Toxic Family Dynamics: The Signs And How To Cope With Them

Updated July 12, 2019


There are many people you can choose in your life and get rid of if needed. You can pick your friends, and if there is a problem with them, then they can leave you. However, you can't pick your family, and you can't leave them if you're a minor, or if they're your only source of living. Sometimes, your family can have qualities that you don't like, and it can be hard to deal with them. Other times, you're unsure if you live in a toxic family situation or not.

After all, every family is going to have their problems. People have bad days, or there may be bumps in the road, such as financial difficulties. If you're a teenager, it can be hard to tell the difference between parenting and control.

So here are some signs of a toxic family.

They Are Controlling

It can be a bit difficult to tell the difference between controlling and just being normal parents. If you're an adult, you may feel like they're just trying to do what they feel is right. If you're under their roof, you may believe that you have to obey their rules.

Finding the line is hard, but here are a few signs of a controlling family member.

  • They are always meddling in your adult life, and they won't stop bothering you about your decisions despite the fact that you've told them your two cents.
  • They used money or another offer to try to control you. For example, if you're in college, they'll threaten to cut off your tuition.
  • They install tracking apps on your devices without you knowing.
  • They control every move you make, even down to how you dress or look.

Again, finding the line is hard, but if you have to keep asking yourself if they have controlling behavior, then they probably are being controlled.

They Always Blame You


Placing the blame on someone else is quite a problem, especially if you aren't to blame. Many family members may start blaming other people for their problems and not taking accountability if the problems are their fault. Some people just don't like to admit they're at fault. Others may not even know they're misplacing blame and may need to be corrected.

Don't Confuse Punishment For Discipline

Discipline is meant to teach the child right from wrong. When a child performs an undesirable trait, they need to be corrected. Sometimes, discipline is enforced through punishment, such as grounding a child.

Toxic punishment is when there is no lesson being taught. Some parents will punish you because they're having a bad day and you unintentionally said something to make them angrier. Other parents will give you an excessive punishment for misbehavior that may have warranted discipline, but the punishment didn't fit the crime.

In your adulthood, if your parent is still trying to punish you, such as not talking to you when you do something they don't like, then it's toxic behavior.

They Make Threats

A family member doesn't have to enact a punishment to be toxic. Sometimes, the act of threatening alone can be a toxic behavior.

Everyone gets mad, and many people do make empty threats sometimes. However, a toxic family member will make threats all the time as a means to control you. These can be emotionally draining. Even if they've never acted on any of their threats, there's always that "What if" in your mind that thinks they will do something.

They Are Always Critical Towards You

A toxic family member never seems to be satisfied. You can graduate from college, get a great job, have a great family, but they are just never satisfied with your life. They never praise you when you get it right, but are quick to the draw if you get it wrong, and this can drive one mad.

Many times, it's all projection. Some parents feel like they can no longer accomplish their goals after they have children, and will still try to live through their children, trying to shape their lives to be like the lives they envisioned having.

They Dismiss Your Feelings


A good parent will listen to you when you express your emotions. They don't have to agree with everything you say, but they should be able to hear you out and put themselves in your shoes. Meanwhile, a toxic parent will just handwave anything you say and ignore it, or dismiss it through a nonapology or another tactic. A toxic person never wants to be accountable, and when they are confronted, they will dismiss it in any way.

They're Always The Victim

Everyone is the hero of their own story, and some people think of themselves as the hero who is perfect in every way. Thus, anything negative that happens is an attack on the hero. Always playing the victim, even if the person playing it has faults as well, is a sign of a toxic relationship.

Sibling Preferences

If you have siblings, one thing a parent should try to avoid is comparing siblings and giving everyone unequal treatment. If you've always heard "Why can't you be like your brother/sister?" then this may be a sign of toxic behavior.

Toxic Siblings

Speaking of siblings, since this is an article about families, it's worth talking about your siblings as well. A lot of these signs can apply to your siblings as well. Siblings can be controlling, play the victim, and so on. There are also toxic traits that siblings can exclusively have, such as:

  • Taking the sibling rivalry too far. Siblings are going to have rivalries, but a toxic sibling will take it too far and personal.
  • A toxic sibling will blame you whenever they get into trouble.
  • Toxic siblings will always try to bring you down, no matter what.

How to Deal With A Toxic Family Member

If you have a toxic family member, then how can you deal with them? Here are some options.

Make Boundaries

Try setting up boundaries when it comes to communicating with your family. For example, if they always bring up your job and criticize you for it, make it a rule that they can't mention your job. Be assertive when enforcing the boundaries, and don't let them cross or even bend the line. By bending the line, we mean things such as backhanded compliments and passive-aggressive remarks.

Try To Be More Independent


If you're an adult who is still under the thumb of a parent, then you need to try to make yourself more independent. Get a stable job and surround yourself with positive people who can help. If things get rough, you can cut them off without putting yourself in danger.

Remember You Won't Be With Them Forever

If you're a teenager, remind yourself that one day, you can leave your family and be better off without them. In your current position, it seems like things will last forever, but realize that this is just the beginning of your life, and this will pass one day.

Sever Ties if You Must

We tend to avoid severing ties with our family members because our society tells us that our family is an unbreakable bond. While you should try to stick with your family, it's reasonable to cut all ties if they just won't stop being toxic to you and always cross your boundaries despite having clear communication.

Also, remember that you don't have to cut ties forever. Sometimes, you two may just need a break from each other, and you may be able to repair the relationship down the road.

Is It An Untreated Mental Illness?

Sometimes, the toxic behavior someone possesses is just their natural personality, and it's hard to change how they feel. Other times, however, their behavior may be caused by untreated mental illness. There are mental disorders that can make someone controlling, moody, or exhibit other negative behaviors.

This isn't to excuse their actions, but instead give a possible cause. If a mental disorder causes the problem, it can be treatable, and it can make your family less toxic. The challenge is that a toxic family member with mental illness may refuse treatment, and you can't force them to make the change. Sometimes, they must solve their problems by themselves.


Seek Help!

If you're dealing with a toxic family member, it can be hard to reach them. People have mental barriers, and sometimes, they may find it difficult to see what they're doing wrong. In some cases, speaking to a family therapist can help your family member realize what they're doing wrong.

A therapist knows how the human mind works, and they can get past the barriers that make the person refuse to listen. You may be able to save the relationship and make the family member less toxic. If they are willing to seek therapy, take them to a session.

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