How to create and maintain distance with toxic family members

"I know they are toxic, but they are my family." Sound familiar? It is something that I hear frequently and it is a source of internal conflict for many people.


That moment when you realise that those people who are meant to have your back, are supposed to be your biggest cheerleaders are actually the very people who are sucking the life out of you.

That moment when you recognise that your nearest and dearest tear you down, make you feel less than worthy, drain you, criticise you, use you, blame you, and treat you as their verbal punch bag.

Even the terminology 'toxic people' can be a little contentious as it is bandied around with a stigma that the person is toxic rather than their behaviour. This is far from accurate, behaviours can be changed.

What is a toxic person and how can you distance yourself from them if they are your family?

A toxic person is a terminology that has gained popularity recently to label a set of behaviours that constitute 'toxicity'. I much prefer the use of difficult or challenging behaviours as none of us is incapable of displaying such behaviours.

We all have the ability to become challenging in our own behaviours, especially when life is difficult and there seems to be no way out. Behaviours don't define a person, labelling someone tends to make it stick more.

A toxic person or a set of challenging or difficult behaviours look something like this:

  • Bitterly complaining, being pessimistic or being negative repeatedly and over time.
  • Negatively judging others or themselves to create a drama or provoke a response.
  • Manipulating situations or people to their own benefit without consideration of consequences.
  • Controlling the who, what, when, and where of the relationship so that you feel like a puppet, and they are the puppeteer.
  • Blaming others for situations without taking any responsibility for the part they played in it.
  • Needing attention, making themselves the centre of attention, demanding attention, and rarely reciprocating it.
  • Inconsistent or erratic behaviour, they blow hot, they blow cold, and you have no idea what is coming next.
  • You have to walk on eggshells, minding what you say, when and how you say it and not expressing what is important to you for fear of the response.
  • They don't respect boundaries, even when you are clear about them they have a tendency to ignore them especially if they want something from you.

What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of prolonged difficult or challenging behaviours (toxicity)?

  • You feel like you have to constantly rescue the person or fix their problems.
  • You dread seeing them.
  • You feel drained after being with them.
  • Your mood drops, and you feel angry, sad or depressed when you are around them.
  • You feel you have to prove yourself, impress them or conform to their preferences.
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems, it stays with you long after you have left them.
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’.

What can you do when you notice that behaviour in your family?

Now we have clarified what constitutes challenging and difficult behaviours that are not ok, are draining and toxic, what do you do when that kind of person is family?

  • Create distance - my first and foremost recommendation. If you cannot cut ties completely then create distance.
  • Set very clear and concrete boundaries - and keep them in place. You might have to repeat them multiple times before they are heard.
  • Don't let boundary setting turn into fear. If the family member has any ounce of respect then they will not look to threaten you. If they do threaten you then that is even more reason to set clear boundaries and distance yourself even more. 
  • Be prepared to call them out on their unacceptable behaviour. Often challenging people are unaware of their behaviours.
  • Remember that controlling people are only interested in themselves and have little regard for the needs of others.
  • Don't give an inch - ever! If you give an inch and they will take a mile.
  • Decide what role you want to play in the relationship. Perhaps discuss it with other family members who may also be affected if it is appropriate to do so and be clear about what part you want to play (if any) in the relationship with the toxic person.
  • Once you have decided what part you want to play and the distance you want to create - stick to it no matter what. It will be tough, to begin with, but worth the initial effort.
  • Remind yourself that you deserve to have equal and healthy relationships and that life is too short to spend it with people who drain you.
  • Remind yourself that you are not responsible for other people's happiness, that is their job.
  • Remind yourself that you are not responsible for others' issues (assuming they are adults with no extenuating reasons that would warrant additional support). Their issues are their own in the same way your issues are your own.
  • Make yourself less available. 
  • Remember that 'no' is a response that requires no explanation.
  • Expect to be blamed.
  • Use the 'not my circus, not my monkeys'. Do not get caught up in their anger, drama or toxic behaviour.
  • Accept the family member for their limitations.
  • Start connecting with a wider range of friends who treat you as equal, encourage a healthy relationship and respect your boundaries. To remind you what a healthy relationship is like.

If the guilt creeps in

Most people feel guilty when they distance themselves or cut ties with family members.

Social conditioning teaches us that family is everything, blood is thicker than water, and that you should be ever grateful for your family because they are the people who are always there for you.

When family is mutually respectful, healthy, uplifting and encouraging then the above is true. When it is not, then social conditioning can leave us feeling guilty for wanting to distance ourselves from family members who have difficult and challenging behaviours.

Accept that you are likely to feel an element of guilt, that shows that you have compassion.

Friends are the family we choose 

I have this on a plaque in my home. It helps soften the wound of cutting ties with family members who have toxic behaviours.

When you have come out of the other side, re-invented the relationship and began to see the benefits, you are likely to see just how negative an impact the person had on you.

Given time and perhaps a change of circumstances, a newfound strength on your part, there may be the opportunity to rebuild the relationship on better terms. Quite often people are unaware of the negative impact their behaviour has on others but don't expect it.

You can't change other people unless they want to change. You are responsible for your own happiness, how you lead your life and the decisions you make. 

All of the above is relevant to any relationship that is unhealthy, unequal, disrespectful, difficult, challenging or toxic. In intimate relationships, friendships, acquaintances or work relationships. The above strategies can be used in any of those situations to good effect.

If you fear conflict

Fear of conflict is often a key component in toxic relationships. Seek ways of improving your ability to deal with conflict as this will help you set clear boundaries, not only with people who might take advantage of your discomfort with conflict but also with those who drain you.

There are many books on the subject, short courses and of course, coaching. All will help you improve your ability to deal with challenging people and situations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 3BN
Written by Nikki Emerton
Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 3BN

Having spent the majority of my life not really knowing how to be resilient to life's ups and downs, I discovered NLP, hypnotherapy and coaching. I've found this invaluable in my own life and now use the skills I have learnt and the experiences I have had to help others change their thoughts and behaviours to achieve health and happiness.

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