Holiday Advice: How to Deal with an Emotional Manipulator

Family Manipulation During the Holidays

Going home for the holidays can be special, but for many people in recovery, it’s a time of anxiety. Why? Families are complicated! No matter how much you have changed since leaving the nest, something about going back under your parents’ roof brings up old feelings. You may feel obligated to fit the role you previously held in the house. This is especially challenging when you have manipulative family members.

Manipulation is a toxic pattern of behavior that has become commonplace in families worldwide. Some examples, like your mother asking her to call her more often or comparing you to your cousin, are annoying but harmless. In other instances, your family member may seek to control you, hurt your feelings or make you adopt their opinions. This usually involves:

  • Invalidating your feelings and experiences
  • Making you feel tricked into doing favors
  • Interrupting you or speaking over you
  • Reprimanding you in front of others
  • Withholding affection and approval
  • Criticizing you when you refuse to conform
  • Mocking you when things go wrong
  • Intimidating or threatening you

While these signs may seem obvious, they can be hidden behind family norms. For this reason, it may be difficult to address what’s going on. How do you know if your parent, sibling or relative is toxic?


Manipulative Behavior

To protect yourself from manipulative family members, it helps to know which behaviors to look out for. See if any of the below examples feel familiar.

You feel an imbalance of power.

People who fit this profile seek to control others. In the process, they become more powerful than you – or anyone else in the house. Every characteristic listed below serves to reinforce and further this imbalance.

They make you feel guilty, even when you shouldn’t.

Guilt trips are a hallmark of manipulation. These individuals are able to easily point the finger at others, especially when they’re in the wrong and have been called out. Sometimes this can be done to create drama and conflict between family members.

You don’t have time to make a decision.

While Hollywood movies are full of urgent, split-second decisions, real life is rarely that time sensitive. If you have manipulative family members, you’re probably used to being pressured for in-the-moment answers. This goal of this technique is to cause you to cave to the other person’s will.

They make problems, but never solve them.

Manipulators are messy! They’re experts at leaving a trail of unresolved arguments and strained relationships in their wake. You may notice that they stir up drama in the home, especially during the holidays, just to see what happens.

You’re unsure of what you experienced.

Do you find that your words are often twisted? Does your family member tell you that you’re confused about what happened? If so, they may be gaslighting you. This is a particularly toxic behavior because it involves minimizing your experiences, lying to you, rewriting history and making you question your reality. Gaslighting is one of the most concerning signs of manipulation.

They’re always a bully or a victim.

Many people picture manipulative behavior as aggressive – you may imagine someone bullying their loved ones at a family gathering. While this is sometimes true, more often than not, your manipulator may insist on playing the victim at every opportunity. This is a tactic they use to sidestep blame (or place it on your shoulders instead).

You just can’t win.

Finally, someone may fit this mold if you feel like you just can’t win – or rather, they won’t ever let you win. No matter how carefully you try to follow their rules and predict their moods, they respond by moving the goalposts, calling you names or badmouthing you to your relatives. If this is the case, it’s time to do something about your manipulative family members.


How to Handle Manipulative Family Members This Holiday Season

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that you can protect yourself from the influence of manipulative parents, siblings, or extended family members during the holidays.

The first step is to set clear boundaries about what you will accept – and what you won’t. For example, you can draw a line in the sand about gossiping. “I’m not quite ready to talk about my addiction with the whole family. If you continue to lie to Aunt Sharon about my time in treatment, I’m going to have to go home.” If your manipulative family member chooses to cross the line, be prepared to follow through with the consequences.

Avoid giving the other person the upper hand. For example, if your mother keeps a record of favors you “owe” her, in return for things she’s done for you, that’s not healthy. Don’t sign up for any favors with strings attached.

Observe, don’t absorb. Mindfulness provides a healthy escape from negativity at home. Don’t take the other person’s actions personally; instead, remember that you are not responsible for their behavior.

Practice waiting to react. You don’t have to make choices, engage in a fight, or agree to a vacation right when the other person asks. If you’re worried that your loved one is trying to manipulate you, tell them you need to sleep on it before deciding.

Seeking support from others can be helpful. First, you can talk to your significant other, best friend or other relatives about what’s going on. This can provide you with much-needed reassurance. Professional help in the form of therapy helps you to process years of manipulation and stress around the holidays.


We understand that this season can be difficult. If you need support when dealing with your family of origin, Cumberland Heights can help. Our group and individual therapy sessions are available for those who have a history of addiction, mental illness or trauma. Contact us to learn more.