12 Ways to Deal With A Toxic Family/Family Member.

Via Tanya Lee Markul
on May 5, 2012
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Breaking up with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend is one thing and there’s a lot of advice out there for doing it, but what about a family break-up?

Most of us are not in a position to “just leave” nor do we feel we want to, or that it’s the right thing to do. So what do we do when a toxic family member (or members) is literally ruining our lives? How do we deal with the feeling of obligation, guilt, confusion and heartache?

It is important to note that not everyone’s family is there for them to lean on, to call on or to go home to. Not every family is built on the premise of interconnectedness, support and stability. Sometimes family simply means that you share a bloodline. That’s all. Some families build you up and some suck your energy dry.

There are relationships and friendships that just aren’t fixable—this includes family. There are situations that you can endure for only so long before you’ve outgrown them. There may come a crucial time when you have to separate yourself from your family in order to do what is best for you and possibly for them.

In many respects, the way we were treated by our family ends up being the same treatment we offer the world.

Often times the signal and energy we put out into the world is similar to or exactly what we have experienced by others. And for most of us, this influential force has been our family. Think about it. Think about just how much the interaction, or lack there of, from our family, sets the tone for the quality of energy we give off during our lifetime.

What is unacceptable treatment?

Rejection, abandonment, not taking the time to get to know you or to be in your life, making you feel unwelcome, someone being competitive or hypercritical of you, pressuring or forcing you to be someone you are not, blaming, ostracizing, manipulating, belittling, neglecting and abusing you…the list goes on and on and on. These types of experiences can make a deep imprint on our hearts and inhibit our ability to react without them being present in the back of our mind’s. Our reactions to life become skeptical, doubtful, fearful and we more often see the dark instead of the light in both people and situations.

These negative experiences can jade us for a lifetime, unless we learn to do whatever it takes to get ourselves into a positive nurturing environment and replace negatively influenced reactions with positive ones.

What are the signs indicating that you could use a break or change?

-Your own health and mental well-being is damaged
-You feel emotionally, physically and/or spiritually injured
-The relationships with your immediate family/spouse/partner is suffering
-There is violence, physical and/or emotional abuse
-There is substance abuse
-There are constant struggles for power
-There is unnecessary distrust and disrespect

What to do, how to get out…

1. Get group help. If it’s possible and your family/family member is up for it, get counselling.

2. If it’s possible move out. Move in with a friend, your partner, an extended family member. Get to a place where people want to be with you, try to move into a nurturing environment.

3. Accept your parents or family member’s limitations. Know that you don’t have to repeat their behaviour. You are not them.

4. Allow yourself to get angry. Use it productively. Exercise. Do sports. Use art and creative expression. Write in a journal. Don’t withhold your emotions.

5. Seek guidance for yourself. Talk to someone, a counsellor, a life coach, your yoga teacher—anyone who will listen, someone you feel comfortable with. Ask for help with change and with taking risks.

6. Limit your time. Do whatever it takes to limit the amount of time you have to spend with the toxic family/family member. Limit visits, holidays, do what you can to prevent as much conflict as possible.

7.  Set healthy boundaries. Try to not allow yourself to get sucked back in. You can love and wish them the best from a distance.

8.  Learn ways to protect yourself. Practice meditation. Learn to be patient with yourself and others.

9.  Become aware of yourself. Observe your reactions. Become more self-aware in order to break negative patterns as much as you can.

10. Practice doing good things for yourself. Do things that build self-esteem. Do things you enjoy. Invite others that love you along.

11. Create balance in your life. Take care of yourself physically and eat a balanced healthy diet. Be aware and be cautious of things you may do compulsively (eating, shopping, drinking, etc)

12. Take charge of your life and your happiness. Don’t wait for others to give it to you.

Is it wrong to hold grudges (is life too short)?

Letting go can prove to be more helpful (even life saving) than grasping at toxic strings, looking for what ifs or chasing disillusioned beliefs. At the end of the day, we are all certainly in this together, but each of us have an honest obligation to do what is best for ourselves. You can be a lantern of hope, you can lead by example but you can’t force anyone to change.


Have you experienced a family break up?

Do you have any suggestions?


Relephant read:

Why Some Parents & their Children have Great Friendships.




About Tanya Lee Markul

Luring the magic of what is natural back into our daily lives, Tanya Markul is a freer of creativity, of inner beauty + power, and an enthusiastic igniter of the wild spirit! She re-writing the wild flower sutras, and offers a refreshing & badass view on spirituality, wellness & authentic living. Sensitivity is her tree trunk, flower stem, and nucleus. It is her belly, and her heart. Tanya is an artist of life, a faery of trees, a wanderer of the dark, a writer of heart, a misfit yogini, and an Urban Priestess apprentice. She believes in the power of your personal weird, quirky, magic, and that only path toward inner freedom & light, is through the dark — eyes closed, heart open. Tanya is the creator of The Urban Howl, Yoga Write Now & Waking Wild. Join her free forum for monthly yoga & writing practices here. Join her free forum for 30 days of exercise for 30 days here. Join her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & get her free weekly & quirky newsletter here.


226 Responses to “12 Ways to Deal With A Toxic Family/Family Member.”

  1. Kellie says:

    I love you my sweet girl. Unfortunately you have unlimited expertize on this one. I love you to the moon and you are always in my heart!

  2. Roo says:

    Yes. I know this to be true.

  3. Irene says:

    thank you for this timely article…story of my life.

  4. @nalini_kim says:

    I am going through a family breakup right now – I think. The emotional see-sawing back-and-forth has been the most draining. Thank you for a much-needed article.

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Love you, home base. 4-eva. xoxoxoxo

  6. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Hear ya, Roo. 🙂 Thanks for being here.

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    You're not alone sister. 🙂 Sending some love. xoxo

  8. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    You are welcome and I'm sending you a ton of strength. You can get through this. Do what's best for you! xoxo

  9. Melody says:

    I was just having this conversation with my husband over morning coffee. How to we deal with the negative, disrespectful and overly critical siblings that constantly drag us into their blackhole. One breathe at a time! Thank you for this piece….perfect timing. Namaste.

  10. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Hey Melody. It's a tough one, isn't it?! Trust your instincts and do what you have to do!! Yes, one breath at a time. Thanks for being here. xoxo

  11. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thanks girl!

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  14. […] 12 Ways to Deal With A Toxic Family/Family Member. (elephantjournal.com) […]

  15. Javi says:

    I was on Skype talking with my girlfriend about the chat I had the morning before with my mother and this article pop up on my laptop. I know that my parents and some of my brothers are toxic and even knowing that after more than 5 yrs of treatment, sometimes I find myself still in anger and with an armor when I chat with them. I know that I’m not going to change them and try to accept it but some stuffs still hurt. Nice to read an article like this. Fully identified. Thank you

  16. rebecca says:

    This piece is stocked full of excellent, thoughtful advice. I have been here and done this. I am thankful and blessed to have moved through each of the 12 steps you suggest here, and still feel saddened at times that every single thing on the list of "things to indicate" can apply to more than one member of my family. The great part is that having left those relationships behind, my relationships (including those with 'non-toxic' family) are better, stronger, more loving and joyful. I hope people struggling with toxic family and the decision to limit contact with them can find your article- maybe it will help them to move through this part of their lives with greater ease.

  17. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thank you for sharing, Javi. I know what you mean about the anger bit – it's hard to deal with, but having clear boundaries has worked for me. Thank you for being here.

  18. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share this, Rebecca. It is really sad, but like you say, when you remove yourself from a toxic situation, the consequences are so much more positive than staying. It's like that saying sort of goes…accept the things you can change, accept thing the things you cannot. 🙂

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  20. […] involving someone with your issues, watch that your words and thoughts are not toxic and are coming from a place of detachment and observation. If you are not there yet, then you are […]

  21. Katie says:

    Thanks for sharing. I've been struggling for 29 years with 3 toxic family members (everyone in my immediate family). I'm just now taking the steps to remove myself from this toxic situation. I struggle with not allowing them to make me feel like I am a bad person for being true to myself. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think those 12 steps will help a lot.

  22. […] 12 Ways to Deal With A Toxic Family Share this:PrintEmailFacebookDigg Posted by Shock Girl on Oct 14, 2012 in Not Otherwise Specified | 0 comments […]

  23. Olivia London says:

    I have woken up this morning looking for advice on toxic relationships with family members. I am so pleased to read this post as we are all too well aware the subject is normally taboo. My story is of two siblings in a very small family. They have throughout my life ganged up on me with emotional abuse and sabotage and my desire to better my life and future. They have deliberately stopped talking to me after the death of my parents to make me feel I am the bad person. This has always been a control tool. I have decided this time not to go back and try and repair the relationship, they left me alone to deal with the clearance of my parents property and all the financial but where quite happy to take thier equal share. I have a very good life which I have worked hard for and that is always a source of jelousy for them both. Their lives have definately not turned out well. I am now taking control of my life and concentrating on my immediate family. I now see I am not bound to put up with emotionally abusive behaviour for the rest of my life. This will be done by distancing myself and realising its not my job in this life to change them. Its thier Karma not mine. Love and light X

  24. […] your childhood was abusive…did therapy play a role….and when did you learn about most all families being dysfunctional on some […]

  25. Stacie says:

    Unfortunately, my toxic family has played a big part in a rift between me and my oldest son. I pray everyday to be able to forgive them. It’s so hard. He blames me for everything because he doesn’t know the truth and if I would try to tell him everything they’ve done, he won’t believe me because he knows I hate them so much.

  26. em says:

    I needed to stumble over this today… thank you for existing. Suddenly I feel understood.

  27. Actually mate I am so pleased and can say that it would come to help us more in the future. Thanks for the share.

  28. Kevin Velasco says:


  29. Tara says:

    I've made successful exits from two toxic family member relationships. I still have one that needs addressing and I think I've been putting it off for a long time. I hope I can find the strength to let go of it as I have the others.

  30. RGS says:

    I have a toxic family member who was using his elderly mother to get back at my family – got himself on her account after she went into the nursing home, moved her money out, refused to pay her bills, lied to the nursing home, tried extorting my parents to take her in or pay him back the money she lent them years ago… it was exhausting. He's manipulative, neglectful, and very narcissistic. He tried pitting me and my siblings against our parents, so when we told him our perspective he swore us off and said we're dead. I'm so glad he did. It's like this huge burden was lifted off of my shoulders. I didn't know what to do for the longest time, but I now I know I should've written him off a while ago. It would've saved a lot of stress and anger. Some people are just not worth your energy.

  31. octavio says:

    me and my girlfriend dealing with this as we speak, im trying to find ways to work it out with my family its important they support me and my girlfriend because we are planning to get married …it really do hurt to have toxic family trashing you're relationship. i catch my self, not sleeping good

  32. devastated today says:

    Thanks for this article and blog. At 52, I too am dealing with this devastating issue right now. It's my mother's 70 birthday TODAY. We've always had a pretty good relationship, and I had plane tickets to be there for her, couldn't imagine not being there. My younger half-sister and I have always had a toxic relationship, as she has with the rest of our family. In fact she was estranged from my Mom and our whole family for almost 10 years for causing a huge breach in what was once a very close-knit family. But…she just had a grand-daughter, making my mom a great-grandma. So my mom and sister started patching things up, which I applauded. When I invited my sister to be with us and mom for her birthday (we all live in separate states far from each other), she was clear she did not want to come. Now, today SHE is there and I am not. Somehow she got my mom's ear, started pouring accusations and lies about me, and my mom is listening. My Mom's younger brother has been receiving hateful stuff too suddenly; with her rage, profanity, etc. we're worried she's showing signs of dementia…and it appears my half-sister is taking advantage. In a very short time she's convinced my mom to will everything to her great-granddaughter AND to be angry with me, even telling me to stay away and don't come home. This is sudden, shocking, devastating. They've both been sending me nasty, even profane texts. Have never seen such rage from my mom. I'm prepared to end the toxic relationship (finally) with my sister, but don't know what to do about my mom. Any texts or emails I send trying to reason with her are immediately forwarded to my sister, then my mom responds simply with "Bye." My biggest fear is my mom will pass away before all this can be resolved. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks

  33. DeltaGirl66 says:

    Devastated today — I just read this article and also your post. I, too, have a toxic sister who spews hateful comments about me to anyone who will listen — my children, coworkers, church members and of course our parents. I has occurred to me that your half sister could possibly be controlling your mother's communication systems (phone, text, email). Don't assume all that stuff is coming directly from your mother. Maybe you should fly out there to be with your mother and just spend some time with her. Even if she IS now spewing hate at you because she believes your sister, you owe it to yourself to see your mother for yourself. Even if she treats you like ____ for the (hopefully) short time you will be there you can at least know that you tried. It may be the only little bit of loving attention your mother gets. I am not trying to get into your business just putting this out there as a thought. Bless you and I am thinking about yu on this day.

  34. Guest says:

    My relatives treat me like a "nobody" on social media, so I've resorted to ignoring them to where I cannot see anything they share. I've found the only way to cope with such toxic hostility is to make them invisible and pretend they do not exist.

  35. Carla Oehme says:

    Wow, this is so good and so true – thanks for sharing this! You have no idea how much others need to hear this. I myself needed this. I grew up my whole life in a VERY toxic, abusive family. My dad had rage issues & was physically & emotionally abusive to my mum & older sister, & after my parents split when I was 6, it seems both my mum & sis turned all their unresolved negative emotions/energy towards me, possibly due to resentment at the fact I wasn’t treated badly by him (I think because of my age). Both my mum & sister became emotionally & verbally abusive towards me, my mum became neglectful of her relationship with me all the while seemingly favouring my sister (who’s 7 years older). I’ve never had a good relationship with either of them, never had any real emotional connection with any family member really. I grew up feeling blamed & scapegoated for all the problems & fighting within our family. I even at times felt like even extended family members thought of me as the “black sheep” of the family. Ever since I was about 7 I grew up with generalised anxiety disorder & depression, chronic stress, & now dealing with digestive problems that seems stress-induced. I’ve cut myself off from my mum but still have some contact with my sister (who seems to have “grown out of it”). Occassionally I have bad dreams about fighting with my mum, in fact I just had one last night.

    I’ve had to deal with making the rough decision to cut my mum from my life & most people who I’ve told about it usually don’t get it nor agree with it. They seem to think that because she’s my mum it’s somehow blasphemous to cut her out of my life like it’s wrong for me to do that. That’s also something I’ve had to struggle with, is what if it’s wrong to do so….for the longest time, I felt like because she’s my mum I’m supposed to just put up with it & take it. Same as with my sister’s negative behaviour towards me. Only now have I begun to put up boundaries with what I won’t allow from my sister.

    Thankfully I’ve learned to surround myself with good, supporting friendships, & I do notice positive effects of cutting my mum out & limiting time with my sister, & had gone through some major healing, but it’s still a long process of finding full healing. I’ve had to learn a lot of things for myself, & the points in this article are things I’ve unfortunately had to learn the hard way. I wish someone had told me years ago that sometimes it’s ok to make these kinds of decisions I had to make. So I’m very relieved to see that there’s others out there who have come to the same conclusions I’ve had, to see positive affirmation of the choices I’ve had to make and I’m very encouraged by this. Thanks so much for writing this. Bless you.

  36. lmad5989 says:

    This is a great article. I feel like it's time to do this with my family. My older sister is great and amazing, I would never break apart from her. But the rest of them, parents and other sister, are so wrapped up in negative, hypocritical and judgmental feelings. When I'm around them, I change into this ugly person and get so negative.

    It's going to take some effort, but I need this to happen. Thank you for this article, it had helped me immensely.

  37. Tiffainy says:

    I could have written this exactly. It is so hard to understand why i am not loved by them. I know they will never change yet it still hurts. I am so angry. I am moving soon and never looking back. My sister broke all ties except with me and she says she is so happy ever since without the drama. I sure hope I will be as happy cause now i am miserable around them.

  38. Julie says:

    What about when your teenagers are toxic? My daughters are little fricking brats that suck the life out of me. I know that sounds terrible but I could be having a wonderful day, then when I’m around them I feel the negative energy, moodiness, sulkiness, brattiness, negativity, ughh!!! And I’m widowed so there’s no where else for them to go.

  39. Karine says:

    I broke up with my parents more about 10 years ago. It have been hard and heart breaking at times but it is also the best decision I could have take for myself. My father was abusive, my mom choose to not see it even after I exposed him for what he was. At some point I realized that I would never have a “normal” family, mine was toxic and I had to let go of anger, grief what would never be and moved on with my life. The best decision I ever took. I’m happy theses days, most important I’m at peace and know that I’m a good person.

  40. Patricia says:

    This article is heartbreaking and full of so much truth. Sometimes all we share as families is a bloodline. I finally get that … took a long time but I get it. It took letting my family go and wishing them well for me to move on with my life.

  41. sadaea says:

    I think that too much emphasis is placed on our "blood" families. I do believe that we choose to whom we will be born, however, Ialso believe that sometimes they are just the vehicles we need to bring us to the earth plane. We can choose our own families..those people who teach us, support us, and love us unconditionally without all the toxic games, etc. Let go of those who breed hostility and choose again.

  42. Josie says:

    Thank you- it is comforting to know that I am not alone. I have not seen my mother for 12 years. I know I am judged by other family members but I am healing myself.

  43. Katrina Kunstmann says:

    Sweet holy mother of life, I really, /really/ needed this. I had been contemplating writing about my experiences with a toxic family member and serendipity floated this into my life. Thank you, so much. Blood makes relationships so very muddled sometimes and its difficult to get a clear view. I think the only thing on the list I've yet to employ is therapy and moving. Letting go is something very hard to do, and that is also something I'm struggling with—this family member has been mentally, physically, and emotionally abusive and forgiving is something hard for me to do under the circumstances.

  44. Tanya says:

    2 years ago I took the decision to disconnect myself from my father. He has emotionally and mentally abused me my whole life. It took a long time to realize that this kind of abuse is just as valid as physical abuse. My sister and mother really struggle to accept my decision and we have decided to go to family therapy together to try and figure it out. My life has been absolutely for the better since I made the break. I have more self esteem and confidence in myself where there was always self doubt and degradation. I refuse to allow myself to be manipulated into feeling worthless anymore. I am so very thankful for the many friends who I have discovered have also had to make decisions to cut toxic family members out of their lives, for the better. They have shown me I am not alone and it's ok to take this extreme stance. There is a lot of social pressure to accept abusive relationships within family. One needs a lot of strength to stand in the face of it and do what is right for oneself.

  45. Teresa says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am going through this exact thing. Last year about this time, I was violently attacked by surprise by my younger half sister as I was trying to leave my parents’ house. Since then, the family relationship has been on the edge of a cliff. Within the past month, I cut ties with my own mother. She enables my younger half sister as well as she has shown great disrespect and embarrassed me in front of friends and my in laws. It’s like when I’m in the room, I’m the elephant in the room. It hurts to cut ties with family but I’m sure I’ll be ok later when I see the impact of them no longer in my life. I will be sharing this on my blog!

  46. Dawn says:

    Look into "the family systems theory". I feel as if I am the white sheep of my family, this theory names the role as "scape goat." Be proud you are innately different and have the opportunity to become a whole, productive human being!

  47. Carol says:

    This describes my brother in law and his wife perfectly. My marriage is suffering because of the way they ignore our kids, including the infant since the day she was born. They infuriate me, and my husband gets angry at me when I try to discuss or even if he sees that something they had bothered me by the look on my face. It’s affecting me to where I want to treat their child that way, and that’s not who I am. 🙁

  48. Rhonda says:

    Great post. I have two sisters who are abusive towards me. My Mom told me its because they are jelous. (sp?) The last straw was at Thanksgiving last year, my older 43 yr old sister was screaming at her 13 yr old son in the bedroom at my parents house and all 25 of us (the rest of the family) could hear it and were very uncomfortable, the inlaws were nervous and the kids were shocked and scared by her screaming. I went to the bedroom to ask her to calm down or take it outside and she flew into a rage and started screaming at me like a crazy person – this went on for a good 10 minutes. I vowed to never again waste my precious holidays with her or her family. She has terrible anger management issues and ruined thanksgiving for 3 families. I decided to cut ties with her and my other sister who is not as toxic but very negative to be around. My mom said I dont offer forgiveness, but is not that I don't forgive them its just that the pyschological abuse is too much for me. It causes me to have bad insomnia, stress and anxiety. So I guess I look at it this way, I would rather sleep and not suffer from anxiety then be their friends. Being in a relationship with both of my sisters causes me a lot of stress/worry/anxiety/insomnia. Is having a stressful relationship with them worth it? Not if I can't sleep – no. It upset me that I could not focus at work and would only sleep a few nights a week. I am a high strung sensitive person, when people are hyper critical or abusive towards me I suffer. My younger sister told me to get over myself and that I was too sensitive, but I am 42. I can't change the fact that I am sensitive to screaming or drama. I can't take it. I like calm friendships. Is that wrong? No. Life is too short to be stressed out by relatives. I would rather just see them at weddings and funerals. Thats enough.