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Dealing With Toxic Family Members

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

Most of us have oddballs in our families that resemble the family in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We may have a dad who is sure he has the answers to most of life’s mysteries and knows exactly what we should be doing with our lives. Mom might be pressuring her daughters to get married to the “right” people and give her grandchildren instead of pursuing careers.

An uncle drinks too much on family occasions and says ridiculous things. Grandma Mildred is a sourpuss who criticizes everyone who comes her way. We feel guilty when we leave mom at home and she says, “ You go out and have fun; don’t worry about me.” Some of these relatives may not be harmful and can be ignored but others can be toxic.

In childhood, we accept their annoying and embarrassing ways as part of who they are. As we grow older, we realize that some of their behavior is damaging. We recognize that cousin Johnny’s “jokes” about us being overweight hurt us.

In the book But It's Your Family...Cutting Ties With Toxic Family Members, author Dr. Sherrie Campbell says that many of us are not educated about emotional abuse. We do not recognize it, even when it is happening to us.

When our family members become toxic, we must deal with the damage they do. The question will arise: “How should we deal with them and stop their toxicity in its tracks?”

Signs of Toxicity

Some signs of toxicity are clear such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse or alcohol and drug addictions. Other common characteristics may not be as obvious, such as:

  • Not respecting people’s boundaries and interfering in other people’s lives
  • Manipulation, guilt-tripping, and pressure to fit into their agenda
  • Being needy and overly dependent on others
  • A runaway mouth and constant destructive criticism
  • Describing put-downs as “jokes,” minimizing other people’s responses as overreactions
  • Selfishness
  • Bitterness and complaining
  • Gossiping and spreading rumors
  • Not taking responsibility for their actions and blaming others for things they have done
  • Playing the victim when things go wrong
  • Accusing us of hurting the family when confronted

Factors Preventing Us From Dealing With Toxicity

Family is often held up to us as a sacred thing that should not be violated. Members are encouraged to ignore bad behavior and keep skeletons in the closet. Secrets must be kept. We may feel guilty for our negative feelings towards toxic family members and feel pressured by others to overlook the harm they do. From an early age, we are taught to love our family members and to be loyal to them, no matter what. We may fear the rest of the family's censure if we try to hold the harmful members accountable for their actions.

Denial prevents us from admitting that our toxic relative has harmed us. We can become stuck in the trap of giving them another chance again and again. The belief that we are not allowed to say “no” can hold us back from making boundaries and enforcing consequences for their actions. Some family members are master manipulators who minimize their abuse and deceive us into thinking that we deserve it. They may even blame us for their own misdeeds.

We can tell that our relatives are toxic to us when we:

  • Resent family members who are trying to control us
  • Dread seeing them at family events
  • See parents obviously play favorites among their children - and it is not us
  • Feel guilty as if we have done something wrong
  • Feel we are not good enough despite our achievements
  • Feel obligated to see them because of pressure to be loyal to the family
  • Avoid dealing with their bad behavior to keep the peace
  • Choose toxic relationships and the wrong partners

Handling Toxic Relatives

We would not accept bad treatment from other people, so we have to judge hurtful family members by the same standards. There are several steps to dealing with toxic family members.

Step out of denial

We need to stop denying our relative’s mistreatment. We will be tempted to minimize and excuse their behavior by saying:

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“They are acting this way because they are under a lot of stress right now.”
“My son’s is not drinking that much. He gets carried away sometimes.”
“Maybe Aunt Harriet is right and I am not making enough effort to find a husband.”
“Grandpa is old and does not realize how hurtful his words are.”

Set boundaries

The time will come that we need to say: “Enough.” Boundaries keep us safe from harm. However, it is difficult to tell a mom-in-law to stop interfering with our parenting and warn her she will not see the kids if she does not stop. Some family members do not realize the harm they are doing. They do not know that there will be consequences for their bad behavior until they are confronted and we draw lines in the sand.

Prepare to deal with resistance

Toxic family members may not listen to us and deny that their behavior is harmful. They may accuse us of being oversensitive and blowing things out of proportion.
Other family members may try to discourage us from taking these steps. They may deny or excuse their bad behavior and demand that we give them another chance. Family members can be skilled at inducing guilt in us for trying to confront misbehavior. They do not want to have family secrets revealed or see the status quo of the family disrupted.

Cut off ties, if needed

Many people chose to continue to be in contact with toxic members on a limited basis for several reasons. For example, siblings may need to be in touch to discuss an elderly parent’s care. Grandparents may stay in touch to gain access to their grandchildren. We need to weigh the benefits vs. what we have to lose if we end the relationship.

There are several signs it is time to cut ties. Continuing to gaslight and disrespect us, refusing to discuss issues, and ignoring boundaries are dealbreakers. Sometimes we have to severe connections for our own mental health. This action may be a break for a while or be permanent. The separation may help abusers realize the damage they are doing and prompt them to change.

There may be conditions where the relationship can be restored. For example, if a person with alcohol or drug issues demonstrates sobriety and is trustworthy over time, we may reconsider letting them back in our lives. It is possible for people to change and no longer be toxic.

Seek support

Surround yourself with positive people who can support you in your decisions. Therapists and other mental health professions can help us explore the dynamics of toxic relationships and explore options.

Concluding Thoughts

Dealing with toxic family members has unique challenges. We may struggle with guilt at upsetting offenders and worry that we are will hurt them. When we confront toxic relatives and set boundaries, we may be upsetting dysfunctional family dynamics. Other relatives may challenge our decisions and accuse us of doing more harm than good.

In the end, our goal must be to keep us safe from harm. The abusers may also benefit from learning how their bad behavior affects us.

It gives them the opportunity to make different choices. If they make needed changes, we may choose to welcome them back into a relationship. If they are unwilling to change, we may need to end relationships and close the door on all the frustration, hurt, and anger. Healing from the damage toxic family members can do will take some time, but the emotional fallout can be overcome.


Just Because It's Family Doesn't Mean It Isn't Toxic, Psychology Today, Nancy Colier
My family is toxic: signs to look out for and what to do,, Jessy Wrigley
5 Signs It's Time to Cut Yourself Off From Your Toxic Family, Psychology Today, Claire Jack, Ph.D.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Carola Finch


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 16, 2020:

Interesting stuff. I think many valuable points here. I wondered why actions were stated and then alcoholics and addicts. Doesn't it matter what their actions are. Can't an alcoholic not be toxic? Seems we must be careful that we are not over sensitive.

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