In dealing with our difficult relatives, the troublemaker kind who seem to blight most family trees, my husband and I have always attempted to shield our children from the antics and aggressions perpetrated by these toxic family members. We were careful not to call attention to them or debrief each other in front of our kids.

No matter whether they had it coming, we didn’t want to bad-mouth other adults in our family and risk swaying our kids’ opinions of their elders. We didn’t want to unfairly skew their perceptions of certain relatives by jading them with our own. We hoped our kids might be able to forge functional relationships with these family members, even if we couldn’t.

Our thinking was we were taking the high road by not calling out the poor behavior, destructive tendencies, and all around unenjoyable personalities of our corrosive relatives. That doing the opposite seemed akin to gossiping, and thus a bad example to set for our children. This was our best thinking until a friend shared his negative experience and ongoing consequences resulting from the kind of best intention parenting we were doing. In listening to his story, we began to question whether we had been doing the best thing for our kids.

My friend grew up in close proximity to a narcissistic and borderline abusive extended family member. He was scared of this relative and became increasingly uneasy in this person’s presence. He internalized most of what he observed or was subjected to and thought he somehow deserved to be berated or otherwise treated poorly because nobody ever stood up for him or told him any different. He wasn’t able to come to understand his relative’s behavior had nothing to do with him, but rather everything to do with that person’s own mal-adjusted personality until he was an adult.

Today, my friend deals with some latent frustration with other adults in his family, his parents included, for not explaining to him when he was a child that the way their toxic relative behaved was not his fault. That this person treated everyone that way. This person was angry. Unstable. Spiteful. Mean. And unwilling to seek help or improve.

My friend sorely wishes other grown-ups in the family would have leveled with him about this person’s behavior. Some honest feedback about the ongoing dysfunctional conduct would have allowed my friend to develop a thicker skin. A better ability to take the toxic family member’s abysmal bearing with a grain of salt. A way to shake it off. A path toward ending up less scarred by the pathos he witnessed.

Hearing my friend’s personal experience doused my heart in regret. I now wish we could turn back the clock and have some frank conversations with our kids about our toxic family members and their hurtful behavior in real-time. About how they relished stirring up drama and angst amongst the ranks. How they were most comfortable when making others uncomfortable. That nothing those people did or said should be taken personally.

These relatives were broken inside and sadly, not interested in healing from their wounds. Their personal pain was so heavy they couldn’t carry it all on their own. They continually lashed out, hurling hurt at others in an attempt to unload some of their grief.

As my kids have inched closer to adulthood, they’ve begun to recognize the toxicity I’ve referenced and they’ve come to their dad and me with questions. Each time they approached us, asking for feedback or explanation for behavior they witnessed, we always responded matter-of-factly and honestly. We told them the truth. We didn’t hold back. We called it like we saw it. Because they asked.

And we’ve always felt good about not pointing out others’ toxicity to our children. We felt confident our decision to deal with these folks out of earshot of our kids was the right thing to do. To us, it seemed the mature, grown-up way to handle the seemingly ever-present difficult relative or two who dot the landscape of family.

My friend’s point of view now makes me wonder if we did our kids a disservice in sweeping toxicity under the rug when it sullied our lives. Would it have been better to talk to our kids, in terms they could understand and digest at their respective ages at times we all witnessed relatives behave dysfunctionally? Would it have been better to talk to them about their challenging family members the same way we talked with them about their playmates or classmates who acted out inappropriately?

We never hesitated to explain malevolence from others kids wasn’t OK. We addressed all kinds of misbehavior by their peers head on so our own kids would understand good behavior vs. bad. So they’d learn the right way to treat others. Why then weren’t we willing to do this in regards to destructive behavior perpetrated by other adults in our family? Adults who have even more profound, longer lasting impacts on our children.

I think we were trying to give these grown-ups who should know better a chance to do better. We were trying not to throw them under a bus. We hoped they’d eventually address their toxicity and learn to treat people better. We were trying not to tell our children how to think, but rather let them come to their own set of conclusions and feelings about members of our family.

After considering my friend’s personal experience and looking back through the hindsight he offered, had we to deal with our dysfunctional family members all over again on behalf of our impressionable children, I think we just might deal with them entirely differently indeed. Children are excellent sponges—they soak up way more than we realize they do. And though kids are also resilient, the toxicity they soak up can linger and cause damage.

I think it’s more than acceptable to call out the toxic behavior of relatives to our kids. To use the times we feel compelled to debrief them as valuable teaching moments meant to protect their hearts. And to help them learn to be the change we all wish to see—in our families and beyond. 

You may also want to read:

5 Tips For Dealing With a Toxic Mother-In-Law

My Toxic Mother Made Me a Better Parent

Want more stories of love, family, and faith from the heart of every home, delivered straight to you? Sign up here! 

So God Made a Mother book by Leslie Means

If you liked this, you'll love our book, SO GOD MADE A MOTHER available now!

Order Now

Check out our new Keepsake Companion Journal that pairs with our So God Made a Mother book!

Order Now
So God Made a Mother's Story Keepsake Journal

Jodie Utter

Jodie Utter is a freelance writer & creator of the blog, Utter Imperfection. She calls the Pacific Northwest home and shares it with her husband and two children. As an awkward dancer who’s tired of making dinner and can’t stay awake past nine, she flings her life wide open and tells her stories to connect pain to pain and struggle to struggle in hopes others will feel less alone inside their own stories and more at home in their hearts, minds, and relationships. You can connect with her on her blog, Utter Imperfection and on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

Dear Dad, I Pray for Our Healing

In: Faith, Grief, Grown Children
Back shot of woman on bench alone

You are on my mind today. But that’s not unusual. It’s crazy how after 13 years, it doesn’t feel that long since I last saw you. It’s also crazy that I spend far less time thinking about that final day and how awful it was and spend the majority of the time replaying the good memories from all the years before it. But even in the comfort of remembering, I know I made the right decision. Even now, 13 years later, the mix of happy times with the most confusing and painful moments leaves me grasping for answers I have...

Keep Reading

Mom’s Special Recipe Means More This Year

In: Grown Children, Living
Bowl full of breadcrumbs and celery, color photo

Three weeks before Easter, my family and I stood in the hallway talking to a team of doctors whom we had flagged down. We were anxiously inquiring about my mom, who was in the ICU on life support. We hadn’t been able to connect with the doctors for over 48 hours, so it was important for us to check in and see what was going on. The head doctor began discussing everything they had observed in the scans and what it meant for my mom’s quality of life. Every word made our hearts break. The doctor continued to talk about...

Keep Reading

When Your Son Grows Up, You Will Remember This

In: Grown Children, Motherhood
Mother and son posing in older portrait, color photo

When your son turns 50, you will remember how, when he was a baby, he would kick the arm of the rocking chair just when you thought he was finally asleep and wake himself up for another 15 minutes of grinning and rocking. And you will smile at the memory. When your son turns 50, you will remember the endless walks through the neighborhood you took with him rain or shine because your husband had the only car for the family at work. You always visited the little wooden bridge that ran across a tiny stream, and he would jump...

Keep Reading

I’m So Lucky to Have Parents Like Mine

In: Grown Children, Living, Motherhood
Husband and wife, smiling, color photo

I was reminded recently that not everyone has parents like mine. I’ve always known it in theory, but seeing it around me is different. Getting to know and love people from different kinds of homes is eye-opening, and it made me realize something . . . I’m so lucky to have parents like mine. So, here’s to the parents who show up. The ones who work full time but still manage to make it to seemingly all your school functions, church outings, and sporting events. Here’s to the parents who took the time to sit down to dinner with you...

Keep Reading

In These Teen Years, I Wonder If I’m Doing Enough

In: Grown Children, Motherhood, Teen
Boy walking in the ocean surf

It’s a strange feeling to look back at all the years as a parent and wonder if I am doing enough. My boys are teens. One of them has just a few baby steps left until he heads into life after living under our roof. He is fiercely independent. One of those kids who I have for my whole life mistaken for being years older than he actually is. The kind of kid who can hold a conversation that reminds you of when you are out with your friends enjoying a bottle of wine at a restaurant made for middle-aged...

Keep Reading

18 Years Went by In a Flash

In: Grown Children, Motherhood, Teen
Girl walking into college dorm

If I close my eyes, I can conjure the feather-light weight of my newborn daughter. At under five pounds, my tiny bundle of love looked up at me with eyes so big and bright I swore they could discern my soul. No one warned me then of the chaotic parenthood journey ahead. So many firsts and lasts would pepper our paths. Her first word, steps, and school day flew by amongst a whirlwind of activities designed to keep us both occupied—park play dates, music classes, and mom and baby yoga occupied much of our early days. I recorded everything in...

Keep Reading

The Sandwich Generation Needs Support Too

In: Grown Children, Living, Motherhood
Grandma and grandpa with baby, color photo

Caregiver. Nurse. Custodian. Mother. Parent. Daughter. Son. Rinse, lather, repeat. If you had told me 10 years ago (heck, even 6 years ago) that I would quit working, care for my babies, and provide care for my parents on a daily basis, I would have laughed you out of the room. I remember how hard it was to go back to work after I had my son, commuting 45 minutes each way. I remember calling home during lunch (my husband was able to stay home after my maternity leave had ended) and yearning to see my baby boy. My new...

Keep Reading

Moms Know the Small Things Matter

In: Grown Children, Motherhood
Mother playing blocks with young girl

I have always given credit to my dad for letting me find my path in life, for making me independent, fearless, confident, and everything I am today. It was he who taught me to drive a car even when my mom thought I was too young. He let me be reckless till I figured out exactly what I was doing. He even taught me to fix a puncture so I always get where I ought to. Wasn’t Dad the one who encouraged me to choose the university of my choice and find an apartment far away from home? He wanted...

Keep Reading

The Lucky Ones Know the Love of a Grandma

In: Grief, Grown Children, Loss
Wedding photo of woman with her grandma, color photo

Not so many years ago, my grandma passed away. She was my last grandparent, and when she died, it hit me like a ton of bricks. She was a force: a strong, independent, opinionated bundle of life—all wrapped up into a tiny frame of skin and bones. She rocked a solid Bob Dylan haircut, loved classical music, opera, and theater, and knew how to hold her own with my sisters and me and a bottle of good red wine on Thanksgiving. My grandma had frail, bony hands that had touched the earth of every continent short of Antarctica. She had...

Keep Reading

I Couldn’t Do Motherhood without My Mom

In: Grown Children, Motherhood
Mother and grown daughter, color photo

I have vivid memories of mornings as a child. I would wake up and go downstairs into the living room just to hear my mom say good morning in the happiest voice. I looked forward to that sing-song good morning from my mom each and every morning, without fail. When I was five years old, she went with me to the pumpkin patch on a class field trip. I  remember riding on the hay ride and looking at her and smiling, just so happy that she was there. When I was 10, she took me to the mall to get...

Keep Reading