What do you do when you’re going to see family for the holidays or on a vacation and you know that not everybody is in that healthy place where they’re going to be able to show you, your spouse and kids respect and care?  So many of our listeners — if they want to spend time with family — know ahead of time that it’s not likely to go well. How can we prepare and protect ourselves when this is the case?

For many people, family visits are a time to look forward to where you enjoy spending time with your family. But for many people, they would have at least some concern about one of their parents or family members making part of the time difficult or uncomfortable. And I know there are other folks where they feel an obligation to honor their parents by visiting them but also know that there are going to be some legitimate hardships during that visit.

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Let’s start by just looking at the signs of a toxic relationship. If you are put down a lot or if you experience passive-aggressive behaviors or comments from a family member then that’s evidence of a toxic relationship.[1] For example, they may bring something up out of the blue like “why did you not invite me to that movie you went to?” Or they may tell your wife something that they want you to hear, but not have the courage to confront you directly. 

Another sign of toxicity is if you find the person consistently attempting to cross boundaries that you have set. When this happens, you may withdraw or feel anxious or uncomfortable but perhaps not really recognizing why. If you notice this reaction in yourself, it may be because one of your boundaries has been crossed.[2]

We’ll talk more about setting boundaries later on, but the reality is that many people, despite having difficult family members, feel that they should continue to make visits or spend time with difficult, sarcastic, narcissistic, ill-mannered, or toxic family members. What’s the best way to handle that reality?

Ways to Handle Difficult Family Visits

1. Prepare Beforehand

If you know you’re going to a family gathering and you have a difficult relationship with one or more family members, practice self-care before going on the visit. Sleep and good nutrition can help you feel good, and help you be in a positive frame of mind before meeting family members.[3]

It’s also a good idea to get on the same page with your spouse. If there are predictable patterns of behavior that you’ll be facing, what do you want to ignore or tolerate, and what are behaviors that one or both of you would consider severe enough to confront? What are your shared boundaries that you both agree to? What are your absolute no-zones? The question here is how can you face this as a team? And support and maintain connection with one another in the face of these challenges?

2. Do What You Can to Work With the Relationship

It doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that some toxic relationships can become healthy. Sometimes people just go through a phase or even just slip into a way of relating to us that isn’t really a true reflection of their deeper values.

If this is the case, accountability may be prudent. You might decide that you want to gently call them out if they are being passive-aggressive and let them know how this kind of behavior is hurtful to you. At the same time, you may wish to acknowledge their feelings, saying things like “I didn’t know you were upset about that.”[4]

It’s good to remember that, typically, remaining silent or else trash-talking the person to your spouse doesn’t really help them to grow. And it may be worth confronting some of these behaviors to see if the person is willing and able to respond.

If you find that your spouse does not respond, then it may be time to set some healthy boundaries until the person is in a place where they can relate to you with some basic elements of respect and care. Just be sure to be thoughtful and not judgmental. It’s easy to write a family member off as toxic. Sometimes it’s just a bad recipe: you and them and the circumstances you each find yourselves in. Shifting that recipe somehow may be all that’s required in order to create a more healthy pattern of interacting.[5]

3. Structure the Length of the Visit

Sometimes it just helps to figure out how long to make your visits with the other party. You may come to realize that a few hours is usually fine — see if you can split your interactions into blocks of time where you know you’re likely to at least have an OK time together.

If you travel from a distance for the visit — can you notice if staying for 3-4 days is fine, or maybe a week is fine but after that things start to go sideways? Paying attention to the duration of the visit may help you avoid conflict between you and family members.

If your family member is quite a distance away then you may not have as much control, though you can see if you can break up the visit with a side-trip somewhere. This may require some compromise but do try to stay in charge of the length of visits and remember that longer visits are not necessarily better.[6]

When Family Visits are Traumatic

Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters. This guide contains additional tips and tricks if these family visits are tricky times for you. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

4. Take Breaks 

Another option is to take breaks as you need them. This could be anything from leaving the house for a brisk walk to doing what we suggested earlier: perhaps even taking a three-day mini side trip with your spouse during your 10-day visit with your parents.[7]

Also, you may be able to adjust the accommodations so you have some personal space or a safe area to retreat to. If it would be helpful, consider staying in a hotel or to renting a car so that you have some options available to you in order to be able to take break when you need to.[8]

Debrief Afterward

We go into more detail in our bonus guide for this episode, but after the family visit make sure you debrief with your spouse. If you ended up having a difficult conversation or experienced something hurtful, be sure to talk to your spouse about what happened.[9]

It’s important as you do this that your spouse doesn’t just get angry and retaliate, but acts as a support and confidant and just validates your experience. Remember: you probably don’t need a solution as much as you need to have a companion. It is helpful to have someone who hears and understands and will walk with you through the reality of traumatic family visits.

Keep Perspective

It’s also helpful to just work on keeping things in perspective. A family member’s one harsh comment can really color your entire perspective of that person. But try to keep the bigger picture in mind. Is that all of who that person is or just a part? Are all your relationships with your family members toxic or is it just one or two or three people?[10]

Build Your Support Network

It’s also helpful to build a support network around you. Dr. Paul Jenkins (2018) states that “positive, inspiring, uplifting relationships can be the antidote for the toxic ones.” That said, if you’ve been exposed to a toxic relationship for a long time and are experiencing long-term issues because of it, therapy can also be helpful.[11]

Positivity training can also help you condition your mind to see things differently.[12] If you have experienced trauma, it is also helpful to do trauma therapy using techniques like EMDR, brain spotting, or somatic experiencing. It is possible to heal from traumatic family events with good therapy.

Forming close relationships with other healthy family members can also be a good way to feel supported. For example, having close and supportive relationships with siblings can be a buffer against trauma experienced in a relationship with a parent or other family member. Similarly, if you go to family gatherings with your spouse, they can be a source of strength and support to you.[13]

When to Drop the Ax

In extreme cases, you may need to set a boundary that looks like a cut-off. Unfortunately, this kind of boundary setting is often misused. It’s important not to do this unnecessarily, but only if the situation really requires it. If your safety or your children’s safety is ever at risk, setting boundaries may mean not seeing that person, even if they are a family member. Just because someone is a family member, does not mean that you have to see them over a holiday if it is not safe to do so.[14] You and your children’s safety trumps their need to have you spend time with them because you are a family. In other words, the people in the family are more important than the institution of the family. Safety comes first.

Set Appropriate Boundaries

In most relationships, boundaries do not have to mean a complete cut-off, but it is still important to set boundaries to ensure your own mental health and emotional safety. It’s important for you to decide what’s OK and what’s not ok, and what positions you will put yourself into and what positions you will choose to avoid.[15]

You can set the limits. No one else will do it for you. Setting boundaries appropriately and assertively is a good way to protect yourself from toxic relationships.[16]

You don’t have to pretend a behavior is OK if someone is crossing a boundary that you have set. When you pretend it’s OK, you welcome further boundary violations. And being assertive about your boundary is fine: you don’t need to be aggressive nor should you be perceived as aggressive. Boundaries are just way of stating the terms on which you’re happy to have a loving, respectful relationship with someone else. The idea behind boundaries certainly isn’t to avoid all people, but rather to build good, enriching, and enhancing relationships.[17]

Note from BCACC: As podcasts can be subscribed to and accessed all over the world, psycho-educational podcasts should include a disclaimer to the effect that they are a self-help tool and do not replace individual counselling or represent an attempt to solicit clients from jurisdictions where the RCC does not have the legal ability to practice. Further, they are not intended for those experiencing severe symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, for which emergency help should be sought.


[1] Kati Morton, How to Deal with Toxic Family This Christmas 2016! Psychology 2 Kati Morton | Kati Morton, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTLcYGXUWpM.
[2] Morton.
[3] Paul Jenkins, How to Deal With Toxic Family Members, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZKfunvjwDg.
[4] Morton, How to Deal with Toxic Family This Christmas 2016! Psychology 2 Kati Morton | Kati Morton.
[5] Morton.
[6] Lerner, “A Survival Guide for Difficult Family Visits,” Psychology Today (blog), 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-dance-connection/201106/survival-guide-difficult-family-visits-0.
[7] Lerner.
[8] Jenkins, How to Deal With Toxic Family Members.
[9] Jenkins.
[10] Jenkins.
[11] Jenkins.
[12] Jenkins.
[13] “Trauma and Families: Fact Sheet for Providers,” accessed December 12, 2019, http://www.ncsby.org/sites/default/files/resources/Trauma%20and%20Families%20Fact%20Sheet%20for%20Providers%20–%20NCTSN.pdf.
[14] Morton, How to Deal with Toxic Family This Christmas 2016! Psychology 2 Kati Morton | Kati Morton.
[15] Jenkins, How to Deal With Toxic Family Members.
[16] Jenkins.
[17] Jenkins.