How To Be the Advocate for Your Child When Heading Into a Toxic Situation

Are you spending time with family during the holidays? Here are some ways you can protect your kids from toxic relatives and why it's important to do so.

An image of a woman hugging her daughter while sitting on a sofa.
Photo: Getty Images.

People usually associate the holidays with family—and while family can often be a source of safety and love, for many of us, it can put our children (and ourselves) in contact with people who are dysfunctional and harmful. Experts say it's important to shield kids from these toxic people.

"Setting firm boundaries with toxic family members teaches our children that they are worthy of healthy relationships and that we are listening to their concerns," says Melanie Rhee, LCSW, a Nevada-based social worker. "If a family member will only accept a child if they hide or obscure a part of themselves then they are not allowed access to your child."

Here are a few ways you can protect your kids from toxic family members and why it's important to do so.

What Is a Toxic Family Member?

Toxic family members and situations can often be difficult to identify—especially if we grew up in non-affirming spaces or are still entangled with those same relatives.

Experts point to some signs of a toxic person to watch out for:

  • Controlling and imply you must live according to their expectations to continue receiving their love and support
  • Ridicules or diminishes your choices or identity
  • Gaslights your experiences or interactions
  • Verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive
  • Makes racist, sexist, queerphobic, ableist, or body-shaming comments or slurs
  • Abuses controlled substances or alcohol

Why Protecting Your Child From Toxic Relatives Matters

Mental health is a vital component of your child's overall well-being. They need good mental health to healthily develop socially, physically, and emotionally—as well as to have high self-esteem. Consider then, what will happen to your child's mental health when they are exposed to people who tear them down.

Toxic people can significantly impact your child's sense of self-worth and perception, and cause them stress. Research has shown that toxic stress can derail healthy child development and damage learning, behavior, and health over a lifetime.

That can also come from family members who make racist, sexist, and other problematic statements but later write them off as a joke. "These statements are absorbed by our children and cause harm," explains Rhee.

Providing positive spaces for children to embrace who they are is critical to prevent negative outcomes. The Trevor Project reported that in 2021, 42 percent of LGBTQ youth "seriously considered attempting suicide," including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth. However, LGBTQ youth with access to spaces affirming their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not.

And remember: your kids are always watching. "Most likely, if your children are of a certain age, they know who the toxic family members are," says Jermaine Shorter, NCC, LPC-MHSP, a mental health therapist based in Memphis, Tennessee. "Your children will watch, listen to, and remember how you respond for the rest of their lives."

How To Protect Your Kids From Toxic Family Members

Here are a few suggestions on how you can help your child get through toxic situations, especially during the holidays.

Have a family game plan

Chances are, you know exactly who is going to be a problem at a family gathering. Discuss with your co-parent(s)—even your kids—ahead of time what you will do if someone crosses your boundaries.

"It is important to be aligned with your boundaries and your truth, and prepare yourself for the potential difficulties," says Keri Turner, Psy.D., a California-based licensed psychologist. "Check in with yourself prior to any gatherings and create a game plan for how to create distance if needed or how you may appropriately and calmly respond if you feel as though your boundaries are being pushed."

It's the small acts and preemptive planning that can help reduce stress for you and your kids during the holidays. "For kids, something as small as letting them know if they hear anything weird, uncomfortable, or upsetting, they can talk about it or tell the parent," says Lisa Choi, M.A., a California-based doctoral psychology candidate. It's also a good idea for parents to discuss a limit for when they will have a reason to leave, adds Choi.

Let your child establish their physical boundaries

Many of us come from families where you're forced to hug or kiss people even if you don't want to. Don't force your kid into affection with anyone—even family members.

"Teaching a child to accept hugs or other forms of affection when they are unwanted demonstrates poor boundaries that can carry over to adulthood," explains Rhee. "Children are allowed to refuse, and it is a parents job to support the child."

Set clear boundaries ahead of time and enforce them

You may need to inform some family members before the gathering that they will be denied access to your child if they behave in a certain manner (such as not respecting your child's pronouns) or broach specific topics (such as politics) you do not want to discuss.

"Establish your clear boundaries and be prepared to speak up, walk out, or enforce them as needed," says Mimi G., a parent of a nonbinary child.

Don't be afraid to tell people exactly how you want your child to be treated (or not). This may be difficult since during the holidays, we generally want to keep things harmonious.

"Don't keep the peace at the expense of your kid's or your own well-being," says Marcie Beigel, Ed.D. BCBA-D, a behavior specialist and mental health consultant based in New York City. "If you don't yell at your kids, don't let extended family members yell at them. If you don't call your kids insulting names, don't let extended family members call them insulting names."

Dr. Beigel provides examples of how to respond, such as saying, "Yes, Marcie spilled her drink, do not yell at her; help her find the paper towels to clean it up." Or even: "Do not talk to my children that way. Be kind."

Leave or decide not to attend a gathering

Sometimes you may need to leave the gathering or not attend and that's totally legit.

If you are traveling, you may want to consider staying at a hotel or a separate location so that you have an option (and a place to stay) should you leave if you feel boundaries are broken.

You can also choose to not have your kids spend time with certain family members at all. "It's OK to keep your children completely separate from toxic family members. If you can help it, leave the kids at home or with other safe people," says Shorter.

Or you can decide that your entire family will avoid toxic relatives all together and you shouldn't feel bad about that either. As Mimi G. puts it: "It's worth cutting people out of your life if it means keeping your kid alive."

Don't ignore warning signs

Too often, we tell ourselves that it will all work out or let a bad situation play out into a worse one. "Leaving too early is better than leaving too late or not being able to leave at all because you're in the middle of it," advises Shorter.

Create time for just you and your child

Even if your family creates a safe and welcoming environment, it's always important to spend individualized time with your children. "Carve out just 15 to 30 minutes each day that you are with extended family for just you and your kids—perhaps before breakfast or as an afternoon walk," suggests Dr. Beigel. "This will allow you to talk through any challenges, address any questions, and avoid problem behavior."

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