Podcast Extras: How to Handle Toxic Family Members at Christmas

by | Dec 12, 2019 | Uncategorized | 14 comments

Podcast: Toxic Family Members at Christmas
Merchandise is Here!

What do you do when your extended family is just plain crazy?

Or at least you FEEL like they’re crazy? Today on the podcast I’m talking about how to handle toxic family members at Christmas. Listen in to the podcast here:

How do you know if a family member is toxic?

I tend to define toxic people in one of two ways:

  • They’re abusive and bullying, trying to make themselves feel superior by making you feel inferior, through belittling, insults, or constant criticism
  • They manipulate and try to control what you do, and do not accept or tolerate disagreement

If you read the book Boundaries (which I highly recommend), it explains how our thoughts, attitudes, and choices are all within our realm of control. So think about your life as a series of fields, with the things that you are responsible for in your yard, all fenced off. Now, if your mom tries to break through that fence and tell you what to do or manipulate you, she’s violating your boundaries. And similarly, if you think that you’re responsible for other people’s feelings, then you’re living a boundary-less life. It’s a great concept to understand.

So what do you do if your family members do this all the time?

Well, I had three different scenarios that I looked at on this podcast:

  1. What to do when family members refuse to see you in an attempt to punish you for something
  2. What to do when you wonder if you should walk away from family members
  3. What to do when you don’t like what some family members are doing–but they’re not actually toxic? Living a lifestyle you disagree with, or doing things you disagree with, does not mean that the person is toxic, after all.

I covered the first two, and then Rebecca and Connor chimed in with another scenario, because I’m getting over a cold and my voice wouldn’t allow me to do the whole thing! But that last one is really important to understand–not everything that we don’t like is toxic.

The big point that I made in this podcast was this:

In unhealthy families, loyalty matters more than truth.

So if you’re trying to walk in truth, you’re going to seriously upset toxic family members. I don’t have time to write a full synopsis of the podcast, but these two articles sum up the first two points:

What Do I Do If I’m Estranged from Family at Christmas?

How to understand why family members may cut you off, and why people may side with them, even if they love you.

I also mentioned these things in the podcast:

It’s Not Your Job to Make Your Husband (or Others) Happy

A recent post about boundaries–it’s great to love people, but you are not responsible for how they feel.

My Soul Ties Series: What to do if you have unhealthy emotional bonds with kids (or parents)

Extended families are tricky! And here’s a post about how to make sure that you aren’t forming weird bonds with your kids, like the one in the scenario that I used in the podcast.

No, Having More Sex will Not Stop Your Husband’s Porn Habit

Podcast on Effects of Porn on his Marriage

Last week’s podcast! If you haven’t listened, you should. It’s a really important concept, and I am determined to break this misperception.

And Rebecca mentioned these things: 

Why I Didn’t Rebel: A 22-Year-Old Explains Why She Stayed on the Straight and Narrow–and how Your Kids Can, Too

I was talking in the podcast about some of the signs of healthy families, and I referred to some of the research in my daughter Rebecca’s book. If you haven’t checked it out, please do! It’s a great read, filled with stories of millennials and generation Z kids who grew up, some who rebelled, and some who didn’t. And she looks at the protective factors in families that tends to keep kids from rebelling. One of the main ones? In healthy families, kids are allowed to tell the truth, even about doubts about their faith.

10 Conversation Starters to Have More Meaningful Conversations Around Christmas Dinner Table

Great ideas to get your extended family talking about important stuff!

Finally, if you’re not signed up yet for my email list, I mentioned a few times in the podcast some things that went out in emails lately that weren’t on the blog. So sign up!

So what do you think? Have you had to navigate toxic family members at Christmas? Or family members that you just find difficult? Let’s talk in the comments!



Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Nathan

    I’m one of the lucky ones. Nobody in my family (or on Mrs. Nathan’s side) is toxic, although we do have our “eccentrics”.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      My family’s great, too! We have a good time at Christmas.

  2. Nathan

    I read an article many years ago about this same topic: What to do about during a family gathering when one person (aka “Cranky Uncle Charlie”) is loud, obnoxious, oafish, etc. The author took a more combative approach than you, and told people to call out the relative on his behavior,

    He said that many times, people won’t want to do this. “Oh, we can’t say anything bad to Uncle Charlie. His feelings will get hurt and he’ll be offended”. Maybe true, but then again Uncle Charlie is hurting and offending everybody else, so why do his feelings get protected when he doesn’t seem to care about others? In other words, why does Uncle Charlie get to spread emotional damage without any regard to anybody, while we all have to work to spare his feelings and he’s the only one who gets true consideration?

    In the long run, though, walking away might be a better solution than a lecture, which would likely make the person respond in an even worse manner.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think there may very well be a time to call him out, but I think it also depends on who is hosting. I know when I was hosting Christmas dinner for the last few years, I felt much more able to steer conversations and to speak up. But when I’m not hosting, it’s not as easy. If you rock the boat, it’s often the host who has to deal with the fall out. So I would speak up if I were the host, but if not, I’d likely just leave the room. But I agree–there are definitely times to speak up!

  3. Arwen

    Really good points brought up during Rebecca’s segment. Not having open conversations and being easily offended are some of the worse types of people to be around. And there is a LOT of them in the Christian community (there are a lot in other communities too, but i’m discussing my people here). People who are not open minded demonstrate lack of knowledge and a lack of trust in the belief system they supposedly hold. Many Christians tend to resemble Peter rather than Paul, i have noticed. Some of the most edifying conversations i have had have been with none believers to be honest.

    Last year when i was getting to know a Christian guy who broke up with me because i didn’t vote for Trump, ended by saying, “And i don’t want to argue about it.” Imagine living in an echo chamber like that. So fragile, so weak, and so unsure of what you believe in that you can’t even defend it. Just like Peter, “What Jesus? i don’t know anyone named Jesus, you didn’t see me hanging around a guy named Jesus.” He was so weak in his belief that when it came time for a challenge he dropped his shield and ran like a coward! Contrast that with Paul who walked straight towards the pagans and said, “bring it on! Your gods vs. my God!”

    That was a confidant human not afraid of an opposing view because he was assured enough to know that not matter what the truth always prevails. It will behoove a lot of Christians to adopt Paul’s character that way when you’re challenged you don’t fulfill the stereotypical Christian stereotype. I really like Rebecca’s advice. Go up to the family and talk to them instead of hiding from them. And if i’m being honest Christians who live in a bubble like that give me a MAJOR red flag that they don’t share the Gospel with ANYONE!

    Part of sharing the Gospel is getting dirty, but if leaving your white picket fence makes you feel dirty, then please claim another religion. I was listening to the testimony of Lecrae recently. He talked about how it was a Suburban white guy who came into the projects he was born into to share the Gospel with him and his friends. A man who knew NOTHING about black culture but was willing to learn and get to know the people, or as Lecrae said, “he knew more about kayaking than black people.” He asked them what music they listened to, what movies they watched and even suggested they watch together their favorite movie, Boyz n the Hood. Instead of being repulsed by them, by their sagging pants, by their cursing, as Lecrae said, he saw them as image bearers of God!

    And today most of those young teenage black men grew into adult followers of Christ. Why? Because one Christian chose to see them more than just their clothes, their speech, their poverty, and their misfortunes in life. Evil never corrupts good instead the truth purifies it.

    P.S. Thanks Sheila for Thomas’s book recommendation. I NEED that book! Will buy it right away. I have loved his other books.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s a really neat story about Lecrae. I love that.

      And my favourite of Gary’s books is Sacred Pathways. That seriously changed my life, and then I made my whole family read it. So good.

    • Madeline

      Wow what a cool story! I think it takes such humility to approach a community like that and basically be teachable. Of course that doesn’t mean you have to take up their whole lifestyle, but I really think in order to reach people you have to be willing to understand and appreciate who they are before you start insisting they change.

    • Robyn

      I get the point of people’s different life choices not necessarily being toxic. Cursing and drinking were mentioned in that. However, if I have my small children and someone is cursing a lot around my children, I don’t understand how that’s not toxic, especially if my child repeats what he’s heard. As far as alcohol, if someone is just having a drink at Christmas, it may not be my choice but I can’t control what they do, and I have been in this situation as a child and teen. What if people are not simply having a drink with Christmas dinner, but becoming intoxicated and acting inappropriately, especially around my young children? Even though in[toxic]ation is not someone’s sober state, this absolutely can cause someone to act in specific ways that were described as toxic in the podcast. Unfortunately these are all things I have experienced firsthand. I also experience tattoos, smoking, drinking, and other lifestyles differing from my own and have no judgement or differential feelings or treatment – I guess in my mind the key is what is directly affecting me and/or my family (husband and kids). That may be getting cursed AT Or someone excessively cursing in front of my children; it may be someone treating me and/or my family in a “toxic” manner OR doing so as a result of drinking. It hurts me to hear that cursing and drinking are not being considered toxic, because I’ve grown up in and still deal with all of these things which have absolutely hurt me and my family. Maybe I didn’t get the message correctly, I was struggling to listen in a noisy workplace today!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Robyn, as we said in the podcast, there’s a difference between swearing and swearing AT someone, and we did differentiate between those two things. You’re absolutely right, when intoxicated, people can act differently and badly.

        However, my concern is that some Christians talk about just having a drink or two as in this category, and it really isn’t.

        As for swearing, I can tell you that my girls were around swearing at family dinners for years and years as kids, and they never repeated it because we didn’t make a big deal out of it. They didn’t even know what words were swear words until they were 8 or 9. Until then, they thought “bum” was a swear word. Just because kids hear it doesn’t mean they understand that what they’re hearing is swearing.

        I think we just have to use our judgment. Toxic behaviour is toxic. But not all swearing is toxic, and not all drinking is toxic, and we just have to leave some room to still love people who may not act as we do.

        Does that make sense?

        • Robyn Scott

          Yeah, it does. I get it – a difference between [I’m going to say harmful behavior] directed at us rather than different life choices. I’m not coming from the place of judgement – I myself have tattoos, a drink here and there and curse word here and there. I actually listened to this one over again with a fresh set of ears. Leading up to Christmas, I was really hopeful about this podcast as holiday time with family usually generates anxiety for me, and because of that maybe I was overly sensitive. The first time I listened, I just didn’t get the vibe of “toxic” vs judgement. I guess I myself felt judged because of my concerns with family behavior, as if I were being judged for judging when I wasn’t actually judging! Whew!
          Upon a second listen, Sheila’s part in the first half was much more relatable to me. I come from a place of emotional and verbal abuse, so a bigger issue than not liking the tattooed cousin who drinks and curses. It’s fear of verbal fights breaking out or having to retreat outdoors as I did as a child on holidays to escape the turmoil. However, in answering the reader question who had issues with her mom, I realized there’s much truth to the statement of loyalty being more important than truth in dysfunctional families, and you’re only accepted if you don’t rock the boat, and pretend everything is perfect even if it isn’t. That’s exactly where I come from, unfortunately. Things have gotten better in recent years thankfully, but the remnants of that time are hard to wash away completely.
          The 2nd question that Rebecca addressed as well as the discussion offended me at first. But again, after a second listen, I did hear the harshness of the writer. There can certainly be very difficult and different people that we come together with at holidays that we otherwise may not on a daily basis, and I’d never expect anyone to leave if I myself didn’t agree with their choices, I believe that’s a situation to excuse myself from if I felt like that were necessary, but sometimes it’s worth it to suck it up a bit, I guess it all just depends on the circumstances.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            It really does depend, Robyn! That’s why it’s so hard to give an absolute answer to some of these questions. It really depends. The key thing is to be able to identify what is really toxic behaviour, and what is simply behaviour you don’t like. That’s a skill, and it requires discernment, but I think that’s the main point of it.

  4. who am i

    Here is an excellent interview that Dr. Corey Allan just did of Gary Thomas on Sexy Marriage Radio. https://smrnation.com/podcast/when-to-walk-away/

    I really got some new insights on this topic. Transcript at bottom if you prefer reading over listening.

  5. Sam

    This year, since my family of origin are all ALL this way, I am gearing myself up to say this: I love you, but I don’t want to spend Christmas with you. And then, not do anything else. My first response is I always try to make things ok for people, like taking care of their feelings. Just like Shelia said is boundary-less. I am going to do new responses this year, even though it is almost impossible, but I am working on it with my support group and counselor. I have read boundaries and I recommend it too. I will have to get the “When to Walk Away” book, too. Thanks Shelia!!!

  6. Nathan

    One of the main points…
    > > In unhealthy families, loyalty matters more than truth.

    You can also see this in unhealthy churches that are covering up bad things. To them, it’s more important to look good than to deal with what’s really going on.


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