It’s normal to have arguments, disagreements, and moments of frustration with our in-laws and close loved ones. If the disconnect becomes harmful and toxic, far beyond the occasional “button pushing” that all family members engage in it’s time to take action.

“Family.” The word is dynamic, diverse, and loaded with history—and for all of us, occasional conflict, too. How you respond to a toxic family member depends a lot on your specific situation. Let’s discuss a few strategies.

First Things First: Is This Toxic?

To protect yourself from stress or potential harm, a helpful first step is recognizing toxic behaviors or personality traits in a family member, whether that’s a parent, in-law, sibling, or even your own spouse.

Here are just a few warning signs to look out for:

  • They frequently criticize, insult, or demean you
  • They do not respect your wishes or desires
  • They are manipulative or controlling
  • They do not take responsibility for their actions and often paint themselves as “victims”
  • They have conflict in multiple areas of their life (e.g., family, work, other relationships)
  • They abuse drugs or alcohol
  • They are verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive
  • You find yourself “walking on eggshells” when you’re around them
  • You frequently feel confused, defensive, judged, and/or unsupported when interacting with them

4 Strategies for Dealing With a Toxic Family Member

1. Get Support

Dealing with a toxic family member can be incredibly distressing, draining, and confusing. Please do not expect to handle it all yourself!

Find people in your life you can lean on for emotional support and resources, such as your spouse, your friends, and especially a licensed mental health provider. Their care for you, as well as their alternative perspective, can bolster you in your greatest times of need.

2. Establish Boundaries

Clarifying your boundaries—rules, limits, or realistic expectations about your needs and what is acceptable for you—is a high priority when dealing with a toxic family member.

Examples of boundaries you may need or want to set include:

  • How often a family member can come to visit
  • How often or how late a family member can call
  • Foods and/or activities that are acceptable to do with your children
  • Not asking for nor expecting money or loans
  • Not yelling or insulting you
  • Not going through personal belongings or stealing
  • Not demanding hugs and kisses from your children if they don’t want that kind of physical contact
  • Not cussing or saying off-color jokes in front of your children

Setting boundaries can be difficult at first. Often, the toxic person may exhibit even more dysfunction initially in response to your efforts to protect yourself and your loved ones. Don’t be discouraged—just be polite yet firm.

You do not need to justify nor defend your decisions. Direct phrases such as, “I’m not looking for feedback on this,” “This is not up for discussion,”, and “No,” are useful when explaining your boundaries to other people.

3. Follow Through

Here’s the thing; people won’t respect your own boundaries if you don’t respect them, either.

If your loved one continually ignores your needs and wishes after you’ve stated them clearly, it’s important to follow through on any consequences. Your support team can help you decide what these consequences should be—such as not permitting your toxic family member to have unsupervised access to your children or even going no contact.

4. Practice Good Self-Care

One of the most difficult things about having a toxic family member is knowing you can’t change them. But you can change yourself—including the way you talk to yourself, take care of your body, and address any feelings of guilt, shame, or fear you might experience along the way.

You deserve to feel safe, healthy and loved. So, in addition to leaning on your support team for help, and dedicate time every day for things you enjoy and bring you a sense of ease.

Looking for Help In Your Marriage?

With a strong and healthy marriage, it’s easier for you and your spouse to face the challenges your life will bring. Contact The Marriage Restoration Project today to schedule a free clarity session with Rabbin Slatkin.


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Jennifer Long

Jennifer Long is a writer, author, and multiple hat wearer with experience across many different industries.