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3 ways to navigate the holidays with toxic family members while keeping your sanity in tact

Making a preemptive plan of escape can save you an awkward exit.

toxic family holidays; surviving family holidays; family time; thanksgiving; mental health and holidays
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

3 ways to get through the holiday season with toxic family

Holidays can be hard for some people, especially if they have family members that they don't get along with and while the solution for some people would be to stay away, it's not always that simple. There are many reasons people may choose to endure unpleasant family members, whether it be staying with in-laws until they get on their feet or visiting parents in order to see their younger siblings.

With holidays coming up, people are making plans on who's house they're visiting and for how long. Your mouth may be salivating at the thought of eating aunt Mary's famous green bean casserole that she only cooks twice a year and you can't wait for dinner. But what do you do if you're stuck spending time with family members you don't particularly care to be around?


According to a recent poll by USA Today, nearly 85% of people avoid family get togethers during the holidays. That's certainly one way to avoid drama but that's not possible for everyone. So for those that must be in contact with family members that their not particularly fond of, there are three simple things you can do the maintain your sanity and enjoy your time.

1. Create an easy to execute escape plan in advance

No one likes being stuck somewhere unpleasant, so if you have a partner coming with you, make sure you are both clear on how long you're staying. Given that the holidays are often seen as extended family days, someone will likely ask why you need to leave. Prepare for that scenario by actually having a place to go. If it's your family that makes you a little unstable, schedule that visit first so you can use the other person's scheduled family time to politely exit.

This doesn't have to be elaborate, it just has to feel valid to you. If you don't have a partner, you can always make plans to spend some time at a friend's house after your allotted time with your family. "Sorry, uncle Jimmy, I'm expected at Becky's house by 2:30 but it was so nice to see everyone," as you skedaddle out the door.

toxic family holidays; surviving family holidays; family time; thanksgiving; mental health and holidays

Two women in kitchen cooking

Photo by Isaac Owens on Unsplash
2. Set a physical boundary by utilizing distance

If you find yourself at a family gathering that includes one or two people you're not particularly fond of, you can utilize the space of the location to create physical distance between you and that person. After the initial pleasantries, move away to another room in the house and enjoy the company of other family members. There's no rule that says you need to engage with everyone at all times. You set the boundary around your engagement with this family member.

If it gets to be a little overwhelming, remember that you're in control of yourself. You can exit the space to step outside, go to the bathroom or ask the host to lay down in an empty room for a few minutes. This will help to reset your nervous system a bit so you can continue to be present with the other family you enjoy.

3. Have a code word to indicate an immediate need to exit

Whether you bring your partner, friend or arrive solo, have a code word ready to go so whoever you're with knows it's their time to shine. This is essentially like pulling the escape hatch. If you walk up to your partner and say, "we forgot the banana pudding," and they know banana pudding is the code word, that's when they give a reason to leave immediately. Will it be a lie? Yes. Do we care in that moment? No. In that moment the focus is on your mental health and feelings of safety.

So if you say the code word and your partner says, they just checked the camera app and the dog has had multiple accidents in the house and looks like he's sick, apologize for having to leave and go clean up imaginary dog poop.

Bonus: Avoid unnecessary hot topics unless you're mentally prepared

No matter what TikTok says, you don't have to have heated conversations over hotly debated topics at the dinner table. If you're not prepared to emotionally and mentally handle the hostility that may come, keep it surface level. If someone tries to bait you, redirect by stating you've heard about it but haven't really kept up, then change the subject. There are multiple variations on this that someone could use to steer the conversation away but remember, you can always create space between you two if necessary.

You never have to stay in an unsafe or hostile environment, while you can't control other people, you can control yourself.

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