Surviving the Holidays With a Toxic Family

toxic family

I often talk about the importance of family ties. Family is important to one’s sense of self, connection, and happiness. Yet when our family is not healthy, navigating our lives around them is hard. Surviving the holidays with a toxic family can be overwhelming. Here are some ideas to help with that.

What Do You Want?

You can start by asking yourself what you want. There are many ways to have a happy holiday. You don’t have to do it any particular way. It doesn’t have to be expensive, grand, include particular people, or anything at all. It can be whatever you want it to be. So let go of expectations and ask yourself, “What do I want?”

If what you want is to not share the holidays with your family, don’t. Do it your way. You can do it alone, at a restaurant, at a resort, with your spouse and children, with friends, or whatever tickles your fancy. You don’t have to cater to tradition, someone else’s fantasy, or other people’s expectations. It’s your holiday too. Make it a happy one.

Stand Your Ground

Share your thoughts and feelings and stand your ground. You don’t have to explain, rationalize, or justify. If you offer excuses for what you want, it invites others to offer solutions or objections. A simple declarative statement will suffice. (Examples: I’m going; I’m not going; Not this year; We have other plans; I’ll be there for an hour. I can come at this time).

Cope Ahead

What calms you? Think about those strategies and have a plan in place for before and after so that you can maintain or regain your equilibrium. Maybe this means you get a night of deep sleep, schedule a massage, or do some yoga. Maybe you plan an outing with friends, turn off your ringer, or do a hike in the woods. Having a self-care plan makes it more likely that you will follow through with it when it’s needed.

Witness But Don’t Engage

If someone is turning up the crazy, witness it but don’t engage. Sometimes people will quiet down if they can’t get a reaction. If not, well it still doesn’t have to be your problem. Remember “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

If the drama is focused on you, this is a lot harder to do. Remember that it’s not about you, it’s just directed at you. You have a choice to engage in your old roles or create a new one. Seeing through the lens of empathy, compassion, and detachment can help you step back and let whatever is directed at you flow past without touching you.

Limit Your Exposure

Even a saint has a hard time in unhealthy environments. If you choose to be in one, it may be a good idea to keep it short. It’s a lot easier to endure stress for two hours than two days. If you can duck out for a few minutes, that’s even better. Does someone need something from the store? You could volunteer. Do the kids want to play a game of football outside? You could join in. The further away from the drama, the better. Perhaps you can even avoid the whole thing this way.


Whatever is happening, accept it. Trying to change it, control it, pretend it’s something else, or complain about it only intensifies the distress. Acceptance doesn’t mean you like it. It’s just a way of staying present. Staying present keeps you from being carried away.

Know Your Limits

If your family is not just dysfunctional, but truly toxic, know your limits. Sometimes it’s really better to cut ties. Family is important, but stability is even more important. You can’t have a relationship with anyone if you are crying in a corner somewhere. You can’t heal if you’re being wounded all the time. Do you, and love them from afar.