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Coping With Toxic Family During the Holidays

December 16, 2021

Libby Ward sits on a sofa holding a mug looking sad in front of a Christmas tree

When the Holidays Are the Most Heartbreaking Time of the Year

You are not crazy for thinking the holidays are extra hard when you have a toxic family or toxic family members. 

Personally, there is almost no other time of year when I feel the most sadness over my circumstances in life than at Christmas time. From the outside, my circumstances are good, enviable even. I live a comfortable life, married to a good man, and we have two healthy children.

 What could be so hard about that? Well, it’s complicated.

Keep reading for a bit more about my truth and the top four strategies I use to copy with toxic family members during the holidays. My goal in sharing this post is to let you know you aren’t alone if you can relate, and start a dialogue about ways to maintain our sanity through the stress of it all.

Disclaimer: Emotional, physical, sexual abuse and aggressive behaviour is not okay. If you find yourself in immediate danger or If you are in an unsafe situation remember there is support available. Talk to a professional or trusted friend to express your concerns  or if you are in crisis call 911 or contact a womens’ crisis helpline like AWHL who can provide assistance in 154 different languages. 

A Mother's Joy, A Daughter's Pain, A Present Challenge

As a mom, I love seeing the delight on my childrens’ faces on Christmas morning. It is nothing short of magical. But as a daughter, I ache.  As a daughter with a toxic mother, I grieve the relationship I will never have with my own mother and I have to put so much energy into get-togethers with her that it can suck the joy right out of them. 

Sometimes, it hurts the most because the holidays are a time of reflection of how toxic people have hurt us. Other times, the holidays with toxic people hurt because they are actively causing you distress or friction. Either way, it is hard. 

Growing up, I always assumed that grown ups didn’t have real problems. Once you were an adult, your childhood did not matter anymore and you were responsible for yourself and your feelings. Of course, we all know now that our childhood and our family circumstances have an incredible impact on us. This article explains some of the many ways our childhood impacts us. 

Not only does our childhood affect our development, our personalities, and our habits, but  how we interact with the world and experience life. Our childhood and our family are two of the things in life we have almost no control over. 

They say family is everything, except when it isn’t. Except when family is where you have been most hurt, most traumatized and most damaged. 

If you have been hurt, abused, or manipulated by family, it causes deep scars which seem to always surface over the holidays. If you find yourself nodding “YES,” you are not alone. 

Being a Mom During the Holidays is Hard Enough As it Is.

As a mom, the holidays are hard enough as it is. Trying to get everything organized, buying and wrapping presents, budgeting, decorating, baking, hosting, going to multiple events, sending cards, the list goes on.

While the season is full of joy it is often moms who are the backbone of the ‘holiday magic.’ Oftentimes, we are the ones to move the elf, to remember the multiple school spirit days, to keep track of who has which presents and what needs to be done.

The mental load of a mother is difficult enough as it is, but during the holidays it is significantly more intense.

We joke about it, but the truth is that it is the most stressful time of the year for many moms who are trying their best to make the holiday special for their families all while trying to meet other peoples’ expectations and maintain everything they already have on their plates. 

When you add in family drama, a toxic family member or unhealed trauma from your past, it can make the holidays a very overwhelming time. 

What is a toxic family member?

Toxic family members can be hard to spot. But one tell-tale sign that you’ve got a toxic family member often lies in how you are made to feel after an interaction with them. Sometimes we don’t realize they are the cause of it until it is pointed out to us. Then, it can be difficult to unsee the toxicity. 

A toxic person will display one or more of these behaviours on a regular basis:

They stir the pot. This means they cause division between other family members and pit family members against each other. They might exaggerate something someone said about you or flat out lie. They might bring up topics about others they know will upset you. This includes gossip. 

They refuse to speak to you. You get the silent treatment, especially if there has been a disagreement. This is a form of emotional control and manipulation. 

They lie. Toxic family members will often deny their part in any disagreement or event which would put them in a bad light. They do not seem concerned in reconciliation or honesty, but only self-preservation and deflection. 

They manipulate. It seems to be that no matter what you say or do it always ends up that you are in the wrong. They tell half-truths and then turn the tables on you. They might call you overly sensitive or make you feel like you are the one that is the issue (gaslighting)

They are passive aggressive. Passive-aggressive toxic people are sometimes the most difficult to spot because they don’t get obviously angry but they quietly demean you and create conflict without a scene. A passive-aggressive family member will make back-handed comments meant to unsettle you. 

They are aggressive. An aggressive toxic family member will get angry, yell, swear and sometimes physically hit others, damage property or threaten to hurt others. These individuals are easy to spot, but sometimes behaviour is dismissed by others in the family. Beware, this is toxic. 

They ignore boundaries. No matter what boundaries you set, this individual will find a way to make themselves an exception or guilt you for having set them. Or, they will ignore them all together and carry on with behaviours they know that you are not okay with. People who ignore boundaries show a lack of respect and belittle you.  

Strategies I use To Cope With Toxic Family During the Holidays

I want to take a moment to say that if there are toxic people in your family you are allowed to say no and you do not have to attend events which will put you or your family in emotional or physical danger. The toll that it takes to be around toxic people is often not worth the risk. While it may make others feel uncomfortable that you are not there, you are responsible for your own well being and must make it a priority. 

Remember, even if it feels like you don’t have an option, you always have the right to say no to even attending an event. If you feel unsafe, or know that it is healthiest for you this time to not attend, always know that is an option on the table, despite how it feels

Aside from going no-contact, which in some toxic relationships is absolutely necessary, these are some things that I do to not only maintain my own sanity and mental health, but also to get through visits with toxic family members. 

1. Set Boundaries Ahead of Time

Knowing what types of behaviour and treatment we are willing to accept from others from the get go will go a long way in helping us to set boundaries and maintain them. And remember, if this is the type of person who requires more boundaries, it is likely a person who will push them. Maintaining is just as important as setting boundaries. 

Boundaries can be something you state openly with the individual you are setting them with, or they can be conscious choices you make on your own about your interactions.

For example: a boundary made with a difficult family member might be saying to them “I am not comfortable talking about _________ with you”. It might be “sorry I cannot drive to or from this event” or “it is up to my child if they want to give you a hug or not.”

Unspoken boundaries might sound like this: I will not be alone in the room with this individual. I will not engage in a conversation about ________. I will not lend money or offer my physical help to this individual if they ask me for it. 

2. Have a Safe Person

Spending time around toxic people, especially when it is family, especially when there is history, especially when it is the holidays and especially when you are your own biggest support- is so hard. Do you have someone you trust, who can support you while gathering? Do you have a family member or friend you can confide in?”

You need someone who can be on board to remind you of your boundaries, step in when they know you are getting uncomfortable, or be the person to remind you “it’s time to leave.”Having people support us at any time in our lives is so important and helpful, but during events, when we are around those who have a negative impact on our mental health – it is even more important. 

The value of a support person is immeasurable. Even if you think you can do it alone, why put yourself in that position. If you’ve made it this far into the article, you will know how true this next part is: you can never predict the behaviour of a toxic person. All the more reason to be prepared for the worst. Having a person to turn to for support is a way to prepare for the worst.

3. Keep it Surfacey

This is one of the most important strategies I use when dealing with toxic family members. By avoiding touchy topics of conversation you can keep things light and avoid confrontation altogether. This doesn’t mean you won’t be put into uncomfortable situations or asked questions you don’t want to answer, but it does mean that you can redirect conversation.

Go into the event with topics in mind that you are willing to discuss and stick to those. It might be uncomfortable at first but with practice, it will become more natural and you’ll get better at avoiding those subjects you don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole. 

Be aware of who else is in the room (hopefully a support person) and find ways to include people who can act as a buffer when you find yourself overwhelmed or needing a break. The more other people you have there, the easier it will be to keep things light or make it less awkward when you need to escape. 

4. Have an escape plan

It is incredibly overwhelming to know that you have to spend time with an individual who makes you uncomfortable, who is rude, disrespectful or who consistently pushes your boundaries. For many reasons we often find ourselves in these situations and it can feel like there is no way out of it. There always is, especially if you plan for it. It’s especially important to make a plan when you have kids in tow. If you know that a family member is going to bring up a topic of conversation which will inevitably get heated, and none of the other strategies you have used work, you can leave. You can always leave. 

Make sure your partner is on board, come up with a signal and make your way out. It is better to have an awkward departure than to get caught up in an argument, lying, gaslighting, or manipulation- especially with kids in tow. You don’t deserve that and neither do they. Toxic family members are often great at making you feel like you are oversensitive, dramatic or the cause of the issue. If this is the case, it is even more important to remove yourself from the situation. There is nothing wrong with leaving. 

If You Have to Deal with Toxic Family During The Holidays, You Are Not Alone

We can’t choose our family and we can’t control the behaviour of others, but we can control who we expose ourselves to and how we react. The holidays are stressful enough as it is, give yourself heaps of grace- especially when you also have to deal with difficult family relationships.

If no one else has said this to you: I am sorry.

I am sorry that you are in this situation, I am sorry you have been hurt by those who should love and protect you, I am sorry it is so hard to see other families function without toxicity, I am sorry it is so hard, I am sorry this is another thing you have to put on your plate.

You deserve better. You deserve healthy relationships. You deserve joy, peace, comfort and all the good things we should receive from our families. 

Solidarity to those who are having to walk into rooms this holiday season that they don’t want to walk into. Solidarity to those who have to go to events that should be fun but have clouds of grief and pain hovering over them. Solidarity to those who are dealing with toxic family and doing their best to navigate it. 

I see you. I see you. I see you. 

In the mood for some relatable toxic family content? Check out my “Toxic Family” playlist on my Tiktok profile- and don’t forget to follow me. Alternatively, come say hi on Instagram.

If this has resonated with you, make sure you follow along and join my Honest Mom’s Insider Circle where you’ll get all my latest updates, special offers and promotions and exclusive content only for subscribers. 

Thanks for reading this far and I hope you have Happy Holidays despite struggles you may be facing!

- Libby

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4 Responses

  1. So needed this. I always feel so guilty about my overwhelming grief during the holidays. I try to put on a happy face and lean into the blessings but the grief is always there. It’s not okay. It’ll never be okay. But at least I’m, sadly, not alone. Thank you for seeing me.

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