How to Survive the Holidays If You Have a Toxic Family (According to a Therapist)

Whether your brother turns everything into a competition (and not the fun kind of competition), your mom has not the slightest clue what the word boundaries means or there are always strings attached when it comes to your sister-in-law, you have a toxic family. Normally, you avoid being around them as much as possible, but around the holidays, spending time with family is sometimes nonnegotiable. Enter: these tips for getting through the season without having a meltdown, courtesy of Naiylah Warren, LMFT, a therapist and Clinical Content Manager at Real.

Meet the Expert

Naiylah Warren, LMFT, is a therapist and Clinical Content Manager at Real, a mental healthcare platform.

9 Signs You Might Have a Toxic Sister (Plus, How to Deal)

toxic family holiday
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1. Know Your “No's”

Warren says that when it comes to dealing with toxic family members during the holidays, it’s important to set boundaries ahead of time. You should share these boundaries with your family, but you can also keep a second set of unspoken boundaries in your head. “Identify what are things you won't tolerate ahead of time and create a plan of action to address them,” she explains. “For example, if your mom gets really aggressive with you or you find that your brother keeps gaslighting you, your plan may be to retreat to your room or another safe space.” Here are five more therapist-approved ways to set boundaries with family members.

2. Have an Exit Strategy

For both conversations and certain environments. There’s a time and a place to engage in tough conversations with people who hold opposing views, but the Thanksgiving dinner table is not that place. For conversations you know aren’t going to go anywhere positive, think of a few let’s-shut-this-down statements to keep in your back pocket when Uncle Matt brings up his thoughts on the second amendment. Warren suggests saying something like, “I don’t see us seeing eye to eye, so let’s change the subject.” If all else fails, she says it’s totally fine to say, “I need some fresh air, I’ll be back soon” or “I need some solo time, I’ll see you later,” and excusing yourself from the room altogether.

3. Plan Solo Activities

The constant socializing that happens during the holidays can be stressful for anyone—even if you adore your family. It’s important, then, to build in alone time if you foresee yourself needing an escape. Warren says, “If you can, try to build in time for yourself around some of your obligations to help you have moments to reconnect or decompress.” This could mean planning a nice, long walk the morning before a long day of tree-trimming or splurging on a facial to recover between the last night of Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve. 

4. Practice Depersonalization

“Sometimes, how people react to us is not personal, it’s their own stuff,” Warren stresses. To keep yourself from feeling responsible for your family’s dysfunction, she tells us it’s crucial to affirm to yourself that, ‘this is their work, not mine.’

5. Lean on Your Support System

When things get overwhelming, phone a friend. “Make a point to reach out to someone you consider safe when you feel overwhelmed,” Warren encourages. “It can be a friend, partner or even a help text line. Any safe support can help us cope.” Plus, a phone call from your best friend can be a good reason to excuse yourself from the house for a little bit—you wouldn’t want to be rude and talk within earshot of your family, if you catch our drift.

5 More Ways to Cope If You Have a Toxic Family

1. Pick Your Battles

Sometimes it’s worth agreeing to disagree. Though members of the same family are often similar in many ways, you have to remember that you’re each your own person. You and your sister or mom or aunt might have totally different ideas about careers, relationships and parenting, and that’s fine. It’s important to identify the areas where neither party is likely to change your mind and agree to respect the other’s opinion without judgement or hostility.

2. Learn to Forgive

Hanging on to feelings of resentment is bad for you—literally. Studies have shown holding grudges increases blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system activity. Alternatively, embracing forgiveness can improve overall health by reducing stress levels. Beyond physical health, letting go can improve one’s mental health, relationships and career trajectory. Resenting your brother, for example, could manifest in you yelling at your own kids at the drop of a hat. From changing your perspective to downloading a meditation app, here are eight exercises to help you let go of resentment.

3. Try the Grey Rock Method

We first discovered this handy trick on psychologist Nadene van der Linden’s blog, Unshakeable Calm. In a nutshell, it’s a tool to prevent toxic people from escalating a situation. Act as boring, uninteresting and disengaged as possible and toxic people will find it less exciting to try to manipulate you and choose another target. It takes some acting chops, but you don’t have to be Meryl Streep to master it. During every interaction with the toxic person, the trick is to speak in a neutral voice, talk about boring subjects, don’t make eye contact and give short, generic answers. And if the toxic person tries to get a rise out of you, don’t engage emotionally. Find out more about the Grey Rock Method here.

4. Have a Go-To Phrase on Standby

We get it—dealing with a toxic family member is tough and you never know what’s going to set them off. That’s why it’s useful to have a phrase or two handy that you can repeat whenever they give you unsolicited advice or ask you to do something. For the former, we like the phrase, “You may be right.” And for the later, try “I have to think about it.” Here’s how it works:

Sister: I need you to plan a birthday party for me.
You: I have to think about it. I have a lot of things going on in the next couple of weeks and need to see if that’s doable for me.

5. Recognize If Your Relationship Is Beyond Repair

Every family has the occasional argument (your little sister totally lied about stealing your favorite sweater—and getting a stain on it). But if you’ve always felt like you become your worst self when you’re back at home, your family could be treading on toxic territory. “Toxic people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out,” says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return." Sound familiar? While it can be incredibly difficult to cut a toxic person out of your life, there’s no shame in doing so—especially if it feels like you’ve tried everything.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...