How to Survive Gatherings with Toxic Family Members
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How to Survive Gatherings with Toxic Family Members in the Holidays

How to Survive Gatherings with Toxic Family Members in the Holidays

You see so often in movies, the soaps, in children’s story books, the picture of the perfect family. If you have come from a toxic family, this scenario would be alien to you. Christmas can bring out the worst in a lot of families. 

A lot of times when you hear people say they hate Christmas; it is due to the different experiences they had as a child with their parents and their siblings. It is only when you get older when you begin to realise how difficult your family is. It’s during Christmas when your family will come together these problems are often magnified. 

How can you cope with Toxic Family Members during this time?


1. Don’t pretend your family is something they are not

Don’t sugarcoat your family. Sometimes we do this to cope because it is more comfortable being in denial about who they really are. The problem is, we are surprised when things go wrong. 

Don’t ignore their difficult behaviours. Use this knowledge to learn how you can cope. for example, for years you might have ignored your mum’s drinking, but you know that when she drinks too much, she becomes nasty and everything gets out of hand. 

You can prepare by make a plan to leave when are drinking gets too much. but if you pretend it is not happening you can’t make a plan.


2. Set Boundaries

  • Set time limits for yourself decide how much time you can come up with your family and stick with it. Ask yourself? How much is too much? How much contact do you want with them?
  • Which relative can’t you tolerate? Are there some people you can tolerate but not on your own?
  • Set limits on the conversations, the topics that you know are difficult for you. If you know you would be asked certain questions about your life that you will find difficult, plan before hand how you will answer them. 

For example, your aunt that normally looks down at you asking you about your career. Plan you would respond politely and simply just by saying “everything is fine and going to plan” and leave it at that.

  • It would help to think of an escape route. A reason to give for when you need to leave. You don’t need to stay if it is too much for you.

3. Be clear on your standards

Know that you don’t have to be part of any poor behaviour. That includes intoxication from alcohol or any other substance misuse, anyone’s bad language or antagonising controlling behaviour. Remember you set the bar for your life.

4. Accept them a they are

If you choose to spend time with your family maybe it’s time to acknowledge that no matter how much you wish they will change, can they? will they? do they want to change?

It may be time to consider accepting them as they are. worrying about what will happen with them only adds to your stress levels and will result in more and more disappointments.

By the way accepting them as they are does not mean accepting their poor behaviour. It just means seeing them for who they are not having any expectations of them.

For example, you make crave affections, hugs and kisses but they are cold and distant and can’t understand your needs.

Accept that it sucks and try not to fight battles you may not win.


5. What is your exit strategy?

  • You might feel better if you took control and knew that you can leave when you wanted to and not being made to stay because you have not got the means to.
  • Do you need your own transport?
  • Can you bring some money with you or public transport?
  • Would you need your own transport?
  • Can you bring money so you can afford public transport to escape?
  • Can you bring a friend that can support you who can drive and take you home when you need to?

Try and think about this and plan beforehand.


6. Know your own truth and values and keep them in your heart.

  • Very often it is the sneaky and hurtful comments that can send you into a head spin. It could be a racist comment, different political views, different levels of morality.
  • Do you really need to have a heated debate to try and convince them of your view?
  • If you feel that you can’t be happy until your family understands you, then their beliefs and values will control your life.
  • If there are things you totally believe in, just remember that you are entitled to your opinion and so are they. Even if you don’t agree with them.

Validate your own feelings and opinions and try to accept the fact that yours are different. In other words, be glad that your views are different.


7. Have emotional support available

  • Find someone to debrief with – Tell a supportive friend of your plans to spend time with your family and decide between you and them what support you will need.
  • Maybe you just need a response to a quick text message
  • You might find I useful to have a quick five-minute chat just to let of steam during your time there
  • You may also find it beneficial to have a long chat with them when you have come home. You may need to tell them how it went and/or have someone to console you.
  • Don’t forget you can also journal your experiences. You can journal some of the ideas here and use your journal to work out what would be best for you.


8. Don’t forget self-care

“Have respect for yourself, and patience and compassion. With these, you can handle anything.” ~Jack Kornfield

Selfcare is important anyway under any circumstances but if you anticipate difficulty ahead, you would need to upgrade your self care so you will not be depleted when it is finished.

So don’t forget self-care before, during and after. Here are some ideas:

Make sure you are not tired and have had enough sleep. Feeling tired would leave you with less energy to cope.

  • Try something relaxing before you get their i.e. meditation or yoga
  • Don’t forget exercise as it releases your feel good hormones.
  • Practice deep breathing whilst you are there to help you remain calm
  • Have something to look forward to when you leave
  • Essential oils such as Lavender, bergamot and ylang ylang amongst others are great for relaxing. Add a few drops to a tissue and inhale the aroma for quick, calming relief. Mix with water in a spray bottle for a calming spritz (try spraying a scarf and carrying it with you throughout the day)

9. Creative visualisation

Creative visualisation is basically creating in your mind first what you would like to happen. You could use creative visualisation in a number of ways here:

  • Picture in your mind how you would realistically, considering all the dynamics of your family, like the gathering to unfold.
  • Picture how you would ideally respond to any potential difficulties.
  • Visualise yourself being protected from any difficulties and challenges. For example you could picture in your mind an invisible wall between you and your family.
  • Any toxicity or negativity would bounce of this wall. This protection could be a shield, an imaginary protective person. Whatever you’re comfortable with


I am a Therapist based in Sutton Coldfield, UK also available online.

Call for a free 15 minute no obligation consultation to talk about your next steps.

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