The most crucial years of our lives are spent with our families.
Our childhoods are what shape us into the adults we become, and they often determine how we function and behave later on in life.
That’s great if you’ve had a wonderful upbringing, but what about those whose families weren’t “picture perfect”?
Dysfunctional families come in many different forms. Some cases are more extreme, whilst others quietly wreak havoc, but both have devastating long-term effects.
So, in this article, we’re going to look at everything you need to know; the signs, where dysfunctional traits come from, importantly – how you can finally heal from it.
Childhood signs of a dysfunctional family
Family dysfunction often starts when the family starts, meaning that family dysfunction can be present throughout early childhood.
Many people don’t realize until adulthood that their formative years were subject to unhealthy family dynamics.
Here are some signs that you may have grown up in a toxic environment.
1. Held to unrealistic expectations
This is a big one.
While it’s true that all family members hold different roles in the family dynamic, it is a form of family dysfunction when children are expected to perform as adults.
What does this look like?
- An older sibling parenting and disciplining a younger sibling
- Being forced to complete heavy chore loads at a young age
- Providing emotional support to a parent.
Many times, it can be the parent that expects their child to outperform everyone else at school and achieve perfect grades. What seems to be “supportive” could cause an incredible amount of pressure on a child.
It’s where parent-children dynamics are completely reversed. One or both parents are absent, making the children responsible for and in charge of caring for themselves or other family members on a daily basis.
Did you ever feel like you’ve been forced to “grow up” too soon? Were you given heavy responsibilities while you were still a child—sometimes without a choice? That’s “parentification,” and a key sign of family dysfunction.
Parents may be absent due to addiction or their own psychological problems. We often see parentification in households that have drug or alcohol abuse.
Either way, parents are unable to perform daily functions—cooking, feeding their children, etc, which forces their children to assume these responsibilities.
Because children do this at the expense of their own developmental needs and pursuits, it can lead to poor identity development, unassertiveness, and incapability to develop healthy interpersonal relationships.
This leads to lifelong repercussions. An adult who was forced to be a parent to a parent as a child will often feel compelled to serve as a source of stability and authority, even at their own expense.
3. Your needs were unmet
Being neglected — or having unmet needs, is one of the key indicators of family dysfunction. And it often stems from a family being unable to direct energy equally to all family members.
When one or more family members display toxic behavior, they often get most—if not all—the attention.
According to nationally recognized clinical psychologist Sherrie Campbell, this leaves victims “emotionally starved.” This emotional starvation results in an insecure attachment—clinginess, lack of respect for boundaries, and dependency. It can also result in the opposite—aloofness and emotional avoidance.
4. Chronic conflict
I grew up with parents who were mostly fighting. Truthfully, I saw them fighting more than being affectionate with each other.
That’s one sign of a toxic family—constant, festering conflict between its members.
Fights never end. They never get resolved. And you often let wounds and resentment fester rather than solve the issues at hand.
This is because you are incapable of resolving conflicts in a healthy manner.
The causes are different for every family. Mainly, it’s because of a corrupt parenting style—abusive, controlling, or neglectful parents.
If this happened during a child’s developing years, the psychological effect is detrimental.
Studies show that when they blame themselves over their parents’ fights, they develop anti-social behavior. While children who feel threatened by the constant conflict develop emotional problems like depression.
5. Verbal, physical, and emotional abuse
Abuse is violence.
Violence doesn’t just stop at physical abuse. It takes the form of emotional, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual, and even legal abuse.
What can this abuse look like?
- Inappropriate touching
- Sexual comments about your body
- Vicious name-calling
- Physical attacks
This list is by no means exhaustive.
If you’ve grown around domestic violence, even if you were not directly physically abused, that still leaves a profound impact on you.
This means that you still experience the psychological effects of an abuse victim
Consequences of growing up in a violent home stretch out from physical wounds. It can cause deep-seated psychological distress, from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, to an inclination towards drug and alcohol abuse.
And unfortunately, this is what creates a cycle of dysfunction, but as Dr. Wind explains:
“A person may turn to drug or alcohol abuse and addiction as that may be the only way they know to cope with their struggles. They may find it difficult to trust people and be unable to form healthy relationships.”
What does family dysfunction look like in adulthood?
Family dysfunction doesn’t stop when a child grows up. Instead, it evolves, using different tactics to still destabilize relationships and healthy psyches.
Here are some examples of how toxic familial relationships play out amongst adults.
6. Exerting control over your life
We all want what’s best for our loved ones. Sometimes we feel that they don’t know what’s best for them, so we try to step in. This is normal.
What’s not normal is when people relentlessly try to control other’s every single action.
What does this look like?
- Controlling access to money
- Emotional blackmail
- Constant lies
- Playing family members off of each other
- Ignoring your wants and needs.
Ever hear the phrase “it’s for your own good?” Ever think “that’s probably not true?” That’s controlling.
A life-long study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology studied results of controlling and caring parenting styles.
The researchers found that those who were raised by warm and responsive parents were happier and satisfied with their lives.
On the other hand, controlling parents made their children unhappy and dissatisfied later on.
According to lead author Dr. Mai Stafford:
“By contrast, psychological control was significantly associated with lower life satisfaction and mental wellbeing. Examples of psychological control include not allowing children to make their own decisions, invading their privacy and fostering dependence.”
This can be for both children and adults. Oftentimes, this dynamic starts at childhood and continues well into adulthood.
This “dominant-submissive” family dysfunction means one family member rules everything. They have no consideration for other members’ feelings or opinions.
Whatever they say is the law.
The dominant authoritative figure makes other members feel voiceless and powerless.
In a parent-children relationship, the dominant parent makes children grow up with low self-esteem.
Do you ever feel like your sole purpose in life is to care for your parent or sibling? Do they only show affection or value you as long as you can serve their financial or emotional needs?
Yes, this may not be as blatant as physical or verbal abuse. But it is still a sign of family dysfunction.
Healthy adults are able to care for their own needs without needing someone else to provide it for them constantly. Period.
Exploitation happens when there is deliberate manipulation or abuse of power. It happens when someone is taking advantage of a person or a situation.
If you are experiencing this, remember:
It is not your responsibility to take care of their every need. They shouldn’t exploit you emotionally or financially.
Family should be there for you, yes. It should be a support system, but it shouldn’t demand all of your time and effort.
A healthy family is a unit of support and love, but it is not a constant source of obligation. Love is supposed to be given freely, if not unconditionally.
Infantilizing is evident when there are one or more narcissistic members in the family. It could also come from parents who have low self-esteem.
The more official definition of infantilization, according to The Collins Dictionary is “the act of prolonging an infantile state in a person by treating them as an infant.”
In simpler terms, it’s deliberately treating or making someone feel much younger than their age—as someone incapable of responsibility, decision making, or at succeeding in things in life.
Parents can view their kids as an extension of themselves. As a result, they are threatened by the thought of their children “getting away” from their hold.
They will use a number of tactics to keep you in line. Ultimately, they do everything in their power to undermine your growing independence.
According to licensed clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Shannon McHugh:
“Parents who infantilize their children will emphasize a child’s incompetence in independent activities, making it difficult for them to feel confident of their ability to do things on their own without that parent.
“This can ultimately cause the child to develop a sense of anxiety or insecurity about being on their own or making their own decisions, which can lead to overdependence on their parent, and an inability to function in the world on their own.”
If you’ve been infantilized your whole life, you might have your own feelings of low self-esteem. You doubt your decisions and choices. You’re scared to take risks. And you have a hard time gaining confidence when you need it the most.
But low self-esteem can also come from having an unnecessary amount of pressure placed on you as a child.
“Many people who grew up in toxic families may also have low self-esteem and be unaware of their true feelings because they’ve been taught to deny their needs and put other people’s needs first,” says Dr. Wind.
10. Harsh judgment and criticism
We all dread family get-togethers for one special reason—the incessant questions:
- “When are you getting married?”
- “You still have the same job?”
- “Are you doing something with your life?”
It’s normal for families to be a little critical because they only want what they think is best for you.
But a toxic family takes it on another level entirely.
It’s an environment where you never get anything right. Even when you do succeed, they still find ways to put you down. They belittle your achievements and constantly make you feel incompetent and unsuccessful.
The result is heartbreaking:
You develop a harsh inner critic.
People who grow up in healthy and loving homes were blessed with years of loving affirmation, which has given them innate self-worth that allows them to take criticism and rejection in stride.
On the other hand, when growing up in a highly critical household, all you’ve ever known is negativity, ingrained by the self-doubt of being raised by a judgmental family.
(Resilience and mental toughness are key attributes to living your best life. Check out our popular eBook on developing mental toughness here).
11. You’re not given love
Families are supposed to be a source of strength, stability, and validation.
When there’s family dysfunction, these dynamics are turned upside down.
instead of support, you get derision. Instead of compassion, you receive cruelty.
A toxic family might
- belittle you
- break down your self-esteem
- mock your insecurities
- ignore your requests for sympathy
Not all toxicity is active. Rebuffing requests for sympathy and compassion can be just as damaging as actively attacking a family member.
So how can you be sure that your family is toxic, or just a typical family who bickers from time to time?
How do you know your family is “toxic?”
It’s normal to have arguments between family members. No matter how much we love each other, we all have differences.
However, a healthy and loving family knows how to handle these conflicts and differences with trust, respect, and open-mindedness.
You’re in a good and loving home if you’re allowed and encouraged to have your own thoughts, to speak up, and to live your own life according to your own terms.
A toxic family is the opposite.
Toxic families are rife with patterns of abuse, discrimination, manipulation, verbal violence, etc.
To find out more about dysfunctional families, we spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Brian Wind from JourneyPure.
He explains that:
“One sign of a dysfunctional family is addictions such as alcohol, drugs, or gambling as they can represent unhealthy coping mechanisms. There may be a lack of boundaries between parents and children, and family members may not trust each other with their issues or problems.”
Often, family members enable someone’s narcissism or even psychopathic behavior. This could be the main reason for instability at home.
Dr. Wind continues to highlight the different types of situations that occur:
“A dysfunctional family member may also constantly send mixed messages where they may be cruel and mean one day and loving the other. There could also be emotional neglect and abuse, and constant lying or secret-keeping between family members”
No matter the case, toxic family dynamics affect most of its members to the point that it causes extreme anxiety, depression, and a host of mental illnesses.
But before we learn about breaking from toxic and dysfunctional families, we need to first understand where the cycle begins and the reasons behind it:
Causes of dysfunction in families
There are many reasons that could lead to a family becoming a toxic one.
Ultimately, the instability is caused by a toxic system that affects every member of the family.
Author and psychotherapist Dr. Harriet Lerner explains:
“Families are dysfunctional because families are anxious systems. There is always something that sends emotional shock waves through a family as it moves through the life cycle.”
“Anxiety, for example, drives triangles. Family members take sides, lose objectivity, and over-focus on each other in a worried or blaming way, and join one person’s camp at the expense of another. Anxiety heightens reactivity, which makes family members quick to try to change and fix each other.”
In worst-case scenarios, it could stem from having abusive parents who control and distort everything in their path. It may be due to a history of abuse from their own childhood, too.
Sometimes it could also be cultural. In some countries, toxic behaviors may be considered the “norm” and are often overlooked.
Here are other reasons why a family becomes toxic:
- Substance abuse
- A soft parent or “enabling” family member/s
- Chronically sick family member/s
- Mental/personality disorders in family member/s
- Unexpected death/s or unfortunate life events
- A history of family dysfunction from the previous generation
- Absent parent/s
So is all lost, or can these issues be worked through and resolved?
Can you heal from being raised in a toxic family?
Knowing how to break free and end the dysfunctional cycle isn’t easy, but it can be done. With patience and a strong will to change, you can heal your wounds and cultivate better relationships.
Dr. Wind explains that to move on, you must first:
“Learn to let go of the old beliefs and thoughts that used to chain you down in a toxic environment. You can make a list of the limiting beliefs you have and write down what each belief is holding you back from. Challenge each belief and write down why it isn’t true and what you’re going to do to change these beliefs.
“Each time you catch yourself thinking of old beliefs and thoughts, actively replace it with a more loving thought This takes time and practice, but eventually you learn to let go of the beliefs and thoughts that don’t serve you anymore.”
So how do you begin this healing process?
It can be overwhelming, so I’d highly recommend watching this free breathwork video created by Brazilian shaman Rudá Iandê, to help get you through it.
The exercises he’s created combine years of breathwork experience and ancient shamanic beliefs, designed to help you relax and check in with your body and soul.
Rudá will help you rebuild a healthy relationship with your emotions so that you can work through old beliefs and past traumas from a place of love and understanding.
His dynamic flow helped revive the connections I have with my emotions, and I believe it could help you too. At the very least, it’ll remove a lot of the tension and stress you’ve built up over the years, making it easier to focus and heal the source of your pain
Once you’ve made progress with your healing, you’ve then got an important decision to make.
Ultimately, you have a choice: you can either attempt to modify the relationship with your family to make it safe and secure for you, or you can leave.
You ultimately have to decide whether the relationship is worth salvaging.
How to decide whether to cut ties with toxic family
I turn again to the wisdom of our spiritual guide, Ruda, “It doesn’t serve you or your lineage to deny your individuality by forcing yourself to follow your parents’ footsteps. Carry on the family torch and use it to light the path that is only yours to walk.”
It’s crucial to remain understanding and supportive when someone you love is going through something difficult.
However, when negativity becomes a pattern and it has brought only sorrow and anxiety in your own life on a regular basis, you know it’s not right.
Being in a toxic family is actually one of the main reasons why people go to therapy in the first place.
According to licensed social worker Alithia Asturrizaga:
“I have worked with countless people who have lived their lives dealing with toxic family members and significant others. In fact, this is one of the chief reasons that many people seek therapy.”
There’s a difference between supporting someone and enabling them.
Everyone wants to have a good relationship with their family but trying to establish relationships with abusers, narcissists, and control-freaks is only an uphill battle.
Even if they’re family.
There’s a time when you have to say enough is enough. But how can you tell when “enough is enough?”
When it becomes a choice between your well-being and keeping a toxic relationship, the choice should always be your peace of mind.
If it brings you more pain than it brings you joy, it’s just not worth it.
So what are some specific signs for when cutting ties is appropriate?
Your family doesn’t respect boundaries
Establishing boundaries is a critical way to regaining personal agency. A toxic family will likely push back against your independence. If, after a time, your boundaries are still not being respected, this might be a sign it’s time to move on.
They abuse you
Present abuse can’t be enabled. If your family is verbally or physically abusive, it’s time to cut off contact now.
While physical abuse isn’t hard to identify, verbal abuse can be trickier to notice. Some common forms are:
- Name Calling
- Hate Speech
- Body Shaming
Your family lies to you
Toxic families are often built upon deceit. If your family consistently lies to you, gaslights you, or otherwise distorts the facts to exert control, confusion, or helplessness upon you; you have every right to remove this toxic component from your life.
And what if you can’t break away from your family?
How to handle a toxic family
For many relationships, severing ties isn’t a viable option. In these situations, we have to decide how to respond to the toxicity present.
To quote from our spiritual guide, Ruda Iande, “We can’t just detach from everything we’ve learned from our families in order to find our own truth. Instead, understanding how our parents shaped us is a subject we must continue studying throughout our lives. Much better than pushing our parents away (or worse, devoting our lives to pleasing them) is investigating how we can evolve through and beyond our familial conditioning”
1. Be angry
Do you feel guilty for being angry about the toxic relationships in your life? Do you try to repress your anger so it goes away?
If you’re like most people, then you probably do.
And it’s understandable. We’ve been conditioned to hide our anger for our entire lives. In fact, the whole personal development industry is built around not being angry and instead to always “think positively”.
Yet I think this way of approaching anger is dead wrong.
Being angry about toxic family relationships can actually be a powerful force for good in your life — as long as you harness it properly.
The best way to do this is to watch our free video on turning anger into your ally.
Hosted by world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê, you’ll learn how to build a powerful relationship with your inner beast.
Your natural feelings of anger will become a powerful force that enhances your personal power, rather than making you feel weak in life.
Rudá Iandê’s breakthrough teachings will support you in turning your anger into personal power. He’ll help you identify what you should be angry about in your own life and how to make this anger a productive force for good.
As Ruda shows us, being angry isn’t about blaming others or becoming a victim. It’s about using the energy of anger to build constructive solutions to your problems and making positive changes to your own life.
If this resonates with you, then I strongly encourage you to check out this video. It’s 100% free and there are no strings attached.
2. Have courage
I know, it’s easier said than done.
Growing up under the control of a toxic family isn’t really the best environment to develop a courageous spirit.
But here’s what you should realize:
Regardless of their neglect, manipulation, or abuse, you still survived.
You might not be the most secure person in the world, but you were strong enough to survive that toxic environment.
Now, you just need to find the courage to stand up to them—whether that means establishing strong boundaries, minimal contact, or cutting them off entirely.
“Some people may need to maintain physical distance from their family while they surround themselves with supportive and loving people. Others may have to slowly rediscover things they love or try new activities without the fear of getting criticized,” says Dr. Wind.
3. Don’t chase “closure”
Some people need help, it’s true. Sometimes, all a person needs is another chance at being better.
Perhaps there is still a chance for your family to heal. That is if everyone is willing to try.
Sometimes that’s just not the case. Sometimes people are who they are, and they refuse to admit fault and change.
If you’ve tried everything—honest conversations, interventions, therapy—and nothing still changed, you just have to call it quits.
Unfortunately, not all of us can get closure for abusive relationships. And for a lot us, being denied closure is the worst thing.
But the truth is, you don’t need their explanations to move on with your life.
By denying you closure, they still have control and power over you.
It’s another way to exercise control.
Don’t let them.
Everything you need to live a better life is inside of you. You have the complete power to turn yourself around and be a better, healthier, and happier person.
Accept that you may never find the root cause of their behavior. In any case, it’s not because of you.
Sometimes, some questions don’t need answers. You just do the best with what life handed you.
4. Don’t try to change what you don’t control
You can maintain a semblance of a relationship with a toxic family without sacrificing your sanity.
Stop trying to change what is impossible.
If a family member is a narcissist or substance abuser, you need to realize that they can’t get better until they decide to be better.
Stop focusing your energy on them. Stop reacting to their manipulation. And don’t even bother enabling their abusive ways.
You can’t change who they are and what they do, but you can control how you react to the situation.
Toxic family members are notorious for their inability to self-reflect and admit fault. They will blame everyone else but themselves.
So do yourself a favor and don’t engage in their behavior.
5. Stop taking responsibility for their actions.
When you’ve grown up constantly blaming yourself for the tragedies of your life, it’s hard not to break the habit.
There’s a reason why you are prone to self-blame.
According to popular psychology author Sandra Lee Dennis, it’s a self-defense mechanism.
“Blaming oneself for the shame of being a victim is recognized by trauma specialists as a defense against the extreme powerlessness we feel in the wake of a traumatic event.
“Self-blame continues the illusion of control shock destroys, but prevents us from the necessary working through of the traumatic feelings and memories to heal and recover.”
However, you’re no longer a child. You have the awareness to see that clearly, not everything is your fault.
So stop taking responsibility for your toxic family’s actions. They surely never take responsibility for it, so why bother?
And, as Dr. Wind says. “Start focusing on yourself and having “me time” so you can learn to be in touch with your own preferences, wants, and things you like.” This will hopefully take the focus off your family and onto you, as you start this healing process.
6. Be direct and assertive
Here’s the thing:
You can’t make anyone listen if you don’t believe yourself capable in the first place.
You have to be direct and assertive in dealing with your toxic family. Decide your plan of action and do it. See it through.
Call them out if they’re doing or saying something toxic. Say “no” and mean it.
This is the only way to deal with narcissists, abusers, and psychopaths. They don’t like being told what to do.
In fact, they see it as a personal challenge to make you give up and see you fail. You’ve lived your whole life under their power.
So what’s the best thing you can do?
Stand your ground.
Understand how specifically they are abusing you and do not engage with them when they do.
If they don’t listen, that’s their fault. But at least you can establish the perimeters you want and stick with it.
7. Set boundaries
If you do choose to maintain a relationship with your toxic family, it’s absolutely crucial to set boundaries.
However, it can be hard for your family to see why you need to establish boundaries. They may see it as a selfish act.
In this case, again, you need to remember that it is not your responsibility to protect their feelings if they refuse to understand that you’re just trying your best to be mentally healthy.
According to the Harley Therapy Counselling Blog:
“Boundaries are not about right or wrong. Your personal healthy boundaries are based on your own value system and perspective, and might be totally different than someone else’s. This also means that you don’t have to explain or defend your boundaries.
“You just need to set them. If someone doesn’t want to abide by them or refuses to accept them, then question if you really need that person in your life anymore.”
8. Control meetings
A great way to regain agency is to plan the meetings that you have with your family.
Know that your sister always fights with you at the house? Make all your meetings in public.
When you control the location, time, and tempo of the meetings with your family, you give yourself the ability to set the tone and duration of the events.
Additionally, make sure that you have your own method of getting to and from all family gatherings, to allow you to leave whenever you need.
9. Establish minimal contact
If you don’t want to deal with a certain level of family toxicity, yet still want to communicate with your family, you can decide to establish minimal contact.
But remember, it’s all up to you.
For some people, it means Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. For others, it means seeing family just on holidays.
You can judge how much contact you can bear to have with them. Your family may or may not accept it, but you have to be assertive.
10. Talk to someone
Whether you’re currently working through separation, dealing with current family dysfunction, or had a toxic family relationship during your childhood, therapy is an excellent tool for unpacking a tangle of conflict and confusing emotions and memories.
Dr. Wind agrees, “Therapy with a mental health professional can help so you learn to identify and process some of the underlying mental health issues. This can involve processing feelings of shame, guilt and being undeserving of love.”
Working with a licensed professional is optimal, but a close friend or a confidante can be an amazing source of strength.
How to stop the cycle of toxic family relationships for good
Unfortunately, unless you take the right steps to work through the trauma of growing up with a dysfunctional family, you’ll carry the pain with you and possibly continue the cycle of toxicity.
And the truth is, there may be behaviors that you’re bringing to your current relationships which stem from being raised in a toxic family.
So how can you truly end this cycle?
I’d start with this free video on Love and Intimacy, created by shaman Rudá Iandê.
Drawing upon his own experiences and the life lessons he’s learned through shamanism, he’ll help you identify negative traits and habits formed as a result of your childhood and past relationships.
You’ll be surprised to learn how much you’ve carried with you into adulthood, but with Rudá’s guidance, you’ll be able to put them in the past and cultivate healthier relationships.
So, coupled with the tips above, there’s no reason you can’t break free from your toxic past. Taking those first steps and making active changes needs to come from you, since your family probably won’t play a role in your healing.
It’ll take consistency, perseverance, and a commitment to yourself, and although the journey won’t be easy, it’ll be worth it.