5 tips for dealing with toxic family members at Christmas

Yes, it’s Christmas time again… It can be amazing! It can also be a time of high stress, with never-ending ‘to-do lists’ and the potential toxic in-laws dropping around. Neuropsychologist Hannah Korrel shares her tips for dealing with potential nightmare situations.

You’re not imagining it, relationship stress during Christmas is real!

Surveys by Relationships Australia tell us that Christmas is considered 1 of the 6 most stressful events of the year (up there with divorce, moving house and changing jobs). Half of us report actually dreading Christmas due to relationship stress with family! Below are five tips on how to deal with your frosty family members:

Use ‘good’ manipulation

Manipulation is a powerful tactic when used for good. If you predict positive behaviour in others, they are more likely to rise to those expectations. This involves saying what you expect at the start of an interaction e.g.,

Thank you for being so understanding and patient!’

‘Thank you for being so supportive and kind’

‘Thank you for always being so beautiful in the way you speak to me, it means a lot’.

This involves using a bit of ingratiating, and a bit of inception. Plant the seed in their minds that they always treat you with utter politeness!

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If you know MIL is never going to be happy with your efforts, it’s time to relinquish any responsibility to make her happy! Delegate the tasks that involve interacting with toxic Timmy to you partner! Make it clear ‘You are buying your mothers Christmas gift this year’, ‘you are sorting out the gluten-free, FODMAP, vegan dessert for your sister’ etc. Then let it go! It can be hard to relinquish control but the key is accepting that it is no longer your responsibility how it pans out.


Telling someone when they are out of line in a polite and respectful manner can feel tough. But it’s actually very simple. If someone does something or speaks to you in a manner that makes you uncomfortable, in your most calm and steady voice say:

Please don’t speak to me that way’,

‘Please don’t do x to me again’.

Don’t get sucked into a fight, simply keep repeating that phrase, ‘it makes me uncomfortable so please don’t do it again’. And if they are a repeat offender, it’s important you say ‘I’ve asked you not to do X and you’ve just done it again’. There is a huge power in calling to attention someone’s poor behaviour!

If you make it clear each and every time they are inappropriate, you both have a record of the event (as does any witness). People rarely do things because they are actively trying to be malicious and hurtful (hard to believe sometimes). If you communicate when something hurts you, that perpetrator is far less likely to repeat offend.

Set the space up

People are very perceptive to body language and tension in the environment. They mirror what is around them in their attitude. Check what vibes you are giving off to set the tone. Practice taking a deep breath before you speak, speak in your kind voice (not your annoyed voice), be aware of when you might be showing your frustration in your body language. When frustrated, repeat:

‘I have done the best I could to make this a beautiful Christmas. I cannot force happiness in others, and I release any feeling of pressure to do so. I take full responsibility for my happiness and come to this place with only kindness in my heart.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

Words tend to come out when we have had a few drinks. Alcohol disinhibits us and we may say things we would otherwise have not said after half a bottle of prosecco. Seriously consider a dry Christmas if you know Uncle Larry lets loose after a couple beers. Or simply know yourself, save the Bollinger for after MIL has left the party!

Christmas is stressful, and kicking someone out for rude behaviour isn’t always a realistic option when it comes to family. Remember help is available if you need support (Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 to have a quick 15 minute debrief anytime). Chances are, each of you are just working hard to make Christmas great (however misguided the attempt is). At the end of the day, all anyone wants to hear is ‘I love you, you are doing a great job, and thank you for trying to make the holidays so special for our family’.

Operate with integrity and you will never disappoint yourself. You can always burn some sage once they’ve left!

Neuropsychologist Hannah Korrel is the author of How to Break Up with Friends (Impact Press $24.99) and has spent over a decade becoming an expert in why the brain makes us do the things we do. Hear more from Dr Han @nobullpsych.