How to Handle a Toxic Family Member

Toxic co-worker? Steer clear. Toxic friend? Time for a breakup. But what if the toxic person in question is perched firmly in your family tree? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 ways to put a little (or a lot) of space between you and a toxic family member.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #170


A toxic relative can blow up a Thanksgiving dinner, destroy a weekend visit, and leave a path of destruction through a family vacation. They bring new meaning to the term “nuclear family.”

You can’t cut the bad apples from the family tree, but that doesn’t mean you have to let their poison spread from branch to branch. This week, with big thanks to an anonymous listener in Vancouver, we’ll reveal five options to distance yourself from a toxic person in your family.

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How to Deal with Toxic Family Members

  1. To get started, get clarity.
  2. Rewrite your part in the family drama.
  3. Test out new rules of engagement.
  4. Surf the wave.
  5. Cut ties, for a while or forever.

Option #1: To get started, get clarity.

With toxic family members, we are often blinded to reality. Sometimes we’re blinded by optimism: we overlook their latest shenanigans because we just want to smooth things over. We make excuses for them under the guise of hope. We are loyal because they’re blood.

But sometimes we’re blinded to the reality of the situation by resentment. We ignore their efforts to reach out because we’re holding a grudge. We think they’re being manipulative or aren’t capable of change. Often that’s true, but sometimes it’s not.

So start by trying to see things as they really are. A helpful way to do this is to make a big list. On one side, write down the good times—those times you’ve felt supported by them, they came through for you, you felt loved. On the other side, write out the bad times—the times they hurt you, ignored you when you needed help, or actively tried to undermine or control you. Look at both frequency and magnitude. Seeing your interactions in black and white can help you determine whether your relationship deserves to be thrown a life preserver or is essentially dead in the water.

Option #2: Rewrite your part in the family drama.

Remember As You Like It from high school English class? “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” But here’s the little-remembered next line: “They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

If you’re stuck in family drama, maybe it’s time to play another part. For instance, a 23-year-old client of mine—we’ll call her Riley*—realized her parents had unwittingly assigned her the role of convincing her self-destructive brother to turn his life around while they simultaneously covered for his DUIs and insisted he’d surely look for a job any day now.

Riley realized it was a losing battle to try and save him while her parents enabled him. Only he could save himself, plus her parents needed to gather the courage to talk to him directly rather than send her as the messenger. Ultimately, Riley set some limits—she wouldn’t act as their go-between and she wouldn’t participate in phone calls where they worried about him without taking action. She didn’t drop out of the play, but she did rewrite her role.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.