Select Page

By Nikki Harper

Christmas is coming! What a wonderful time of year for getting together with family members we don’t see nearly often enough! Happiness, joy, laughter and memorable togetherness all round – right? Perhaps. If you’re lucky. Christmas truly is a joyful time for many families – but for many others, the presence of toxic family members can turn Christmas get-togethers into something to be endured at best, or at worst even feared.

For some of us, there’s just one family member who can be relied upon to spoil the whole shebang. For others, it could be the whole family. So, what can you do to survive toxic family members this Christmas – without losing your sanity?

1 Do You Have to Go?

First and most obvious: if you’re dreading the thought of a family get-together, do you really have to go? You may feel a sense of obligation – especially after the disruption of the last couple of Christmases –  but put it into perspective. Could you visit family that you do get along with just before or just after Christmas, in a less pressurised environment? Can you reasonably make alternative plans for Christmas itself? You are entitled to a life of your own, after all. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty if you decide to just give it a miss this year.

Remember, nobody can oblige you to be a victim. Not at Christmas, not at the hands of a family member, not by anyone, at any time, ever. You have the right to refuse to play that game.

2 Set Realistic Expectations

Contrary to what others might have you believe, nobody’s Christmas is perfect. Even those with very loving families tend to squabble during this enforced togetherness. And even if family relationships are harmonious, someone behind the social media smiles is sad, worried, emotionally drained or itching to get out of there. That’s just the way it is. So, since nobody else is having the picture-perfect time, ditch your unrealistic expectations that your family should be any different. It certainly won’t be.

By accepting that it’s going to be a difficult day or two, you can lower your own expectations in advance. That means that any moments which do turn out to be pleasant and fun are a true bonus.

3 Know Your Limits

If you do join your family this festive season, think ahead and set limits for what you are prepared to tolerate. Have an escape plan, so that if it really gets too much, you have already thought through when and how you can leave early.

Figure out in your own mind what it ‘too much’ and what is just ‘the normal irritation’. Accept that you are going to feel uncomfortable and that some things will be said which you don’t like. The key is to know where you’re going to draw the line, so that the situation does not catch you by surprise.

4 Put On a United Front

Talk to reasonable family members in advance and explain your trepidation about the problem individual(s). You won’t be the only one feeling that way. Get the rest of the family to put on a united front – for example, discuss in advance that you simply will not talk about certain trigger issues. If the individual concerned brings them up, be sure that the family will as one change the subject and refuse to get involved.

Agree a family timetable of sorts in advance too. Set out clearly to everyone what time you’ll be eating, or doing such and such an activity, so that nobody has any excuse to pretend they didn’t know or to manufacture a late arrival. Be clear that meals, for example, will go ahead on schedule whether or not everyone is present.

5 Set Boundaries

If the family gathering is taking place in your home, your rules trump everything else. If you will not accept swearing or arguing or drinking or smoking or whatever in your home, then say so. Make that clear to everyone, from the beginning. When your rule is broken – and it will be – stay calm and polite and point out that you’ve already said you can’t accept this behaviour. Get backup from others. The boundaries apply to everyone. The rules, too, apply to everyone.

If it’s not your home, ask whoever’s home it is to set out their rules in a similar manner – and back them up immediately when the rules are broken.

6 Know the Triggers and Danger Periods

In most families there’s a particular period at Christmas when people start to get bored or antsy, or when drink has been flowing and inhibitions are lowered – and that’s when the situation is most likely to kick off. Plan ahead to avoid this if you can. For example, have a plan to head out for a walk at that time, or to play a favourite family game. Think of something which may help to head off the tension before it arises.

If conversation around the dinner table is typically the kick-off point, try giving people crackers with conversation topics in. Turn it into a game which keeps the conversation flowing around these fun, safe, interesting topics and gives it no chance to deviate off into your sibling’s long-held grudges or your aunt’s emotional put-downs.

7 Keep a Sense of Proportion

In the pressure-cooker of enforced togetherness, it’s very easy to over-react. A comment you might have ignored at some other time becomes red rag to a bull and something you simply cannot let pass. We’ve all been there. But try to think calmly about whether it really is worth getting into an argument over or not.

Likewise, keep your feelings about the toxic family member in proportion. Don’t allow them to steal the pleasure you would otherwise feel about being with other family members. If someone is pushing all the wrong buttons, simply exclude them and choose to engage with someone you want to be with.

8 Be Responsible for Your Own Reaction

With the best will in the world, however, where there is one or more toxic family members, sooner or later trouble is likely to arise. You may not have been able to prevent it, but you are in control of your own reaction. Before you react or speak, do your emotional due diligence. Think about what you’re going to say, and how that will be received. Is that what you want to happen? If not, say something different. Or say nothing at all. You do not have to engage with someone who is goading you.

If you are under stress and pressure and someone is being nasty to you, you have every right to be angry and to retaliate if you so choose, of course. But be aware of the contribution you will be making to the situation. If you do retaliate, make sure that is your conscious choice and that you’re willing to face the consequences. Too often, we tend to sleep-walk into an escalation which we might have avoided with a bit more conscious thought.

9 Never Endanger Anyone

Finally, if the situation ever becomes dangerous or physically abusive, do not hesitate to call the police. If it becomes dangerously emotionally abusive, do not hesitate to leave, and take with you anyone else who is vulnerable. Yes, your sudden departure will create drama, but better that than months spend trying to heal the harm which you will otherwise have endured.

Fortunately, most toxic family situations do not escalate to the levels of number 9. For most of us, being emotionally pre-prepared, setting boundaries, working as a team and being willing to check our own reactions – these things will see us safely through a toxic family Christmas. The most important thing of all, however, is to find the joy where you can – and to celebrate being around those you love, even when someone is trying their hardest to spoil it.

Originally posted: https://wakeup-world.com/2022/12/09/how-to-survive-toxic-family-members-this-christmas/