Our society establishes family as the core institution of a person’s life.
It’s true. Family shapes the first years of our lives. And this upbringing is crucial to the kind of people we become as adults.
However, not everyone is blessed with a healthy, loving home.
For various reasons, there are family dynamics that verge on the toxic side. In some cases, there may even be different types of abuse.
Smothering, neglect, emotional, sexual or physical abuse, overprotectiveness—these are only a few signs of a toxic family.
But unlike other relationships, you can’t just simply cut off familial ties.
Shared history, emotional, and biological bonds make it hard for anyone to navigate or get out of these relationships.
But where is the line between functional and dysfunctional? How can you determine if this line has been crossed?
In this article, we’ll discuss the tell-tale signs you have a toxic family and how to cope with having them in your life.
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.
Often, family members enable someone’s narcissism or even psychopathic behavior. This could be the main reason for instability at home.
For example, if one parent is highly dramatic and uses emotional blackmail to get what they want. Which can often lead the other parent to “police” everyone’s behavior so as not to trigger the other parent’s machinations.
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.
11 signs you have a toxic family
Now, you have a general idea as to what makes a family toxic. However, toxic family dynamics can be displayed in different scenarios.
There is a thin line between ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’. Here are some more tell-tale signs your family has crossed the line.
1. Emotional neglect
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.”
These cases mostly happen to children. However, the effects could still manifest well into adulthood.
Dr. Campbell explains:
“The family dynamic functions around the needs, wants, desires, and dramas of the parent. Children are not viewed as people, but rather as things to be controlled, used and manipulated.”
Parents or parental figures oftentimes fail to provide emotional support, which can make children feel “emotionally-stinted.”
Or they can play favorites and focus their attention on one sibling while neglecting the rest.
Emotional neglect can result in insecure attachment—clinginess, lack of respect for boundaries, and dependency. It can also result in the opposite—aloofness and emotional avoidance.
2. They are controlling
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 meddle, for their betterment.
However, control becomes unhealthy when it is relentless and done for selfish reasons. Money, emotional blackmail, or lies are used to manipulate you to get what they want.
Emotional blackmail, in particular too commonly used. Parents or family members will use affection or distress to control you. Frequently, the phrase “it’s for your own good” is said, regardless of what you think otherwise.
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.”
3. 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 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.
What’s a “pathological household” pr “parentification?”
It’s where parent-children dynamics are completely reversed. One or both parents are often absent, making the children responsible 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?
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 incapacitated 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.
The saddest part about this is, it affects you for life. You might feel the need to always fulfill the “caretaker” role and neglect yourself on a regular basis.
Some toxic families are “dominant-submissive.”
This means one family member—often a parental figure—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.
This is dominant in all cultures.
Research shows that in Eastern culture, like countries like India, children relate “paternal negativity” dominance to lower self-esteem. Meanwhile in Western culture, “maternal negativity” is more seen.
Dominant-submissive dynamics can also occur between siblings. Studies show that these relationships tend to evolve from adolescence to adulthood, with the older sibling being more dominant.
There’s nothing more evident as violence, to tell you that a family is toxic.
But violence doesn’t just stop at physical abuse. It can also mean emotional, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual, and even legal abuse.
It also counts as abuse when family members see or hear the violence.
If you’ve grown around domestic violence, even if you were not directly physically abused, that still counts as violence.
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.
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 is one or more narcissistic members in the family. It could also come from parents who have low self-esteem.
The more official definition if 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.
9. Discipline vs punishment
Here’s where people get confused:
Discipline looks different from punishment.
For a child, it’s easy to feel “punished” when your parents are just trying to discipline you. We’ve all been grounded, told to stay in our rooms, and not given something we want because we did something wrong.
It’s all part of parenting. When you do something wrong, your parents need to show you why. It’s a way of instilling morality.
But discipline is proactive.
On the other hand, toxic punishment happens if there are no lessons to be taught.
You are punished just for the heck of it. Or you are punished more heavily than the crime requires.
Toxic punishment is another exercise for control.
Even as an adult this could still happen. When a family member refuses to talk to you when you did something they don’t like, it counts as toxic behavior.
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.
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11. Chaotic household
A chaotic household is a bit of everything.
It would feel like you’ve won the lottery for the “most toxic family” prize.
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While some dysfunctional families can have an issue or two, a chaotic household takes the crown.
It is a family dynamic where no boundaries are made.
Basically, there’s zero stability. Or perhaps the instability is the only stable factor.
In a chaotic household, attachment doesn’t exist. Or if it does, members have an insecure attachment to each other.
Children have trouble concentrating in school or in outside environments, due to the constant conflict at home. Discipline also rarely exists.
Ultimately, chaotic households make children hardly looked after. It could be something simpler like lax supervision to physical and emotional neglect or even sexual abuse.
You are in a toxic family if you’re constantly surrounded by chaos, with very little organization in your daily life.
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
When to say “enough”
I find it important to remember though, that a family will never be perfect. Life happens in ways that bring challenges even into the most loving homes.
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.
Only you can determine when that time comes.
Families Services of America licensed professional counselor Shannon Battle says:
“Anytime you deal with toxicity, understand there is a learning curve. There will be periods of uncertainty, guilt, and possible loss in relationships. You have to determine the level of sacrifice you are willing to make to protect your emotions and those that trust you to protect them as well.
“Sometimes, you have to hurt one to help another. The hurt is never intended to be malicious, but always done in love and respect. Behavior is choice-driven.”
I believe there’s a point in our lives when we have to cut people off because they’re doing us more harm than good.
When it becomes a choice between your well-being and keeping a toxic relationship, the choice should always be your peace of mind.
However, it’s never as simple as that. What you can only hope to do is to let it go with grace, kindness, and bravery.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone you love is to let them go.
(Buddhism has an incredible amount to teach us about letting go. In our new eBook, we use iconic Buddhist teachings to provide no-nonsense suggestions for living a better life. Check it out here).
8 ways to cope with a toxic family
1. 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.
2. If you’ve tried your best, don’t bother “seeking 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 make best with what life handed you.
3. Let go of what you can’t change
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.
4. 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?
5. 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.
6. 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.”
7. 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. Your family may or may not accept it, but you have to be assertive.
8. Sever ties
Dr. Sherrie Campbell lists 8 reasons why you may need to cut ties with family members.
One of them is:
“When the relationship creates so much stress that it impacts the important areas of your life at work and/or at home. When your emotions are totally caught up in defending yourself and wanting to explain yourself and the chaos of your relationships with these people is all you talk about, it is time to let go.”
When something is negatively consuming your life, what’s the point of keeping it?
I’ve always believed in one sentiment when it comes to relationships of any kind:
If it brings you more pain than it brings you joy, it’s just not worth it.
And this has proved useful in my life.
There is a certain kind of heaviness that you carry when you are trying to maintain a failing and toxic relationship with someone you love.
It manages to bring down almost every aspect of your life. It brings inner conflict—doubt, paranoia, depression.
I think the biggest kindness you can do to yourself and to that person is to just let go with grace.
You decide who you get to keep in your life. But if you want to be happy and healthy, you need to surround yourself with people who are equally as healthy.
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