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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

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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.

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