How to Deal With Toxic Family MembersNo more “I am the eldest boy!” energy.
Society, your mom, and even the Lifetime channel often try to convince us that every family should have a strong, sacred bond fortified by love and loyalty. The idea is that these people are your dependable ride or dies and a source of unconditional love. But—to borrow an idea once held by a philosopher known as Shrek—families are like onions, and they have layers. The unfortunate reality is that many of us have a toxic family, and that can be a real source of pain and shame.
First things first: We know that the term “toxic” gets thrown around so much that it’s basically lost all meaning. And, yes, it’s often unhelpful to label someone as “toxic" when you're not being specific about what the issue is (especially if they're otherwise a generally OK human). So when we talk about toxic family members in this article, what we’re really talking about are people in your family who often exhibit shitty behaviors, says Sherrie Campbell, PhD, psychologist and author of But It’s Your Family…. Generally speaking, toxic behavior makes us feel disrespected, unheard, unseen, and unsafe, says therapist Lindsay Bass, LPC. And that’s especially true when it’s coming from the people we’re related to.
Toxic family behavior can look cruel, critical, controlling, and show a lack of empathy or respect for your boundaries, feelings, and needs. Those who lie, manipulate, or always make themselves out to be a victim are also exhibiting toxic behavior, says Dr. Campbell. So, yeah, “toxic” is definitely a faster way to describe all of that.
For Alex,* a young professional working in publishing, the toxic vibes started after they came out as non-binary to their family. Since then, Alex says they’ve felt like they had to withdraw and avoid any conversation that could spark an argument. Alex says that their family members, once warm and reassuring, are now a source of pain everytime they use the wrong pronoun or make a joke about Alex being “confused” or in a “phase.”
Because most of us have been taught to just endure toxic behavior from the people in our families or pretend it’s not happening at all, it can be hard for people like Alex (and maybe even you) to take action or stand up for themselves. But, honestly, that’s not going to get you anywhere—and maybe you’ve already figured that out.
So, we asked therapists how to actually deal with all that toxic family behavior. From communicating your needs and boundaries to hitting pause on the together time, these tips can help you assess your situation and figure out how to move forward.
If you aren’t sure whether your family is actually toxic
Sometimes when dealing with kin we think might be toxic, it can be hard to validate your hunch. After all, if you’ve been told that your POV is an overreaction or just the result of some miscommunication, it’s easy to doubt yourself, Dr. Campbell says. Sometimes that message comes across indirectly by the way your relatives react to you expressing hurt feelings. Other times, it’s more straightforward, she adds.
In some families, people experience reactive abuse, which is when someone provokes you by saying something rude or hurtful, and you respond in a big way, explains Dr. Campbell. “Now you're the asshole, and [your reaction] seemingly deletes everything they just did,” she adds. “We're never our best selves when trying to reason with a toxic family member, so it's much easier to doubt ourselves—and that's exactly what they want.”
When Alex first came out as non-binary, their parents didn’t say much. Actually, it was as if Alex didn’t come out at all because their parents kept using their old pronouns, and whenever Alex would correct them, they would roll their eyes and continue talking. Naturally, this hurt. But because the behavior was coming from Alex’s parents, who they used to get along with, Alex started to second-guess if their emotions were really valid.
If you can relate to that unsure feeling, ask yourself, Is my family causing ongoing and/or intentional harm to me or anyone else? says therapist Kara Kays, LMFT. Your answer to that question is the key to understanding who the asshole is here. If it’s hard for you to answer that right now, that makes sense. In that case, reflect on how you show up when you’re around your relatives compared to when you’re on your own or around people who feel safe to you.
“Many people report feeling as if they've ‘reverted’ back to another version of themselves when surrounded by a toxic family,” Kays adds. Maybe you’d never let your friends make ignorant jokes (or you wouldn’t hang with people who do in the first place), but you’d never tell your family to check themselves. If there’s a huge disconnect in how you feel and act depending on your environment, then the people who make you feel like garbage are likely the problem.
Outside of Alex’s family, they felt confident, outspoken, like the life of the party. But when they were at home, they felt like they had to be more passive and people pleaser-y, even if that meant sacrificing their feelings. Noticing that major difference helped them see that their parents are holding them back.
If you think something’s off between you and your people, try logging how you feel before and after interacting with them, Kays says. You can jot it down or record a voice note about how you feel in the hours before and after contacting or spending time with your family. Over time, you’ll be able to spot patterns, like feeling angry or upset or like your voice doesn’t matter each time you’re around this person, Dr. Campbell adds. You can also think about whose presence seems to mess with you the most. That’s useful information, even if you’re not ready to act on it yet.
If you want them to finally hear you out
Identifying shitty behavior from your family is one thing, calling it out is another. While it can be super hard to stick up for yourself or just communicate your feelings, being your authentic self is the best way to try to shift the dynamic.
When you have trouble communicating your feelings, try “I” statements, says Kays. Using accusatory language like, “You’re always bullying me,” can trigger people to go on the defensive, says Bass. But when you phrase your point in a way that’s focused on how their actions impact you, like, “When you make fun of me for being indecisive, I feel stupid and insecure,” they’re less likely to be dismissive, Bass adds.
If your otherwise lovely family member is like, “My bad. I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I’ll try my best to not do that anymore,” then yay! Go you! Just make sure you continue to use those “I” statements if something comes up again.
Otherwise, it's time to set some boundaries around what you need in order to feel safe and heard. Maybe that sounds intense, but it’s really just about establishing ground rules that create healthier interactions with each other, Dr. Campbell says. It also means coming up with plans you’ll see through if your boundary is violated. For Alex, that could mean saying, “When you don’t use my correct pronouns, it makes me feel like you don’t care about my feelings. So, when that happens, I’m going to correct you. And if you joke about that or go out of your way to misuse them, I’m going to end the conversation and leave.” But the most important thing is sticking with those boundaries and the consequences for crossing them.
If every family visit leaves you completely drained
Sadly, no matter how much you might want to unsubscribe, being around family often means crossing paths with people you don’t like. In Alex’s case, they have to face their dad (an endless well of unkind remarks and unsolicited opinions about their outfit, pronouns, or personal relationships) when they go home to spend time with their siblings.
While it’s totally fine to bail on family stuff for the sake of your mental health, practicing a technique called gray rocking can help you stay chill if you decide to go anyway, Dr. Campbell says. When you have to interact with toxic people, you can become as unresponsive as a gray rock (get it?) so they lose interest in you.
So if your conspiracy theorist cousin wants to talk politics at dinner and you don’t feel like arguing, Bass recommends saying something like, “I get that you want to talk about this, but I’m not comfortable with this topic. We can talk about [safe topic] instead." If they push it, Bass suggests replying with: "I already said I don’t want to talk about this. We can either find something we both want to talk about, or I will end this conversation if you keep trying to talk about this with me."
If the person keeps going or makes a scene, be prepared to leave so you can protect your peace (even if just a little), Dr. Campbell adds.
If toxic behavior is a family pattern
Intergenerational trauma describes patterns of (usually unhelpful and harmful) behaviors and thoughts that can get passed down through your family tree, Bass explains. This can happen because someone older than you faced issues like abuse, racism, neglect, or poverty, and they didn’t heal from those horrible experiences. And when people don’t face their issues head-on, they can (either directly or indirectly) teach maladaptive coping mechanisms like drinking, shouting, hitting, and being neglectful.
That said, you don’t need to excuse their dangerous behavior or assume you can’t change, Dr. Campbell says. Abusing someone emotionally or physically is never OK. Not even if your parents did the same thing to you, Dr. Campbell adds.
If you think or know your family has a history of abusive behavior, taking note of these patterns can help you feel empowered to address unhelpful tendencies you might be noticing within yourself or proactively keep your actions in check, Dr. Campbell adds. “[Use that information] to inspire yourself to be the cycle breaker. Then it becomes a superpower,” she says.
If you want to learn more about how family history can shape how people treat each other, Bass and Kays suggest reading books like Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD. You could also check out It Didn't Start with You by Mark Wolynn; The Family by Philip N. Cohen, PhD; and Drama Free by Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW.
If your boundaries aren’t working
When your fam continues to cross limits without giving a single eff, think hard about how much time you want to spend with them. Nope, distancing yourself is not too dramatic and it’s not meant to punish your family, it’s a thing people usually consider after years or decades of mistreatment, Dr. Campbell says. You don’t have to wait that long, but if you’re not seeing any meaningful improvements after expressing your feelings and boundaries, it might be worth it, Dr. Campbell says.
The first level is called “low contact,” which is when you stay in touch but just not as much. Like, instead of talking to your dad on the phone every Sunday, you cut back to one 20-minute call a month and keep conversations superficial. Then there’s “cordial contact,” where you keep things civil when you have to see the person every now and then, but other than that, you don’t interact with them. The last level is family estrangement, or cutting off all contact with someone.
Any of these three routes will be difficult because you risk feeling guilty (um, what if this family member dies and I haven’t talked to them in a long time?), not having anywhere to spend the holidays, and feeling lonely or emotionally lost, Dr. Campbell says. So think about what levels of toxicity or abuse you’ve experienced and how long it’s been going on, she adds. That will give you perspective on whether it’s worth it. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you can always start out with low or cordial contact if going straight to estrangement feels too hard.
Important note: When you take those smaller steps like low-contact, sometimes your family will lash out and show you exactly who they are. While that sucks, this could quiet any lingering questions you might have about choosing to distance yourself going forward.
If you ever feel like you want to get back to regular communication, maybe because you’re hoping they changed, ask yourself, “What is the long-term evidence of that?” Dr. Campbell says. It might be cliché, but actions speak louder than words, and a family member love-bombing you or showing one month of good behavior is probably not enough to indicate that a real, lasting change is happening in this person.
If you need some support
After you start standing up for yourself, setting boundaries, or even pulling away from your family, you might have to deal with people blaming you. And that’s on top of your family possibly giving you a hard time. This victim-blamey nonsense is a side effect of our society putting a huge emphasis on sticking by your blood relatives, and when you go against that cultural norm, not everyone gets it, Dr. Campbell says.
So, if you ever find yourself in that position, stay connected to people who understand you. That can look like having friends who are sympathetic and would love to have your company at the dinner table or finding a safe space in an online community. If you’re searching for people who can relate, people like Dr. Campbell; writer Nate Postlethwait; psychologist Nicole LePera, PhD; and psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, have fostered online communities you might find comfort in joining.
*Name has been changed.
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