Getting Through the Holidays with a Toxic Family

For many people, the holiday season is full of excitement over the time they get to spend with all of their loved ones. For some, it creates a tinge of anxiety or panic as they think about seeing their racist uncle or the aunt who always asks when they’re going to get pregnant. And then there are some who are either alone for the holidays, or feel alone as they are surrounded by a toxic family.

What is a toxic family? Toxic doesn’t mean they were all drenched in radioactive materials, rather that they themselves sort of exude radioactivity, making everyone around them feel slowly worse and worse as time goes on. Toxic relationships are unhealthy relationships, typically based on mental, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse. In most toxic relationships, the abusive person uses manipulation, belittling, and other such tactics in order to make the other person feel as useless and small as they possibly can. Sounds like a recipe for a truly exciting holiday dinner, doesn’t it?

Cutting ties with a toxic family or toxic family members is far more difficult than most people imagine. If it’s the family you grew up in, then that’s the only family you’ve ever really known, how can you just walk away from that? If you married into a toxic family and your partner isn’t ready to cut ties with them, then how could you possible avoid them and just leave your partner to deal with the pain? But, truly, I believe one of the things that makes it so difficult for people to walk away from a family that constantly abuses them, is the way this type of dynamic is portrayed in entertainment of all kinds.

Pretty much every single tv show, book, and movie I’ve ever seen that depicts a toxic family relationship has a story that’s presented as such: the person trying to distance themselves from the family are selfish jerks, the abusive family members have some good qualities which supposedly makes up for all the pain they cause, and in the end the one who was trying to create healthy boundaries decides to accept their family as “quirky” and the cycle of abuse just continues. These movies are especially prevalent around the holidays or with holiday themes. Seriously, think about and you’ll be shocked.

Anyway, my point is not to dive into the analysis of the entertainment industry’s obsession with glorifying unhealthy relationships, as worthy of a topic as that is. Rather, I want to attempt to help those of you with toxic family or toxic family members, so that hopefully your holidays can be just a little bit easier and bright.


1. You don’t have to go

Maybe this one seems obvious, but I know plenty of people who are terrified of the holidays because they feel obligated to go home and spend time with their toxic families. Many spoonies worry about having to face the family members who refuse to believe the validity of their illnesses, no matter what the doctors say, and who regularly accuse them of being attention seekers. There are spoonies worried about getting drilled about jobs again, or being called lazy because they are on disability, or family members who scream about how they shouldn’t be forced to pay for the spoonies medical bills, whether directly or indirectly. All of these situations can be devastating for a spoonie.

I’m here to tell you that you are under no obligation to go. If it is possible to stay away (as it’s not possible for all), then stay away. Yes, it is likely that you will have some kind of consequence from it, such as a major guilt trip and missing out on Grandma’s famous mac & cheese, but the benefit of avoiding the yearly deep depression that follows the constant criticism and manipulation can certainly outweigh the mac & cheese.

Spending the holiday alone is often portrayed as devastating and pathetic, but for some it is liberating. Make your favorite holiday dishes on your own and spend the day watching your favorite holiday movies and tv specials. Sounds like a winning combination to me! If you have a partner, understanding extended family, or kids of your own, you can make the holidays cheery in your own home surrounding yourself only with those who are loving and supportive. I truly believe that it is possible to make your own family, whether it’s through friends, kids, a spouse, spouse’s family, or whatever…you can decide who you let into your life, so try to choose those who affect you in a positive way.


2. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

If you have no choice but to go, as some truly don’t have a choice, then arm yourself against the onslaught of cruelty you know will be waiting for you. Creating a wall of strong boundaries between you and the toxic people in your life is a must! It is one of the best ways to protect yourself. Boundaries can take multiple different forms and can vary from person to person and situation to situation. You get to decide what is right for you with your toxic family.

One relatively easy way of keeping a strong boundary, is by following a “small talk only, nothing personal” rule for all conversations. Sharing too much of your personal life with toxic people opens you up for hurtful criticism. Honestly, many toxic people will even turn small talk into an argument, but it’s a lot less emotionally damaging for a toxic person to argue with you about whether or not the rain is beneficial than it is for them to argue about if you’re wasting your life, a burden to society, or whatever other buttons they might push.

Typically honesty is my policy. I try to promote being courageously authentic, and not letting others determine how you live your life. However, I’ve also learned that not everyone deserves to see your authentic self. Not everyone deserves to be let into your life, even if they are the ones who gave you life to begin with. That doesn’t mean you go in and lie or pretend to be someone else. Rather, you only show them the side of yourself reserved for acquaintances instead of barring your whole beautiful self to them. Reserve your whole true self for those who have proven themselves worthy of seeing it.


3. Distractions

Another way to help avoid unnecessary hurtful conversations is to load yourself up with distractions to keep busy. Bring a supportive friend, your kick-ass spouse, or even just a book you love. You can keep yourself occupied by chatting with your friend or spouse, or keep your nose buried in a book. Either way, you’re closing yourself off to harmful conversations. It’s important, however, that anyone you bring for support understands the situation and are prepared to help you through it. If you bring someone who is unaware, they may end up adding to the stress of the day as they can’t comprehend why you are talking so little with your family.

There are lots of easy ways to create distractions for yourself. You can text a friend throughout the day, if you are stuck on your own. Suggest watching a holiday movie, which can keep most of the family occupied and less inclined to talk. Hang out with any family members that aren’t toxic, children are often great for this. People are less likely to bother you about being distant when they see you playing with the kids. No matter how you go about it, having a distraction that you can immerse yourself in can help you to avoid feeling trapped and helpless around your toxic family.


No matter what you do, remember that it’s okay to protect yourself and your mental health. You are not obligated to open yourself up to toxic people or to share any part of yourself with them. Toxic people have a way of convincing you that you owe them everything, but you don’t. You don’t owe them your time, your sanity, your joy, or any part of your life. And you don’t owe them an explanation as to why.

Remember, the holidays are for you as well, and you deserve to celebrate them however you would like.


Have any other helpful tips for surviving the holidays with a toxic family, leave it in a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


© 2017


I am a mother, partner, teacher, daughter, writer, and blogger. I'm working on turning my private hobby into a public one, whether the public asked for it or not. I have a BA in theatre and a Master's in Education (with a Montessori integration), making me a highly overqualified internet ranter.

2 thoughts on “Getting Through the Holidays with a Toxic Family

  • November 29, 2017 at 2:47 am

    I have a very toxic family, so this post speaks to me on so many levels. I know all too well about wanting to distance myself from my family but not being able to. Growing up in a Hispanic family, the importance of sticking with family no matter what has guilted me into just trying to put up with them. All of the points you have brought up are tactics that I’m actively trying to employ and have spoken about at length with my therapist. Particularly trying to set up boundaries.

    • November 30, 2017 at 12:16 am

      It certainly isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Xxx


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