How to Deal with a Toxic Family Member

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Families are freakin' complicated.

While some people are lucky enough to be born into families full of love, support, and mutual care, others are surrounded by shame, guilt, and generational trauma.

The unavoidable intimacy and interconnectedness of families, in which there are personalities, roles, and expectations of everyone, can cause conflict. And while disagreements can be normal, there are times when familial dysfunction is unhealthy and actually toxic.

10 signs of a toxic family relationship:

  • Not showing concern for your feelings, needs, or rights

  • Acting harsh and critical or even showing contempt towards you

  • Violating your boundaries over and over

  • Not taking responsibility for their actions

  • Blaming others for their mistakes or flaws,

  • Wild mood and behavior swings, and sessions of rage

  • Lying, manipulating, gaslighting, and/or guilting you to get their way

  • They share your business with other people in your family

  • They give you the silent treatment

  • They don't respect your beliefs, even berating you about them or making offensive comments when you're together

So if you see these signs, how do you manage a toxic family member:

Set Clear Boundaries

It's essential to set both physical, time, and emotional boundaries. Setting boundaries allows you to limit the impact of a troubling family member. While boundary setting can seem mean or uncomfortable, it is an important tool in teaching others how to treat us.

Physical boundaries protect your body and personal space as well as other physical needs. These boundaries tell others how close they can get to you, what kind of physical touch (if any) is okay, how much privacy you need, and how to behave in your personal space. (Ex. "I am not a big hugger. I am a handshake person." or "Please don't go into my room without asking first.")

Time boundaries are crucial at work, home, and with families. We often feel a sense of guilt, obligation, and duty to spend time with family. Setting time boundaries means understanding your priorities and setting aside enough time for the many areas of your life without overcommitting. (Ex. "I can only stay for an hour." or "I would love to help, but I would be overcommitting myself. Is there another time?")

Emotional or mental boundaries protect your feelings and thoughts and remove the power of others affecting your mood and self-talk. These boundaries also protect your right not to have your feelings criticized or invalidated as well as not having to manage or take care of other people's feelings. By setting emotional boundaries, you are differentiating your feelings from other people's. Therefore you're accountable for your feelings but not responsible for how others feel. (Ex. "I am so sorry you are having such a tough time. I am not in a place to carry all this, but can we come back to it later." or "Any rude comments on my being single will result in this conversation ending.”)

Build a Healthy Support System

Creating a healthy support system outside of the toxic relationship within your family can be a great tool when things get tough. Dealing with someone else's negativity is stressful and exhausting. Having at least one person you can turn to for advice or hold space for you without fearing negative feedback from them can help you manage the hurt you may be experiencing from the toxic relationship.

Abandon Negative Conversations

When conversations take a downward turn, it may feel necessary to engage; however, often, there's no sense in taking the bait and getting wound into an argument. Usually, this conflict will result in an emotional hangover leading to guilt, shame, and doubt. So, instead of engaging, tell your family member the southern classic "well, let me let you go" and excuse yourself from the conversation.

When we actively ignore bad behavior and don't react to comments we don't want to hear, we will start to hear less of them. If you refuse to give your family members an audience for their hurtful comments, they may begin to speak to you differently to keep your attention.

Recognize the Pressure Surrounding Family

One of the most common narratives found in most cultures is the idea that family is the most important thing in our lives. We are told things like "family is everything," "family first" or "blood is thicker than water." And thus, when we have issues, dysfunction, or unhealthiness within our families, we can feel an immense amount of guilt. We feel obligated to put up with unhealthy relationships just because they are family. Moreover, certain family members have learned how to push our buttons or guilt us into upholding obligations we do not want to commit to. We succumb to the guilt and pressure of "family." One emotion that tends to come up with this guilt is dread which is a sign from your intuition telling you that this request is a bad idea, so listen to it!

Keep Calm and Let Go

As much as possible, try to keep calm (those emotional boundaries are super helpful here!) While you may become annoyed, frustrated, or even angry by the other person's actions, behaviors, and beliefs, your emotions could cause more hostile interactions, and it won't bring about a solution. So instead, focus on taking care of yourself and remove yourself from the situation whenever you need to calm yourself again.

More importantly, let go of what you can't change about your situation. We often hope that people will change and try to do everything in our power to mend the relationship. However, some people are stuck in their behavior patterns, and there is no method to help you improve your relationship with them. While this may be difficult to accept, it can help you move on to create a happier life. You don't have to continue to pour energy and effort into your family members if they refuse to work with you. Instead, focus your energy on the people who do care for you and your wellbeing. (PS. This person might not even be a family member).


Dealing with dysfunctional family relationships can be hurtful and exhausting. In strained relationships, we can feel as if we are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we don't want to feel abused or manipulated, but on the other hand, we usually don't want to lose our family members. The most important thing to remember is that you have the power to create the relationship that works best for you. While it can be a good idea to limit the time in toxic relationships, you do not have to cut people out of your life if you don't want to.

Furthermore, if you feel like you need to remove a toxic family member(s) from your life, remember that you can change your definition of family. Family can be who you choose to do life with and those individuals who support, challenge and encourage your healthiest life.


If you're struggling, seek help. Sharp Wellness offers individual, couples, family, and group therapy to help support you and help you live your best life. Contact us now.

Brittany Harp, MA LPC

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