6 Ways to Handle Problems With Toxic Family Members
You love your family, but sometimes the problems feel endless! These six tips for toxic family members will help you cope with problems caused by siblings, parents, or other relatives.
Learning how to handle family problems is complicated because “Family quarrels have a total bitterness unmatched by others,” wrote Mignon McLaughlin. “Yet it sometimes happens that they also have a kind of tang, a pleasantness beneath the unpleasantness, based on the tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back.”
In other words, we want to leave our toxic family members…and yet we want to stay close because they’re our families! Our relatives are meaningful and dear to us, no matter how troublesome and aggravating they are. Here’s how to deal with your toxic family members without losing your sanity…
Before we jump into the tips, you need to remember something really important: the difference between a family fight and a toxic relative.
A toxic family member is emotionally unhealthy and destructive. She is harmful to herself and you, and she will destroy relationships, activities, and family events. Toxic family members are unhappy, and they spread their unhappiness around. A family fight, on the other hand, is a conflict between relatives that involves hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and miscommunication – but it can be resolved. It can be healed because the family members aren’t necessarily toxic. They’re simply human.
Learning how to handle family problems is about learning the difference between toxic people who have the destructive power to hurt you, versus “normal crazy” family members who are just being annoyingly human.
6 Tips for Toxic Family Members
There are no easy solutions, and no quick tips for dealing with family problems below. The best thing you can do is learn how to take care of yourself – and recognize when and how you’re contributing to the problem. This isn’t about laying blame; it’s about knowing where your responsibility begins and ends.
1. Know when to draw the line
On my article about coping with difficult parents, many readers describe toxic relatives who cause a lot of harm to themselves and their family members. My readers ask the same question over and over: “How can I stop my brother/parent/uncle/family member from doing it again?”
The quick answer is that you often can’t stop your family members from causing problems or repeatedly hurting you or others – unless, of course, they are physically assaulting people or animals. Then you call the police or 911, and you protect yourself and innocent victims! Otherwise, you learn how to accept that you can’t change your family members. You can forgive them for hurting you or breaking your heart, but you can’t change their behavior or choices.
It’s also important to let toxic family members face the consequences of their actions. If you keep protecting them from natural consequences, they’ll keep acting the same way.
2. Figure out what the “natural consequences” are
If your relative causes physical harm to another person or family member, then a natural consequence is legal action. If your relative always borrows money and never pays it back, then a natural consequence could be suing for repayment (provided you and your relative signed a loan agreement).
Another natural consequence is not being invited to family dinners or celebrations (if the toxic person always ruins the get-togethers). Many families try – out of love – to protect their relatives from the results of their actions. This may appear to be a loving thing to do, but it’s “enabling.” It perpetuates the behavior.
I list a few natural consequences in How to Deal With Difficult Parents.
3. Learn how to deal with difficult people
Dealing with toxic people can be challenging, but there are many books and resources on how to deflect conflicts and situations. Read about boundaries, take workshops or classes about setting healthy boundaries with difficult people, and consider talking to a family counselor about the best way to handle family problems.
Sometimes the best way to handle toxic family members is to stay away. There are some conflicts that can’t be resolved, some problems that will never be solved. Learning how to manage difficult people and situations is a good start, but it won’t solve your family problems. It’s possible that nothing will solve your problems – except for acceptance. Not acceptance of the toxic consequences on your or your loved one, but acceptance of the person for who she is.
4. Distance yourself from toxic relatives
Sometimes the best way to handle family problems is to separate yourself physically and emotionally.
This may mean moving to a different house, state, or country. Or, it may mean not answering the phone until you’re mentally and emotionally ready to talk. You don’t necessarily need to cut toxic relatives out of your life; rather, you can give them a quick call every 2-3 months — or you can send a note instead of calling.
I call my mom every week, even though I find it difficult to talk to her. She’s not toxic, though. She suffers from a serious mental illness called schizophrenia. We can still have phone conversations, but they aren’t exactly life-giving or deep! And yet, I’m glad I call her every week. She tells me she loves me, and she’s sorry that she’s mentally ill. I accept her, and surrender to my life the way it is.
5. Learn how to protect yourself from criticism
Dealing with family problems requires setting healthy boundaries. It’s easier to set boundaries than to actually stick to them! Learn how to protect your boundaries despite criticism and negative feedback from other people. And remember that your toxic relatives may not think they’re doing anything wrong, and may not see the negative effect they have on you or others. They may think everyone should live and act the way they do. That’s their right, and it’s your right to live the way you see fit.
If you can’t untangle yourself from your family problems or toxic relatives, read Leaving Home: The Art of Separating From Your Difficult Family. Many adults re-create the most painful aspects of their early relationships with their parents in new relationships with peers and romantic partners, frustrating themselves and discouraging them from leaving their family of origin. Leaving Home emphasizes the life-saving benefits of separating from destructive parents and offers a viable program for personal emancipation.
6. Don’t expect your family member to change
Change the things you have control over, such as how often you visit toxic family members. Even knowing you have control over the littlest things can make a difference!
Your relative may never change, but you can empower yourself in different ways. For instance, if you have an alcoholic sibling, you can join an Al-Anon support group. Toxic relatives are stressful – there’s no doubt about it – but you can reduce the stress by checking your own attitude and response to them. Part of monitoring your attitudes and responses is noticing when you’re creating more problems and when you’re calming the situation. Be honest with yourself. Learn how you can handle toxic family members better. Grow. Reach upwards for strength, inwards for insight and self-awareness.
If you struggle to communicate with your relatives and loved ones, read How to Ask for What You Need in Your Relationships.
How do you handle toxic relatives who cause family problems? I welcome your comments below! I can’t offer advice or counseling, but it might help you to share your experience. Often, just expressing your emotions and experiences can bring insight and healing. And it shows others they’re not alone. Read through the readers’ comments below; you’ll see that you’re in good company.
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