5 Things To Remember When Dealing With Toxic Family Members During The Holiday Season


The holiday season is upon us, bringing with it syrupy carols, tinsel-lined streets, and an inexplicable desire for peppermint hot chocolate. However, in addition to delicious eats and sparkly decorations, this time of year may also mean coming face-to-face with families and relatives.

While, for some, family gatherings can be joyful affairs, for others, family time has a tendency to bring about some painful conversations and general unease. “It hardly ever ends up being a vacation,” my coworker tells me, “I never get to relax.”

Though individual circumstances may vary, my coworker is certainly not alone. Whether it’s a well-meaning aunt who is a bit too curious about your love life or a Trump-loving father who still doesn’t seem to grasp the meaning of political correctness, navigating family dynamics can be downright draining.

In some cases, unhealthy family relationships can be toxic, and in this case choosing not to go home for the holidays could be the best option. But for those who will be spending the holidays with family, there are few things to keep in mind that can help you make the best of things.

Ground Yourself

If your finances allow, consider arranging an alternative place to stay – whether it’s a hotel room, a friend’s house, or an Air BnB – near your relatives’ home. This way you can come and go as you please and have a safe place to retreat to if your surroundings become uncomfortable.

If you are staying at your parents’ or another relative’s home, make your room a temporary safe place you can escape to and ground yourself in. While being present is certainly important, taking care of your mental health takes priority. Don’t be afraid to go out for walks, take advantage of down time to read a book or listen to a podcast; don’t feel obligated to be physically present at all times.

Educating Others Isn’t Your Job

Listening to a relative rationalize why the Syrian refugee crisis is not the United States’ responsibility, or why “all lives matter” is enough to make even the most patient of individuals choke on their eggnog. Teaching an intensive course on decolonization over dinner is probably not going to happen, and regardless of how good your intentions may be, it simply isn’t your job to spend your holidays educating others. Depending on your family, it may be possible to touch upon some controversial topics in a constructive way; however, sticking to simple subjects is usually the surest course of action.

If you do find yourself surrounded by problematic banter and are unable to bite your tongue, consider asking a few leading questions that might incite some thoughtful conversation – or at the very least some quiet reflection – rather than provoking all-out warfare at the dinner table. If this fails, try calmly suggesting a topic-change.

Make Some Space

Fielding a barrage of nosy inquiries from family members can be difficult to manage. And while it may look different for everyone, cultivating an internal safe space can make all the difference. Whether it’s practicing deep breathing, burning a scented candle, or nursing a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, there are many ways to keep calm in the face of adversity.

Though drinking yourself under the table might not be the best plan, identifying things that could help to create a more positive atmosphere is a good place to start. Take a minute to brainstorm some things that make you feel comfortable – whether it’s a scented lotion or a favorite oversized sweater – and consider using these as tools to create a calmer environment for yourself. Of course, even with these considerations there is a chance you could still find yourself feeling triggered by an insensitive comment or topic, and if this happens it’s perfectly okay to excuse yourself.

A Dose of Realism

Most of us have endured enough holiday seasons to know what we might be in for this year. Still, it’s easy to get swept away with romanticized ideas of what our holidays should look like. Keep in mind that all families have their own eccentricities and hang-ups, and with the added chaos of flight delays, last minute gift-wrapping, and intergenerational warfare, tensions can make everyone want to tear their hair out.

This year, do your best to meet your family members halfway and plan ahead of time what you might be willing to compromise on in order to maintain harmony. And remember, it’s not your fault if things don’t go as planned; be proud of yourself for doing your best.

Embrace the Chaos

Regardless of who you plan on spending the upcoming holidays with this year, remember to take care of yourself and do what you can to keep the peace. Aside from unnecessary drama and cringe-worthy conversations, quality family time can have the potential to be a positive experience, and there’s a chance these quirky holiday memories will make you smile one day.