Jun 042010
6 Ways to Cope With Toxic Relatives

How do you handle problems that tear your family apart? (image by cliff1066, flickr)

You love your family, but the problems seem endless. Use these tips to cope with family problems caused by siblings, parents, or other relatives.

Before the tips, a quip:

“Family quarrels have a total bitterness unmatched by others,” wrote Mignon McLaughlin. “Yet it sometimes happens that they also have a kind of tang, a pleasantness beneath the unpleasantness, based on the tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back.”

There’s a difference between a family quarrel and a toxic relative, though. A toxic relative may keep you out on that limb, unwilling to return – and maybe that’s the best thing for you!

If you can’t untangle yourself from your family problems or toxic relatives, read Leaving Home: The Art of Separating From Your Difficult Family.

And, here are five tips for toxic relatives…

6 Ways to Handle Family Problems

1. Know when to draw the line. On my article about coping with difficult parents, many readers describe toxic relatives who cause a lot of harm to themselves and their family members. My readers ask the same question over and over: “How can I stop my brother/parent/uncle/family member from doing it again?” It depends on the situation, of course, but many times the answer is found in letting your relatives face the consequences. If you keep protecting them from natural consequences, they’ll keep acting the same way.

2. Figure out what the “natural consequences” are. If your relative causes physical harm to another person or family member, then a natural consequence is legal action. If your relative always borrows money and never pays it back, then a natural consequence could be filing suit for repayment (provided you and your relative signed a loan agreement). Another natural consequence is not being invited to family dinners or celebrations (if the toxic relative always ruins the get-togethers). Many families try – out of love – to protect their relatives from the results of their actions. This may appear to be a loving thing to do, but it’s “enabling.” It perpetuates the behavior.

I list a few natural consequences in How to Handle Relatives Who Get Drunk at Family Gatherings.

3. Learn how to deal with difficult people. Dealing with toxic people can be challenging, but there are many books and resources on how to deflect conflicts and situations. Read about boundaries, take workshops or classes about setting healthy boundaries with difficult people, and consider talking to a family counselor about the best way to handle family problems.

4. Distance yourself from toxic relatives. Sometimes the best way to handle family problems is to separate yourself physically and emotionally. This may mean moving to a different house, state, or country. Or, it may mean not answering the phone until you’re mentally and emotionally ready to talk. You don’t necessarily need to cut toxic relatives out of your life; rather, you can give them a quick call every 2-3 months — or you can send a note instead of calling.

5. Don’t expect your family member to change. Change the things you have control over, such as how often you visit. Even knowing you have control over the littlest things can make a difference! Your toxic relative may never change, but you can empower yourself in different ways. For instance, if you have an alcoholic sibling, you can join an Al-Anon support group. Toxic relatives are stressful – there’s no doubt about it – but you can reduce the stress by checking your own attitude and response to them.

6. Expect criticism. Handling problems with family requires setting healthy boundaries. It’s easier to set boundaries than to actually stick to them! Learn how to protect your boundaries despite criticism from other people. And remember that your toxic relatives may not think they’re doing anything wrong, and may not see the negative effect they have on you or others. They may think everyone should live and act the way they do. That’s their right, and it’s your right to live the way you see fit.

For more tips, read How to Handle Parents Who Interfere in Your Relationship.

How do you handle toxic relatives who cause family problems?

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  53 Responses to “Handling Family Problems – 6 Ways to Cope With Toxic Relatives”

  1. My problem is that my toxic relative has connections with housing and the state. He thinks that it is his “duty” to involve himself in my family’s affairs. If that is not bad enough, he is retired Navy. That means he also “enlists” cronies into his “entitlement” into our lives.

    This has done nothing but harm to us as his “observations” are not helpful to my gaining employment, or getting any other kind of help for that matter. He has this sarcastic nature about him that either exalts people to a mountain top, or chops them up with his forked tongue.

    As a direct result of his interference, people are conditioned to think the worst of us before they even meet us. I’m just emotionally exhausted with having to deal with this and need it to stop. He does not respect my boundaries. We come from a military family, Navy, and there seems to be no respect for women. Both my father and my uncle seem to be completely devoid of respect as far as the opposite sex is concerned. They do not seem to respect black people very much either. ugh.

  2. It s got to be worth a try I suppose. My parents were busy people, own business etc. there are four of us and im the youngest. My mother winges and nags and moans for England. I had an undiagnosed illness causing flare ups for 16 years, my mother honestly believed I was ill on purpose just to get at her. We all knew that 16 years was the cut off point…we would have to support ourselves from that point on and this we did. Throughout my young adult years moving around a lot I noticed other peoples parents seemed to express concern and interest in a way which mine did nt. Friends exspressed surprise at the lack of interst mine showed..but I knew no different. They were however interested in my helping with the business, I travelled home to help out when they were desperate, arrived,did the work to the sound track of my mothers moaning and went away again…leaving her to wash my sheets which allways found their way to the washing machine as soon as I got out of bed. No matter what the problems going on in my life my mothers were worse…I sat in a hospital bed in agony waiting for the dreaded news from the doctor..and listened to my mum winging about my dad and the business. She knew I was in hospital, and in agony but her lifes dramas just clouded out any thing I was going through. Dad was no saint, he liked the ladies when he was younger. He paid the price by giving in to her every demand as he got older. He was in agony for two weeks before he died and it haunts me how she treat him at that time. Unfortunatley dad died before his job list was finished and we inherited his list. It reached the point where I drove 240 miles to get her a door catch. that door catch put me over the edge. Every little rejection, every time they demanded my presence to work for them and every moan winge and occasion when I have been forced to back down is haunting me. Last week she told her friend how little I have helped with her new house. I hate the house because its like a showroom and we have all had to dance to her tune to get it fit for her. Im boiling with indignity and so so hurt. I daresn t talk to her because I know im just about to boil over and throw everything back at her. If I don that the guilt tri[p which follows will be of epic proportions.
    Why when she was so uninterested in me growing up and leaving home , why does she think I give a flying fig about her house or her kitchen . Humph.
    god that felt good saying all that. im not correcting the mistakes because im not. humph.

  3. Dear Bella,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! It sounds like you’ve been through so much with your siblings. Sometimes breaking emotional ties with our family members is the best way to handle problems. If they aren’t willing to see their contributions and take responsibility, then there’s no point in banging your head against the wall. Sometimes letting go of someone you love is better and healthier than fighting to keep a relationship alive.

    Maybe you’ll always care about your sister. Maybe getting to the place where you don’t care anymore is too much to expect. Maybe you need to grieve your loss and be sad about losing her, while moving on from your relationship.

    It’s hard, isn’t it? My thoughts and prayers are with you.


  4. I just stumbled on this and it has eased my pain and I don’t feel as alone. I am the youngest of 3 siblings and in my 40’s. I was so close to my brother until I introduced him to his wife. I always tried to keep the relationship going, but he wasn’t interested and I had to admit defeat and not contact him anymore, as the rejection was killing me. I have an older sister who is very emotionally sick and I have always been there for her, but the relationship is now making me sick. My sister blames everyone else for her unhappiness and is extremely venomous regarding everyone, especially her own daughter. I am sometimes on the phone for 2 hours listening to it. I have never discussed this with her, but she has terribly hurt me in the passed by allowing my abusive ex husband in and out her house while I was homeless and sitting in a shelter for battered women. I tried to call her one day from the shelter, but couldn’t get through to her for 3 hours because she was on the phone to my abuser. I call her and she ignores my calls and doesn’t return my text messages and I am always left absolutely crushed and wondering if I’ve done something to upset her. As I’ve said, I am now emotionally sick with this relationship and I now need help in breaking the emotional ties from her. I want to get to a place where I don’t really care anymore, like the way I am with my brother. I feel I am in a state of grieving for this relationship. I have however arranged counselling through my doctor and hope this will help me move on from this relationship. Thank you for all the wonderful comments.

  5. Hi Amy,

    Thank you for being here. You sound like a very insightful, smart woman – and I think you need an objective perspective to help you see your relationship with your dad more clearly. There is often more going on than we can see because we’re in the middle of it…but if we tell our story to someone who is once or twice removed, we get a different perspective.

    I encourage you to talk to someone in person about your dad. I can’t give you the advice you need, and I don’t want to mislead you. I also think the sooner you talk this stuff through, the better – because issues left undealt-with can become bigger and more complicated to manage.

    What do you think?

  6. This story may sound selfish somewhat (and sometimes i feel selfish when self analysing the issue, but there you go), I’m 26 years old, and over the last…at least ten years or so, maybe slightly longer, my relationship with my father has deteriorated to a point where I’m constantly angry whenever I even have to see a picture of him or sometimes even when he is mentioned in passing.

    Now I should mention that my parents are in the process of getting divorced after thirty years of marriage (he moved out a year ago, leaving me and my mother in an extremely tight financial state).

    I myself have suffered from mental health issues for the last five and a bit years, and his attitude towards those problems may have exacerbated them, which has led to further…well issues between us.

    He has claimed for many a year that he treats me and my younger brother the same and doesn’t favour one of us over the other, but that just isn’t the case. My brother, much like my father, has mountains of debt, and yet when he lived with us, me and my mam were the ones getting jibes had at us about bringing debt to the house.

    I understand that that probably means that he has many deep set issues of his own, and for that I do feel truly sad for him, because I know he won’t confront those issues until it’s far too late, or perhaps never at all.

    I want to be able to move on from all the mental, emotional and even sometimes physical abuse, but I’m finding it hard to accept that I may never get…well retribution for the years of hell he’s put me and my mam through, so any tips anyone can give me on how to move on with my life would be extremely helpful.

    Thankyou in advance.

  7. Dear Jane Doe,

    Thank you for being here! You sound like a very smart, insightful, resilient person – and I believe you will survive your mom. And, you’ll use your experience with her to help other people – and even change their lives!

    I wrote this for you:


    It’s called “How to Survive a Situation You Can’t Change”, and I believe it’ll help you cope with your toxic mother.

    Read it, and come back anytime to let me know how you are.


  8. i dont know if youl be able to understand or even help me but im hurting inside and really the six steps i dont know they seem generic but il try it out. im a senior in high school ive been accepted and you have no idea how happy i am to leave. my sister and i, since we were little have been physically and verbally abused my our mother. my dads great and usually isnt there when it happens… im 17 now and he will never know. she has great moments and has done a lot. i am thankful for that but i cant take it anymore. my sisters gone to college and my moms just horrible to me. shes always stressed from work and yells and really hurts me inside. i try not to let it affect me and i try to forgive her because shes under stress but theres a point where i cant take it. i think i hate her and i just want to leave. im tired of her threats and although she hasnt hit me in months i want to leave. she doesnt listen and always thinks shes right. each time she yells for an hour at me she then apologizes but i cant take it. i want to leave but im stuck with her even when im in college. i cant just leave because i love my dad and sister. theyre my family too. i love my mom sometimes but i hate how righteous she thinks she is and all of the horrible things shes done to me. this might sound more of a therapy session than a comment and im sorry if i bothered you. i just feel that sometimes there is no escape. i have to keep my honor image at school, make sure people know im okay…. i cant tell my dad because hell get mad at my mom and i dont want that… my sister cant do anything about it….. and even if i wanted to go it would hurt the others i love. what im trying to say is that sometimes people like me, have to endure the pain and just go through life with it at least until i go to graduate school. there i will be my own person. i hate that i cant get help .. i hate that theres no solution… i hate that i have to be with my mom everyday. again im sorry if this sounds like a rant. ive never done this before but i feel like when i write to someone … then i feel better. i cant tell my friends… like i said no one can ever know from school or other family that we have problems in the household. i guess you can say its peruvian pride i dont know. but i always want to be seen as someone who has everything together. i like it that way. anyways i bet your tips can really help others. i just feel helpless stuck here.

  9. Thank you for sharing how you are coping with your family problems. Everyone has a different family, yet the problems are the same: finding the balance between being a loving person, and standing up for yourself so that you are meeting your own needs.

    The trick is doing what you think is right, and not letting your family members manipulate you into doing what THEY want you to do. How do you do this? It really helps to have an objective perspective, such as from a counselor or trusted mentor.

    Who do you talk to about handling your family problems?

  10. I have a sister who lives with our grandpa who has dementia. She doesn’t care about him. All she has to do is give him his medicine and warm his food and “watch him” and wash the dishes. She is lazy in answering and returning phone calls. She doesn’t initiate anything and is often bored and doesn’t care. She doesn’t say thank you or appreciate any help I do for her in caring for our grandpa. She often frustrates me. She is also passive aggressive. My other sister is worse. I really try hard with them but I have to work with them for our grandpa’s sake. Otherwise, I don’t want anything to do with either one of them because they do not benefit me at all.

  11. Thank you for the comments it makes me see that I am not alone in this problem. I have a very difficult adult brother (35) who acts so immature and controlling that I am starting to actually think he is mentally ill. I have tried to no avail to be kind and supportive of him, but he meets me with accusations of how I have caused all these problems in his life. He brings up past slights from 6 years ago! It’s craziness. When he doesn’t get his own way to goes off to pout and sulk. One more conundrum, he has moved back in with my parents to save money. I would like to have a relationship with my mom and dad, but almost can’t stand to go over to their house since my brother is always lurking about, ready to criticize me for anything and everything. I am starting to realize that I will need to distance myself from all of them.

  12. I know there are a lot of families hurting out there, mine including!!! There is a toxic relationship between my husband and both of our young adult daughters. They have totally stopped communicating with him and have placed me in the middle. One is planning her wedding and wants no part of her Dad to be a part of things but wants me, the other is going in the military and wants her Dad to stay away and include only me. I’m so torn by all this.Life has not been easy to say the least. They don’t live at home so why can’t they just get along and be at peace living their own life. It’s like they are scheming to do what it takes to see my husband and I divorced. My husband has no family of his own and few friends. My family don’t like my husband either. No one will let him from his past behaviors. He just wants for people to get along. Help!!!!

  13. I can truly relate! I have a 54-year old brother who calls his 80-year old mother out of her sick bed to accuse her of not loving him and bless her out because I didn’t call him concerning her accident when he thought I should. He even threatened her to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas. I fixed his goat! Both are being held at my house. LOL

    Does anyone agree with me that he should have at least asked her how she was doing? But he didn’t! Un-freaking-believable! And rather than thank me for calling him and ask me if there were anything he could do to help me out, he chose to be a total self-centered baby and show his royal azz. He’s lucky I called him at all. I certainly didn’t want to with good reason.

    Since he wouldn’t leave our mother alone to heal at her house and since I was having trouble ALONE commuting to care for my mom, I decided to bring her to my house until she recovers from surgery and the accident but she’s been here going on three weeks now and the stress is really building up. It’s not easy taking care of an elderly parent; especially when my siblings are doing everything in their power to make things worse.

    I had called my sister first about the accident and she leaves work to “help out” because I was having trouble getting Mom to agree to an ER check. But I didn’t ask for her help. I just called to let her know about the accident but my sister jumps in her car and arrives with an empty gas tank (surprise, surprise) so I put $25 gasoline on my credit card in her tank and she takes Mom to ER while I stay home to clean dirt, grass, and glass out of her suitcase clothing, cook dinner, and ready her room.

    The next day, my sister calls in need of $20 more for gasoline so she can get to work. Then she calls a couple of days later to say she’s sick, headed to the doctor, and needs new clothes for work. How is this chic helping me with anything, I want to know? I blew a fuse, made her furious, and we haven’t spoken since.

    Mom had only been a few days out of surgery (gallbladder removal) when she flipped her car in route to my house three Thursdays ago. The EMT’s called me because I was available and I was who she was headed to spend the weekend. I wish I had not called either of my siblings because one is a rich moron that wouldn’t “piss on me if I were on fire” (his words) and my sister is a deadbeat beggar whose income is twice my own. Further, she has no mortgage or child to raise through school as I do and lives with a drug addict bum who’s currently on probation (as if that’s my fault).

    I am flat out sick to death of both of them and wish to God I had not called either of them. It also upsets me that I will have to share Mom’s estate equally with those two boneheads when Mom finally does pass on because they do not help me with her elder care at all. They are nothing but more expense and trouble for me. Even caught my sister at the dollar store with a loaded down buggy of crap after telling me she couldn’t afford to pay me back the $45.

    Good grief! Who needs siblings like the two I have, huh? I can’t believe they’re my sister and brother raised by the same parents. What causes this sort of insanity? It never ceases to leave me in shock and all they have to do is open their mouths.

  14. My husband and daughter (19) seem to always be quarreling; both of them accusing each other of being insensitive and rude, and saying hurtful things. It makes me so sad, I love them both so much and I feel torn apart trying to be compssionate and I see both their points of view but they can’t even be in the same room together without fighting unless I’m there.

    It’s too much for me to solve on my own, so we are all going to therapy as soon as I can schedule it.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share what’s up fo us.

  15. I have a toxic family. Out of five brothers/sisters, I’m the “ONLY” one with a registered vehicle. Everybody in my family call me when they need to be somewhere. It’s driving me insane and its starting to stress me out to where I have chest pains and headaches. I just recently stopped talking to them and accepting phone calls from them and I’m starting to notice how great I’m feeling. My stress is down, and I’m a lot happier. I have a brother who’s on drugs and lives at home with my mom and he can’t drive a vehicle due to unpaid fines and driving classes not being met. I also have an older sister who lives with my mom along with her two children ages 21 and 25, neither of them are driving as well. I have a younger sister who lives with her boyfriend and she doesn’t have a car either. My phone ring all day from these people asking me to take them here and there. My mom does all the calling for them. I wish she would for once stand up for me and tell my siblings to back off but she never will. My dad died may 25, 2011, and when he was living he would go through the exact same thing I’m going through. I refuse to let them do that to me. I’m drawing the line and I’m taking control of my life. I have a son and two nieces I’m raising and they need me to be healthy and strong for them. My mom doesn’t care about me, if she did she would put her foot down with my siblings and tell them to get it together, but she doesn’t. She call me with all these requests of who need a ride where. I hate that I had to distant myself from them, but if I continue being around them I know for a fact my health would decline from too much stress and their not worth it. I love them, but I can do it from a distant.

  16. Came across this site as I am trying to work out why my family is so vile, they backstab, drag up peoples pasts, stick there nose into every ones business, twist things to suit themselves. My nephew as he doesnt have a good relationship with his mother is trying to come between myself and my son by telling lies and saying things that my son has said it is very hurtful I know I need to distance myself but feel sorry for my son as I feel they have used him to have their fun.

  17. It took a lot of courage for me to write in & express my situation.
    I have been research for a long time how to deal with the controlling siblings. I was raised in a very controlling family, my father,and most of my siblings acting that way toward me all my life. I didn’t know all of the thinking, actions of the controlling person like until I read quite a few of the websites about the controlling people. Their actions hurt me so much. I have been dealing with them in a pleasant way but I didn’t get the same respond back. It took me over 30 years to finally learned to stay away from my family. It is the toughest decision I’ve ever made but I realized that none of them have changed & will not change because it happened again just recently. I know now stay away is a good choice for me. I know it will help me heal and be at peace. I pray for me and for them.

  18. Wow, this makes me feel a lot better that I am not the only one with family issues. I feel like every time I see them, parents, siblings, they always manage somehow to upset me and make me regret seeing them. My older sister and brother only need to ask and my parents will go over to baby sit their animals. But as for me, not one of them came when they were called by a nurse in intensive care unit to say goodbye to me. I was suddenly unwell with blood clots in my lungs last year at 24, and the nurses never thought I would make it through the night. The excuse was ‘we had work in the morning’ and ‘but you live so far away’ (1.5 hr drive) I’ve choosen to forgive them, and at least now I know they can’t be counted on. But its hard to see such support for the others. Especially when there was never a falling out or any major difference in our opinions & beliefs.

  19. You can pick your friends but not family members!! Remember a
    relationship works both ways not only one person trying to make it
    work, takes both people to put an effort into it if not you have to come
    to a decision you have done all you can just pray for the other person!!
    Life is too short to beg people to be your friend move on & find some
    more people you enjoy being around!!

  20. This is for Fred. I too, inherited money from an aunt after I literally moved out of my house, leaving my husband and daughter to take care of her while she was dying of cancer. It took three months for her to die. However, she left the money to me, after she had promised it to my brother years ago. My sister, brother and father were furious and it caused us not to talk for two years. My father wrote some scathing letters to me accusing me of coercing my aunt into this. I did not. So, now my father is dead and has written me out of his will WHO THE HELL CARES!! I hated the old bastard as he was an abusive father. I guess he did it to even the score. Money is money and we all die and leave it although I gave some money to my brother, but I guess it wasn’t good enough. Too bad, but I thought I would be kind and share some of it. My aunt left instructions on her death bed that my sister was NOT to get a dime. I promised her that. What was I supposed to do?

  21. Thanks Alisha – I’m glad this article helped! I really appreciate your comments.

    Lori, I hate to say this but it takes years to learn how to cope with difficult, opinionated, critical family members. Two days is not alot of time to prepare for something as big as your daughter’s wedding. To prevent anything terrible from happening, I think you need to keep taking deep breaths and let your mom and sister be opinionated. Your daughter’s wedding isn’t the time to confront them or expect them to change. You may have to hold yourself back, and let your family members be who they are.

    And, try not to let them get to you. You can’t change their personalities or behaviours, but you can change how you respond. Instead of reacting to their toxic comments and actions, you need to square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and remember that you’re taking the high road at this event.

    After the wedding is over, maybe you could find long-term, healthier, better ways to cope with your mom. For now, though I think the best thing to do is just let them be. It’s in the name of peace — it’s not about who is right!

  22. Finally found an article that can get me moving in the right direction. I am 37 years old, married and have a wonderful 20month old. Unfortunately my father lives with us too, he is 80 years old and he is in fairly good health, just not mentally. I suffered years from his mental abuse and crazy irrational thinking that he so enjoys projecting onto me.

    After years of therapy I have come to the conclusion that there is no hope in this relationship, I can’t kick him out, he has no where to go. He loves his grandson to death and I wouldn’t want to use that against him. I do not want to turn into him. I am just an ignorant child in his eyes.

    We want to start working on another child, but he says one is enough and flips out every time we talk about it. I tell him this is my life and he needs to let me live it. I do love my father, but I also realize how harmful he is to my emotional well being, and building these boundaries are the best advice there is .

  23. Ok so my mother and I do not get along at all. She is controlling and very opinionated, she never sees that she makes everyone around her miserable. We live 1500 miles apart so we don’t see each other alot but when we are together, after a couple of days we are at each others throats. It is like she cant handle the fact that I don’t need her in my life any more. Her and my sister pick on my little sister all the time. My sisters ruined my daughters bachlorette party, and her graduation by fighting and causing a scene. Now my daughter is getting married in two days and we are all on pins a needles hoping there is not another stupid embarrassing fight. I am at a loss as what to do. Any ideas on how to prevent a situation from getting out of hand??? Help!!!!!!