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Expert advice on how to deal with toxic family members

A teenage girl, looking downcast, stands with arms folded as an admonishing finger is waved at her from one side, and a supplicating hand is outstretched on the other.

Expectations between family members are not always aligned. File image.

Published Aug 8, 2023


Johannesburg - As the old saying goes, you can choose your friends but not your family. And while friendships often stem from mutual interests or shared experiences, family members are part of our lives by default, and this type of connection can come with a set of challenges that may at times feel painful and inescapable.

“Even in the most amicable family relationships, interpersonal issues can be difficult to navigate and it is to be expected that different personalities, communication styles and other dynamics between family members can result in conflict at some point,” Megan Hosking, crisis line and marketing manager at Netcare Akeso, said.

She explained that expectations between family members are not always aligned, and while it is perfectly normal to disagree sometimes, ongoing strain in the relationship can significantly impact this important support structure and the mental health of those involved.

“It can also spill over to affect other members of the family, given that a family is a complex system in which all parts are interrelated and interdependent. A further concern is that unresolved issues and trauma have the potential to be passed down from one generation to the next.”

Hosking notes that unlike friendships, some of which may run their course through life’s many changes, family are forever. While this can be a gift, in cases of severe conflict, it may become a heavy burden.

“Conflict can result in fear and anxiety, particularly around family gatherings where interaction with the person or people in question is inevitable.”

She added that some individuals may blame themselves or someone else for the state of a strained relationship and may avoid broaching the contentious issue.

“It is advisable, however, to try to resolve conflict through open communication.”

She said that where it is unavoidable to interact with a family member you simply cannot get along with, it may be best to politely greet them and engage no more than is necessary.

“Excuse yourself from conversations that you know are inflammatory or triggering.”

Hosking recommends the following strategy for individuals in difficult family relationships:

. Mentally prepare yourself for the interaction.

. Set and maintain boundaries.

. Limit your expectations and practise acceptance of the things you cannot change.

. Choose what information you share with the family member.

. Be intentional in your interactions, for example, speak to someone neutral in the family.

. Avoid trying to ‘fix’ things that do not involve you.

. Try to have empathy for your family member’s experience while remaining self-compassionate.

. Identify and acknowledge your own emotions through self-awareness.

. Practise being calm, regulate your emotional reactions and manage your stress levels.

. Give yourself permission to leave if you need to.

Hosking believes that it is important to understand the difference between a family relationship that has moments of tension and one that is toxic.

“A toxic relationship develops over time and consistently leaves you feeling isolated, unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned or attacked – there is a lack of respect and a violation of boundaries.

“A toxic relationship can also pose a threat to your well-being in some way, be it emotionally, psychologically, physically or a combination of these.”

She added that any relationship in which interactions regularly make you feel worse rather than better can become toxic.

“There are some situations where ending the relationship and putting distance between yourself and that family member is the best and safest solution, such as with an abusive family member.”

It can be more difficult to identify if a family relationship is toxic. Here are some signs to look out for:

. You constantly give more than you’re getting, leaving you feeling drained and depleted after interactions with that person.

. You feel depressed, angry or tired after speaking to them.

. You feel constantly disrespected by them.

. You are always blamed for any issues or disagreements that arise.

. You bring out the worst in each other.

. You find yourself ‘walking on eggshells’ around them so as not to cause upset.

. Your self-esteem is negatively impacted over time.

“Ask yourself if the relationship makes you feel unsafe or is it simply awkward to manage?” Hosking suggested. “What was the cause of the conflict, and is there a way for it to be resolved? Is there potential for change in the relationship?”

She also suggested talking to a mental healthcare professional who can help you to understand more about a difficult relationship, your role in the dynamics that keep playing out, and how best to manage the situation for yourself.

“Remember that it is not possible to control someone else’s actions, but you can control your own reactions. As such, you need to understand your feelings about that relationship, how it triggers you and how you interact.”

She said that once this is clearer, you can decide if it would work to simply avoid that person or terminate the relationship entirely.

“Should you choose to end the relationship, you will need time to process that – to consider any doubts that you or other family members may have about your decision, and to work through the possible grief on ending that relationship, before you can move forward.

“Finally, even if a relationship needs to end for your own well-being to remain intact, remember that not everything is permanent and there are often opportunities for change or re-connection further down the road,” Hosking said.

The Saturday Star