Toxic family members and how to navigate them

‘Family dynamics/relationships can be complex’ is something I hear myself say on a weekly basis during a therapy session or outside. Whether the family members are blood or in-laws it can feel difficult to remove yourself from a toxic situation or even to take a step back within the relationship.


What does toxic mean?

If we look at the word toxic, we think about some characteristics such as manipulation, lying, blaming, and not accepting responsibility and judgment. The toxic person may use manipulation to do whatever they can to take control over you using situations to benefit themselves and not you.

Everything is blamed on someone else, and they don’t take responsibility for their own failings or mistakes. Saying sorry is a rare occasion due to their lack of responsibility because they truly believe that they can do no wrong.

The toxic person doesn’t have any thought or concern for other peoples’ feelings or thoughts and may also disregard the other person’s needs. They are usually very critical of others and extremely judgmental to the point of being cruel and the emotional filter is non-existent. They often yell, name-call and accuse and use gaslighting techniques to make you feel guilty for things that you simply didn’t do. They lie, cheat and will do almost anything to get their own way and if they don’t, they often tantrum like a child.

The difficulty with toxic family members

Our families are much harder to deal with due to the unique nature of the group. We are either bonded by blood or through marriage and the feelings we get when we feel that a certain member of the group is toxic is that they are our family, and we can’t do anything to stop this or even to break away from them. This makes the situation of a toxic family member(s) very difficult to deal with especially as there may be family gatherings where you may be around them. It is difficult to cut these people off especially when they are a close family member to another family member who is close to you. Often you will find that other family members have their own opinion on how to deal with this person or ignore their behaviour which in turn enables it to continue.

Whilst being related to a toxic person has its challenges, we may need to exclude this person from our lives for our own protection and mental well-being.

Establish boundaries

It can be easy to find yourself entangled in toxic behaviour with the toxic family member as they begin to pull you into their narrative, but by setting boundaries you can find your way out. Boundaries are the rules of engagement that we decide. We use boundaries to protect ourselves and set the expectation of others.

Boundaries need to be crystal clear and stuck to by all involved. Decide on what it is that you need or want to move forwards in your own life. And whether this person plays a role in this. Toxic people don’t want you to have boundaries and perhaps don’t really understand the need for them as it prevents them from controlling the situation. This is shown with controlling aspects, as they stampede over boundaries throughout their lives. By drawing up a boundary you begin to limit the toxic behaviour and less chance of it happening. 

Don’t get involved

It is a good idea not to be dragged into their narrative especially when it shows signs of toxicity. When in the company of this person, it can be hard to not point out their behaviour especially when they are showing signs of outrageous behaviour, remember that whilst you can’t change their behaviour, you can change the way you react to their behaviour. Besides, if you do confront this person the likelihood is that at some point, what you say will be twisted back at you in a gas-lighting fashion.

Restrict contact

This may seem difficult, especially as families can often get together for different reasons but even if you can’t dodge these events, avoid contact and conversation with this person as much as you can. Instead, find those who are there who are positive and loving and enjoy the time you spend with them. Choose not to discuss the toxic person with other family members unless you trust them explicitly as the toxic person would thrive on getting this information and essentially use it against you. No gossip equals no manipulation. 

Surround yourself with positivity

Create a space around yourself full of positive people. People who build your confidence, lift you up and support you through life. Positivity is contagious! Your positive people care about you and want to see you succeed. Negativity is contagious too, and when you surround yourself with negative people this drags you down and reduces your own positivity. Allow your positive friends and family to work with you ensuring that you feel supported and loved.

Cutting contact

When you have tried setting boundaries, limiting contact, and surrounding yourself with positivity, perhaps there is only one option left, and that is to cut contact. If you have truly tried everything and nothing has made things better, or perhaps even made things worse, perhaps it is time to consider cutting contact. It is fair to think that if you have tried all of the above and more you have tried really hard to resolve the issues.

When you’ve come to the conclusion that you have tried hard then you have no need to feel shame or guilt in saying ‘enough is enough, I have tried, and I can try no more’. You may have come to the conclusion that for your own health and well-being that toxic person must go. A relationship between two people should be balanced, with good communication and respect and you at this point may be feeling that this relationship is very one-sided. And the only move you have left is to stop the relationship with this person.

Throughout our lives we probably all come across toxic people, whether that be friends, work colleagues or romantic partners. And if we choose not to continue with these relationships due to toxic behaviour, then we can make the same choice with a family member.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Telford, Shropshire, TF2
Written by Nicki Cawley
Telford, Shropshire, TF2

As I counsellor and psychotherapist I understand the issues in the articles I write. I try my best to keep my writing as simple as possible to allow anyone to have a read. No jargon needed! I feel passionate about all of my articles and write them so that I can help as many people as possible. Thank you for reading.

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