How do you deal with a difficult or toxic family member?

Are you struggling to live with difficult or toxic family members? Find out how to manage dysfunctional family relationships and common sources of conflict.

Annoyed grown-up daughter expressing complaints to elderly mother

What are dysfunctional family relations?

Fathers, mothers, and siblings can all be your lifelong social support network. They can help you celebrate your highs, and provide comfort when you are at your lowest. However, there will always be disagreements and misunderstandings. Minor disagreements between family members are common and can be resolved on their own or through constructive dialogue. Other conflicts, however, can prove to be more serious. Family interactions can lead to resentment or toxic patterns that cause long-lasting frustrations and even tear apart relationships.

There are many ways that difficult family relationships can manifest. An anxious dad might make you feel anxious. Maybe a sibling’s jealousy causes tension at family events. Perhaps you think that a controlling new in-law causes unnecessary drama.

How to deal with difficult or toxic family relationships

You can experience long-lasting health and well-being issues from turbulent relationships in your family. You might:

  • These poor relationships can be blamed on you.
  • Fear and anxiety around family holiday events or holidays can be frightening.
  • Do not hesitate to reach out and help other family members.
  • Feelings of helplessness or lack of financial support in difficult times.
  • These interactions can cause insomnia and problems with concentration.

Research shows that bad relationships with siblings, parents, and spouses can lead to depression symptoms. Long-term effects of domestic violence on children’s health can also be caused by their exposure. A longitudinal study showed that children exposed to domestic violence and arguments can lead to a higher risk of developing mental or physical health problems later on in life.

You can reduce the negative consequences by learning how to recognize family tensions and create peaceful relationships. You might decide that cutting off all ties is best for your health and happiness. However, there are ways you can repair your family bonds and build better relationships with your closest friends and family members.

Family conflict can be caused by common causes

It is important to understand why difficult relationships exist before you can learn how to manage them. These are the most common causes of family conflicts and how to avoid them.

Family finances

Families tend to have some financial overlap. An inheritance might cause sibling rivalries. Some parents may have strong opinions about how their children manage money. Adult children may feel the need for financial control over their parents.

Financial disagreements are common when it comes to large family events like weddings and holiday parties. There are many ways to deal with money issues within your family.

Make sure you have a written agreement. For example, if you expect your family member to repay you for a personal loan, then you should have a written agreement. This will help avoid any arguments or legal issues.

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Establish boundaries. If someone in your family is trying to get you to lend money or to take control of your finances, you need to be clear about the behavior you will not tolerate. Your family member will be able to tell when you’ve crossed the line if you are clear.

Be transparent when you need to. It’s not necessary to disclose all financial information to anyone. It’s better to be transparent in situations where your decisions could affect family members. To avoid future conflicts, you might talk to your children about their inheritance details. You could also let your siblings know why your family is unable to contribute to a shared expense.

Caregiving responsibilities

A 2020 study shows that 19% of Americans act as unpaid caregivers. Family relationships can be affected by the stress and responsibilities that come with being a caregiver.

Research shows that siblings can become more anxious when their parent is ill. Maybe you think your sibling is denying your parent’s needs and should be proactive. Perhaps you disagree with your sibling on whether an assisted-living facility would be the best housing option for your parent.

Conflicts about caregiving don’t just affect sibling relationships. There are many reasons to argue with your spouse or parents about how to raise your children.

These tips can help you and your family members to work together in caring for one another.

Let your caregiver know what support you need. Resentment can lead to more tension and further anger.

Try to find compromise and be open to accepting the limitations of others. Perhaps your sibling can provide financial assistance if they are unable to physically care for you. When your sibling assumes responsibilities, show your appreciation.

You might consider seeking support from outside your family if someone is completely incapable or unwilling to take parental caregiving.

Add new family members

There are more conflict possibilities as your family grows. One study of estrangement between mother and child found that more than 70% of mothers claimed other members of their family caused the separation. Mothers often blamed their child’s spouse or partner for the problems.

These conflicts don’t just affect mothers and their children. Your brother-in-law and you might have a strained relationship. Perhaps your father-in-law expects too much of you. You can get along better with your in-laws

Be open to differences. Families have different expectations, boundaries, and ways of doing business. Are you a rude or untactful family member that your daughter-in-law is? Perhaps she is from a family that tolerates teasing or encourages blunt language.

Try to focus on the positive qualities of their in-laws. They are part of your family because someone in your family recognized their potential. You can make a list of your strengths if you have trouble seeing past their faults.

Share common interests. While it may not be easy, it is possible to find common interests if one looks hard enough. Talk to your in-laws about their hobbies, passions, and past experiences until they find something that you can relate to.

Religious and political differences

Family bonds can be affected by political and religious similarities. Studies show that mothers who share the same faith as their adult children have higher-quality relationships.

However, family members who don’t share the same beliefs or political views can spark heated arguments. Perhaps your sibling doesn’t like group prayers being offered before meals. Perhaps you are subject to insults or snide comments when you voice your political views. Here are some ways to handle family members with opposing views.

Find useful conversations. Ask yourself what you want from the debate. Are you hoping to change the mind of your family member? Are you trying to understand their beliefs? Are you willing to compromise on your positions? You can still have a productive conversation even if your views are not mutually exclusive.

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Be careful not to make broad generalizations. Statements such as “Everyone is evil” and “Everyone is an idiot” are sure to escalate disputes and further entrench people.

Look for the human side of the other person’s views. Many political beliefs can be influenced by a concern for the well-being of society. Recognize that the views of others may not be as different from yours.

Be respectful and firm in your exit. You could say, “I’m not certain if this is productive.” Let’s just leave it at that. Resist the urge to say the “last word.”

Avoid making sarcastic jokesHumor is a great way to diffuse tension. Avoid making offensive jokes about the beliefs and values of others.

Family issues that are not resolved

Family relationships can be affected by past events. When he was young, did you and your son get into an argument? He might be angry or distrustful of your parents if the matter is not resolved. Your parents might have favored you over your brothers. Your siblings could be afflicted by jealousy.

Many family members experience difficult times or milestones that can lead to unresolved problems. As you and your siblings become caregivers for an aging parent, it is possible to re-examine insecurity about parental favoritism.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are the one holding on to an issue. Have a private conversation with the other party, where you can discuss the issue and your point of view. If the other party is sorry for their role in the problem, be open to forgiveness.

Be understanding if a family member harbors resentment. Find out how they perceive events and how it continues to affect them. You can apologize to your family member if you have done any harm in the past and discuss ways to repair it. If you have lost your temper with your child in the past, tell him how you intend to improve your relationship going forward.

Even if neither party is to blame, acknowledging the past and the consequences of growing up in dysfunctional families can help. Keep in mind that there is no perfect family and that past experiences can influence our present perceptions. You must focus on the present and how you can resolve conflict.

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Tips for dealing with difficult or toxic family members

Sometimes, despite your best intentions and best efforts, you will find it difficult to get along with family members. Maybe someone holds grudges against you or refuses change.

You might want to avoid conflicting family members. But, this strategy is often thwarted by family gatherings like weddings and funerals. These are some alternatives:

Manage your stress

Prioritize stress management before and after you interact with difficult family members. Many stress management methods work. These include meditation, walking, journaling, and chatting face to face with a friend.

Do not hesitate to leave the room if you feel stressed out by a difficult family member.

  • To ground yourself in the present moment, rely on your senses. You can take a deep inhale of fresh air, pet a dog or cat, or just hum to yourself. Your imagination can help you to imagine something soothing like your child’s smile or a tranquil setting.
  • Activities that involve movements, such as jogging or stretching, are most beneficial for those who freeze under stress. To burn off stress, you can do some stretching, sway to the music, or run.

Establish and maintain boundaries

You can avoid toxic family relationships by setting clear boundaries. Imagine that you and your spouse are about to visit overbearing inlaws. Talk to your spouse about a time limit. It is also possible to set limits on the topics you want to discuss. It might be best to avoid the topic if you have been involved in heated discussions about religion with your spouse.

Keep your temper under control if someone tries to get beyond your boundaries. Be clear and specific about the consequences. You could use the following example: “If you keep raising that topic, I’ll be going early.”

Increase your emotional intelligence (EQ).

You can increase your emotional intelligence by improving your ability to manage emotions, understand them, and express them. This can have a positive impact on your mental health and relationships with your family.

You can improve your EQ by focusing on these four skills.

  1. Self-management
  2. Self-awareness
  3. Social awareness
  4. Management of relationships

These skills can be developed by using mindfulness to evaluate your emotional state as well as nonverbal cues. For more strategies, see Improving Family Relations with Emotional Intelligence

Focus on the positive

Accept your family member’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe your sibling is demanding and confrontational, but they are willing to finance family events. Perhaps your mother-in-law is harsh but supportive of your children.

Practice empathy

Recognize that your family member may be experiencing difficult circumstances. You may have to acknowledge that your family member might be struggling with mental illness or substance addiction.

These factors are not sufficient to excuse bad behavior. However, being more compassionate can help you gain a better understanding and appreciation of the person who is exhibiting the same behaviors.

Use conflict resolution skills

When dealing with family drama, conflict resolution skills are very useful. These skills include dealing with stress in the present, being aware of your emotions, and prioritizing resolution over gaining control.

Your aging parent may be expressing frustration at losing their independence. You can ask your parent to do you a favor, or assign a task that makes them feel valued.

Acceptance and limited expectations

Accept the fact that others may have different priorities or views than you. You can’t control the behavior of your adult siblings, parents, or children. You can either treasure the relationship as it is or finds joy in other relationships.

When to end ties with family members


Is a dysfunctional family relationship worth saving? It may vary depending on other factors.

What is the possibility of change? Both the other person and the problem must acknowledge it and be open to working together to solve it. You can’t force people to change. You may have to deal with a narcissistic relative. Their inflated self-image, lack of empathy, and manipulative ways could hinder any meaningful progress.

How serious is the abuse? It’s best to end all ties with the loved one in cases of abuse. You don’t have to suffer physical abuse. Your sense of well-being can be affected by people who abuse you verbally, emotionally, or psychologically. You could be a victim to a father-in-law who wants to humiliate you or your siblings who use guilt-tripping as a way to manipulate you.

How to deal with doubts

It is difficult to cut ties with a difficult family member. It is possible to question your decision repeatedly or find it difficult to accept that the relationship cannot be saved.

Make a list of reasons you have decided to end contact. Are there too many times that the person crossed your boundaries? Do you feel the stress from your interactions has negatively impacted other areas of your daily life? It’s important to write it down so that you don’t forget.

How to handle the grief that comes with ending a relationship

You may need to grieve depending on how close you were to your family member.

Don’t suppress your emotions. After a breakup, it is normal to feel anger, sadness, and guilt. It is normal for grief to increase on the days that are associated with the deceased family member, such as holidays or birthdays.

Talk with friends and family about your situation. This is the best time to seek out support. You can tell the people who are supportive of you what you need. This could strengthen your relationships with family members.

Keep your hobbies and your health in good shape. Get enough sleep and exercise regularly to maintain your physical and mental well-being. To deal with negative emotions, don’t use alcohol or drugs.

Moving forward

People’s behavior and circumstances can change over time. You don’t have to cut off all ties immediately. There may be reconciliation if you can see that the family member is willing to make amends.

However, don’t rush to reconcile. Both of you should accept the fact that reconciliation can take time and require concrete steps to improve your difficult or toxic family relationship. You might be able to repair the broken relationship by having patience and better communication.