tend to get into an argument the moment there’s nothing better to do? If that’s the case, keep things moving by planning games or activities you can do together. “Whether it's watching a holiday-themed movie or roasting some marshmallows, look for something that can occupy your time,” Zeng says. “It’ll reduce the opportunity for having difficult and uncomfortable conversations if everyone is engaged in an activity.”
7. Set Time Limits
While exiting a family get-together is often easier said than done, Loo suggests setting boundaries around how much time you’re willing to spend with family or in situations that may not be the healthiest and allowing yourself to leave the moment that time is up.
“This could mean that you choose to stop by a family gathering only for dessert versus an extended meal, or that you give yourself permission to take a break if you're already spent an afternoon together,” Loo tells Bustle. “Feeling in control of your time can help you manage challenging dynamics because you know there is an endpoint, instead of feeling trapped in interactions.”
8. Check In With Yourself
Throughout the season, make it a point to check in with yourself physically and mentally to see how you’re holding up. “If your heart rate and temperature are up or you're not thinking clearly, these can be signs to retreat and take a break from the situation,” Zeng says. “Step outside for some air, hide in the bathroom, or go to another room. This can help you check in about any boundaries or limits you may wish to set when you return to interacting.”
9. Create A Relaxing Routine
It may also help to develop a self-care practice that allows you to create some distance from your family and offer a little respite, Jean says. Think about going to the gym, getting to bed early, or taking long walks every morning before you rejoin the get-together.
Being around a toxic family is stressful, and that stress forces your body into a hyper-vigilance mode that can put you on edge and make the whole situation feel worse, Jean tells Bustle. “By setting up a self-care regimen, you are being proactive in regulating your nervous system and body through a difficult time,” she says.
10. Phone A Friend
It may help to lean on a friend — or even a therapist — before, during, and after your holiday, so ask if it’d be OK to reach out with a quick call or text. Loo recommends setting aside time to phone a friend throughout the season so you can fill them in on the details, share a few stories, and maybe bring a little levity to the situation. (Even better if you can talk to them while you go for a relaxing walk.)
11. Suggest A New Tradition
If you know that dinner at grandma’s house always goes downhill, Jean recommends creating new traditions. Invite everyone to your place for drinks, offer to reserve a table at a restaurant, or suggest meeting in the town square to look at Christmas lights. “This may be an opportunity to challenge some cultural hierarchies,” she says. It may also feel good to meet family members in a more neutral territory so those old dynamics are less likely to take over.
12. Stick With Your Allies
If you have one or two family members who aren’t toxic, try to stick by their side. “This can mean finding people at gatherings whom you like interacting with and spending more of your time and energy engaged with them,” Zeng says.
You can slice pie with your cool aunt, take a little cousin for a walk, or watch a movie with your sister-in-law in another room. “If you can, laugh and acknowledge the absurdity of these shared situations together,” Zeng adds. A quick vent may be just what you need to make it out on the other side.
13. Plan An Exit Strategy
If things have gotten so toxic in the past that you’ve actually wanted or needed to leave, then go ahead and create an exit strategy ahead of time. Figure out how you’ll excuse yourself, where else you can stay in your family’s town, or how you’ll get back home. Sketching it out beforehand can create immense peace of mind.
14. Remember It’s Only Temporary
If you notice your stress levels rising, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’ll all be over soon. “Remember that this environment is temporary,” Zeng says, so look out at the time you have to get through — whether it’s one dinner, one day at home, or one week with guests in your house — and start counting the hours. Even though it may seem like forever, it won’t be that long before your life is back to normal.
15. Ask Yourself If You Really Have To Go In The First Place
There’s often a lot of internal and external societal pressure to spend the holidays with family, Loo says. And while it might have you convinced that you need to travel home, you should feel free to consider the alternatives, especially if you hit a point where the negatives outweigh the positives.
If you really need to step back, it might feel better to stay at your place and send a card, call from a distance via Zoom, or opt out entirely and create new seasonal traditions of your own. If you don’t want to subject yourself to any drama, Loo notes that it’s more than OK to look out for your own best interests, even if you get pushback from family.
The holidays may be a tough whirlwind of a time, but they certainly don’t have to be toxic.
Ruifan Zeng, Ph.D., clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma
Marjorie Jean, LICSW, LCSW-C, trauma-informed therapist
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