How to Handle a Toxic Family Member

how to deal with a toxic family member

A toxic relative can blow up a Thanksgiving dinner, destroy a weekend visit, and leave a path of destruction through a family vacation. They bring new meaning to the term “nuclear family.”

You can’t cut the bad apples from the family tree, but that doesn’t mean you have to let their poison spread from branch to branch. This week, with big thanks to an anonymous listener in Vancouver, we’ll reveal five options to distance yourself from a toxic person in your family.

How to Deal with Toxic Family Members

  1. To get started, get clarity.
  2. Rewrite your part in the family drama.
  3. Test out new rules of engagement.
  4. Surf the wave.
  5. Cut ties, for a while or forever.

Option #1: To get started, get clarity.

With toxic family members, we are often blinded to reality. Sometimes we’re blinded by optimism: we overlook their latest shenanigans because we just want to smooth things over. We make excuses for them under the guise of hope. We are loyal because they’re blood.

But sometimes we’re blinded to the reality of the situation by resentment. We ignore their efforts to reach out because we’re holding a grudge. We think they’re being manipulative or aren’t capable of change. Often that’s true, but sometimes it’s not.

So start by trying to see things as they really are. A helpful way to do this is to make a big list. On one side, write down the good times—those times you’ve felt supported by them, they came through for you, you felt loved. On the other side, write out the bad times—the times they hurt you, ignored you when you needed help, or actively tried to undermine or control you. Look at both frequency and magnitude. Seeing your interactions in black and white can help you determine whether your relationship deserves to be thrown a life preserver or is essentially dead in the water.

Option #2: Rewrite your part in the family drama.

Remember As You Like It from high school English class? “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” But here’s the little-remembered next line: “They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

If you’re stuck in family drama, maybe it’s time to play another part. For instance, a 23-year-old client of mine—we’ll call her Riley*—realized her parents had unwittingly assigned her the role of convincing her self-destructive brother to turn his life around while they simultaneously covered for his DUIs and insisted he’d surely look for a job any day now.

Riley realized it was a losing battle to try and save him while her parents enabled him. Only he could save himself, plus her parents needed to gather the courage to talk to him directly rather than send her as the messenger. Ultimately, Riley set some limits—she wouldn’t act as their go-between and she wouldn’t participate in phone calls where they worried about him without taking action. She didn’t drop out of the play, but she did rewrite her role.

Option #3: Test out new rules of engagement.

A toxic family member is like a forest fire—they need to be contained by drawing some lines. There are lots of ways to contain how you interact with them: you can set limits on the size of the group, duration of contact, location, and more.

For instance, you can decide you’re willing to visit but only if you stay in a hotel. Perhaps you’ll only see them at big events like weddings or funerals, not intimate gatherings. Maybe you’re willing to see them when they’re less likely to be drinking, like kids’ birthday parties or brunch. Maybe texts and emails are fine, but not long, draining, one-sided phone calls. Perhaps you’ll see them for a meal, but nothing longer.

Whatever rules of engagement you decide on, also include plans to attend to relationships you might otherwise miss out on. Do your best to see your toxic family member’s kids or spouse without them present. Your toxic relative might foil your plans, but then again, they may not. Give it a try, and you just might get to have your cake and eat it, too.

Estrangement is never easy, so it makes sense not to go it alone.

Option #4: Surf the wave.

Family drama usually comes in predictable waves. Approximately midway through a family vacation, for instance, or after 10 PM and a few bottles of wine, or anytime there’s a funeral and the estate gets divided. Once you know the pattern, you can plan. Your plan may be to lay low until the drama blows over, or it may be to ride it out but take extra good care of yourself during the height of the storm. Either way, a little advance planning and testing the waters can keep you from getting caught in the flood.

Option #5: Cut ties, for a while or forever.

Estrangement is a paradoxical animal: it’s surprisingly common, but most people keep it hidden. It’s drastic, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do. It can be triggered by true injustices, but also by petty reasons no one can even remember.

In a study of almost 900 estranged families, the two most common reasons parents cut off their kids were 1) a sense of entitlement—most often demanding money, or 2) what the researchers called “objectionable relationships,” like opposing a child’s partner of a different race, the same sex, or simply the old standby of “a bad influence.”

Adult children most often cut off their parents because of the parent’s toxic behavior—what the researchers described as continual situations of “cruelty, anger, or perpetual disrespect.” Adult kids also cut ties when they felt unaccepted or rejected, perhaps due to a disability, their sexual orientation, or that Hollywood divorce standby: “irreconcilable differences.”

The average age of estrangement, at least in the study, was 31. Interestingly, that’s about the age where people are starting or settling in to families of their own. Indeed, sometimes a new baby brings extended families together, but sometimes it creates a sense of perspective, as in: “I would never treat my child the way they treated me,” which in turn triggers action.

Regardless of how or why it’s initiated, estrangement drives mixed emotions. If you go this route—whether for a few weeks or the rest of your life—it’s okay to feel conflicted, especially at first. For instance, you might feel tremendous relief, but you might also feel sadness or grief, especially if you’re estranging yourself from a close family member—a parent, an adult child, a sibling. Just remember you’re not crazy if you find yourself missing someone you never want to see again.

Of course, do your best to surround yourself with kindness and support. Estrangement is never easy, so it makes sense not to go it alone.

A final note: these five ways to distance yourself from a toxic family member all assume you’ve already done your best to work it out. I know, I know, some people don’t listen, will never change, or just twist your words and throw them back at you. When that happens, distance is the way to go. After all, when your toxic family member overwhelms your life with their issues, it’s okay to cancel your subscription.

*As always, client names and identifiers have been changed to protect privacy.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.