This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada, which closed in 2021.

How To Cope Around Toxic Family During The Holidays

It's OK if you don't want to see them.
Holidays aren't always jolly when it comes to family gatherings.
Westend61 via Getty Images
Holidays aren't always jolly when it comes to family gatherings.

“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.” Bing Crosby’s classic Christmas tune is hopeful for some and wistful for others, but there are times when the idea of returning home or visiting family over the holidays can be upsetting or even traumatic.

The truth is that for some people, being home for Christmas or Hanukkah is bad for their mental, or even physical, health. “Especially at this time of year, it’s important for our health to understand if an event is good for you or not,” Cathy Ferringo, a certified professional coach in Belle River, Ont., told HuffPost Canada.

WATCH: How to combat holiday stress. Story continues below video.

There are a variety of reasons someone may not feel safe visiting family during the holidays or at any time of the year. It could be that family attitudes and actions around people of LGBTQ communities, a person’s religion, race, culture, etc., are unwelcoming, or even aggressive.

It may be that a fact of your health means a family visit isn’t healthy or even possible. It may just be that your relationship with a toxic family member manifests in mental and physical health consequences that you would be best avoiding.

Whatever your reasons, know that it is OK to prioritize your own mental and physical health and that nobody can “ruin” the holidays by doing so.

If you’re considering staying home this holiday season, read on.

Determine the potential consequences

Generally speaking, spending a short period of time with family over the holidays doesn’t have long-term health consequences, Dr. Jessica Chan, of Copeman Health Centre in Vancouver, told HuffPost Canada.

However, short-term repercussions for your mental and physical health are possible, Chan said, such as being forced to eat particular foods or drink more alcohol than you normally would.

For the majority of us, mental stressors are the most likely consequence of time spent with family during the holiday season — some more serious than others. “If you or other members of your family have unhealthy relationships with other family members — i.e. divorce, custody disagreements, etc. — or substance use challenges — including alcohol — these would be some key warning signs,” Chan said.

But there are cases when holiday time with family goes from uncomfortable to unhealthy, and the repercussions of this can last well into the new year. People with serious health conditions like diabetes, addiction, eating disorders, and mental illness may find that time with unsupportive or abusive family members hurts their health and impedes their recovery, Chan said.

“If you do suffer from chronic illness, the best thing is to work with your healthcare practitioner to establish an individual plan for you over the holidays unique to your needs,” she said.

When deciding how to spend your holidays and who to spend them with, think about what the realistic consequences for your health are — in the short term and, if relevant, the long term. You might be fine with eating foods you normally avoid or dealing with the refusal of those foods, but that situation could actually have longer-lasting harm if you are in recovery from an eating disorder, to give one example.

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Check in with yourself

You can consider all of the potential scenarios and make a pros-and-cons list, but at the end of the day it’s important to think about how you feel when you consider making the trip.

Ferringo recommends tuning into your body before you say yes to an invitation, and listening to your intuition. When you think about attending and imagine being with your family over the holidays, does your body feel expansive or tight and constricted?

“If you feel expansive, go for it,” Ferringo said. “If you feel constricted, is there a better idea for you?” If you feel like you should see your family, think about going home for less time or at a different time (not the holidays), gathering with family on neutral territory like a restaurant or hotel, or bringing along a supportive friend or partner.

Check in with yourself when you’re in a stressful situation, Calum Hughes, CEO and founder of Allied Corp., a cannabis company that works with first responders, told HuffPost Canada. If a situation or conversation becomes overwhelming, leave that situation for a few minutes to calm your nervous system.

WATCH: When it comes to the holidays, interacting with relatives can be stressful. Story continues below video.

Decide on appropriate boundaries

If you visit family over the holidays but still have some misgivings, think about the boundaries you want to set in advance.

It may be that you want to practice affirming your appropriate pronouns with them, or have a script for ending conversations about politics or painful personal topics. Consider practicing these scripts and scenarios with a mental health professional or a friend in advance, and if you have a family member you trust to help you hold the line, loop them in.

“The most important thing is to determine a routine that you would like to stick to over the holidays, to set boundaries, and to stick to your routine,” Chan said.

Remember that perfection is not necessary, Hughes said. Spending the holidays pretending to be someone you aren’t or feel a way you don’t, is bad for your own mental health. Be vulnerable where that feels safe, he said, but not in a way that doesn’t feel true to you.

Or, simply say ‘No’

If you don’t feel prepared to set boundaries, don’t trust your family members to respect them, or simply want to do something different during the holidays, you can decline an invitation.

And while we get that this can be hard to do, it’s possible to say ‘no’ to family when they invite you to stay with them.

Just keep your explanation simple, Daniel Nadon, a psychotherapist at Ottawa’s East End Psychotherapy Services, previously told HuffPost Canada.

A simple, ‘Thanks for the invitation, but [I] won’t be able to make it this time,’ may be all you need,” he said. “Adding something like ‘I hope we ca connect early in the new year’ [can also be helpful.] If it’s true, [it] ... shows an interest in maintaining the relationship,” if that is something you’re interested in,” Nadon said.

For many people, the holiday season means a break from work even if it isn’t tied to a particular celebration that’s meaningful to you. It’s important to spend that time in a way that is both healthy and fulfilling, however that looks for you.

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