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

Updated April 11, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

"TV and movies love to show us what a perfect family should look like, but what if our family doesn't resemble what is on TV? What if our family dynamic is toxic? One way to cope with a toxic family is to learn boundaries and how to use them. If you don't know much about boundaries or are not the best at enforcing them, talking with a counselor can help you. Boundaries can be hard to put in place when you are not used to using them, so don't feel bad if you haven't been successful with creating and keeping them. After talking with a counselor, you will be more confident and prepared to use and enforce them with toxic family" - Dr. Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPCC

You are not bound to a toxic family dynamic

In most situations, we have control over whom we let into our life and whom we keep out. You can pick your friends, and if there's a problem, you can always choose to part ways. However, you can't pick your family, and if you’re a minor, it may be difficult to leave a toxic family situation if they’re your only source of meeting your basic needs. Sometimes, your family can have qualities you don't like, and it can be hard to live with or relate to them. Other times, you're unsure whether you live in a toxic family situation or not.

Every family goes through its own set of challenges. People have bad days, or there may be bumps in the road, such as financial difficulties. It doesn't really matter if you're in a traditional or non-traditional family - problems are inevitable. If you're a teenager, it can be hard to tell the difference between parenting and control. Let’s clarify the definition of a toxic family and troubling signs revealing an unhealthy dynamic before elaborating on strategies for maintaining your wellbeing.

It can be very difficult to live with a toxic family. You might feel like your family don’t care about you. The word "toxic" means poisonous or deadly. A toxic family is one where family interactions are “poisonous” in that its are treating one another in a destructive or harmful way. 

What does this mistreatment look like? In some families, toxic behavior is aggressive, carried out in the form of angry outbursts, destruction of household or personal items, and name-calling or other forms of bullying. In other environments, the toxic behavior could be manipulative – your family may frequently invalidate your experiences and feelings, attempt to control or blackmail you, and constantly test your boundaries. In many scenarios, one family is leading the most overt toxic behavior, but other family may justify it, enable it, or intentionally provoke it. These are a few of the red flags that your family dynamic is toxic; however, they aren't the only ones. 

They are controlling

Many teenagers call their parents' behavior controlling. There is, however, a difference between normal parenting and controlling parenting. When behavior becomes forceful or leaves someone in fear, this is controlling. Adults who are being controlled may not realize it in the beginning. In fact, at first, many adults may dismiss the concerning thoughts and say the other person is just trying to "do what's best for me." For adults, when another person prohibits your decision-making, that is controlling behavior. Some ways that toxic people try to control others include:

  • Persuading you to make important life choices with which you don’t feel comfortable
  • Using money or food as a means to have you do what they want
  • Installing tracking apps on your devices without your knowledge
  • Telling another what they can or cannot wear about clothes, jewelry, or make-up.

They always blame you

Individuals who engage in toxic behavior rarely see the wrong that they do or how they hurt others. They do, nevertheless, find it easy to find fault in others. That's one of the dysfunctional family characteristics you should know about. When toxic relationships occur within a family, one may blame the other for their problems rather than take responsibility for their actions that may have contributed to the problem. While there are times that some people don't realize they've made a mistake, if this is something that happens often, the problem needs to be discussed.

They justify punishment as discipline

Discipline is a means of teaching someone to live by a code of behavior or correction that teaches a child right from wrong. When toxic family dynamics occur, one person may be the victim of "toxic punishment." This is a type of discipline or punishment that occurs when no lesson is being taught. Rather, if a parent or spouse has a bad day, they may take frustrations out on another. At times, the punishment may be excessive for the type of behavior that needs to be corrected. Adults in a toxic relationship often use the silent treatment as a form of punishment.

They make threats

Familymembers don't have to engage in physical altercations or follow through with a form of punishment to be considered toxic. It's important to note that everyone feels angry from time to time and may make idle threats. When toxic family dynamics are present, however, people may often make threats and use those threats as a means of control. Even when threats are not carried out, they can have a lasting effect on the threatened person.

They are always critical towards you

A toxic family seems as if they can never be satisfied. No matter what accomplishments other achieve or how well adjusted the other areas of life are, the toxic person will often find a way to criticize and undermine the other person's character. This can be very frustrating and often requires the help of someone outside of the family to address these behaviors and help create a pattern for recovery from the toxic family dynamics. Many times, the parent or other family may be projecting as a defense mechanism. 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 close family encourages one another. They will listen as you express your feelings and will offer support in difficult times. On the other hand, toxic family show little, if any, concern for your feelings. Some may even disagree with what you say, even if they know you are right. If the toxic person is the reason you feel unsettled, anxious, or depressed, they may try to convince you that you are the problem rather than addressing the situation and trying to resolve it.

You are not bound to a toxic family dynamic

They pit siblings against one another

Any family that includes more than one child is likely to see sibling rivalry in action from time to time. Sibling rivalry can help foster healthy competition and a drive to succeed; however, when the behavior becomes extreme or dangerous, it is considered toxic. Some examples of toxic behaviors between siblings include:

  • Blaming the other sibling every time one gets into trouble
  • Trying to humiliate the other sibling
  • Making competition among siblings personal and vindictive

How to live within a toxic family 

Toxic love should not be tolerated. Identifying toxic family dynamics is the first step to gaining control and establishing healthy family practices. The next step is to learn how to implement new ways of communicating and acting toward one another. Some strategies described below mayhelp you start to overcome and/or restructure toxic family dynamics.

Allow each person to voice their concerns

Each should have an opportunity to express how they feel about the family dynamic and what they feel could make things better. Communicate and take time to listen. This should be done without the interruption or criticism of others. It’s even possible to use an object that gets passed around in a circle, wherein the person in possession of the object is the only one allowed to speak, and the other participants are expected to listen actively. When one person is voicing their concerns, the others should orient their bodies toward that person, strive to maintain eye contact, and monitor their body language to ensure that it conveys the same respect and attention they would like to have when they are speaking.

Set boundaries

After talking about concerns, it's time to set healthy boundaries for what behavior is acceptable within the family and what is not. For example, if one spouse is always criticizing the way the other one performs a task, they should be given the option to do the task themselves or accept that it is being done by someone else and show appreciation. Setting boundaries entails acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. Focus on what you can do best. In some instances, you may have to compromise. While compromising won't make everyone happy, it may help you understand everybody's wants, which can be one step toward a healthy family dynamic. All should have clear instructions about what is expected of them and why. A part of this discussion should also include what happens when boundaries are crossed.

Determine the source of toxic behavior

For some, toxic behavior has become a way of life because no one has ever set standards of acceptable behavior within the family. It may help to imagine your family system as a windchime. Normally, when the wind blows, the chimes lightly press up against one another, causing soothing sounds. Within a toxic family, whatever one family does ultimately has an effect on the others. Meaning, if one family is acting in a turbulent manner, it is as if they are a rogue windchime rattling the otherwise tranquil inner worlds of their family. Just as high winds may cause windchimes to get twisted and tangled and cacophonous, so can one destructive family's behavior influence other families to act defensively or aggressively, due to being in a state of fight or flight.

At other times, there may be underlying conditions, such as mental illness, that may cause behavioral disturbances. Suppose you suspect that you or anyone in your family is experiencing symptoms of any physical or mental illnesses that could affect one's behavior. In that case, it's important to consult with a primary physician and mental health professional to determine if there is any need for medical intervention. It's important to note that if a medical or mental health disorder is the underlying cause, treatment options are available. Help and support during recovery times can help strengthen the family bond and resolve the toxic family dynamic.

Strive for independence

One of the most toxic behaviors an adult child can do is expect adult parents to support them. If you are the parent, allowing this to happen is a form of toxic behavior, as you are enabling your adult child to manipulate your time and finances while you care for them. Set expectations of your adult child's rights and responsibilities while living in your home and stick with those rules. If you are an adult child living at home, get a stable job and learn to support yourself. You may come to find that making your own money and keeping your own lifestyle is significantly more empowering than living under someone else’s roof and abiding by the rules that work for them, and not you.

Sever ties when necessary

While no one wants to think about cutting communication with a loved one, when emotional and physical well-being is at risk, it may be a necessary step. If attempts to resolve the toxic behavior have been to no avail, taking some time away from the toxic person may give you the chance to think clearly and decide what course of action is best for you. Sometimes a break from communication and negative interaction is all a family needs to realize that changes must be made.

Seek help

For some, it's hard to set boundaries or cut ties with someone that we love. If you aren't sure how to begin a journey of family healing, seeking the help of a family therapist could be a great way to get support.

It's not uncommon for the person in the family exhibiting toxic behavior to refuse counseling or other intervention. While you cannot force a loved one to see a therapist with you, you can talk to someone for yourself. Having someone experienced in handling tough family situations can help you learn effective ways to communicate and set boundaries and expectations within the family. 

There are several sources for getting counseling help. Some people prefer to see a therapist in person or choose to engage in support groups. When neither of these options feels like a good fit for you, a great alternative is online counseling, such as that offered at Regain. Online counseling provides clients with the opportunity to talk to licensed, experienced counselors, doctors, and social workers in the convenience of their own homes or offices – you just need a safe internet connection. You can also schedule appointments at times that work for your schedule or situation; meaning, if you are concerned that a family will act out when they discover that you are seeking therapeutic guidance, you can reserve a session when they (or you) are away. Alternatively, you can intentionally reserve sessions involving you and another family – this family can be the person with whom you experience challenges or a person whom you rely on support.

Online therapy has shown effectiveness in helping many people resolve conflicts with their families. Recently, researchers conducted a systematic review of 20 studies utilizing telehealth as a means for providing family therapy. Results demonstrated the efficacy of online therapy as a means for helping participants overcome issues like child behavioral problems, parental depression, and other mental health conditions.

If you’re interested in learning more about other people’s experiences with online family therapy, continue reading below for reviews of Regain counselors from people experiencing similar toxic family issues.

Counselor reviews

"I had left my family when I contacted Regain with the hope of salvaging a completely broken down relationship. Bradley was allocated to us. Bradley made one step at a time, said the right things at the right time, and just seemed to get in tune with us to understand what was required to help resolve our relationship. He worked with us about once a week at the start, then went more to once every ten days in the latter part of the counseling for about six months. We have resolved our differences and are looking forward to a prosperous future in a healthy relationship. Bradley has given us the tools required to make sure we can quickly identify and know how to resolve any problems arising in the future. We couldn't recommend him more. Thank you so much, Bradly and Regain!"

"She never makes one side feel like she is teamed up with the other, so her tips and advice are willingly accepted by both parties. Not only has she helped us regain perspective as a unit, but individually as well. <3"


Living with toxic family dynamics can feel overwhelming at times. It's important to know that being in a toxic family is not your fault, and it's not something you should be ashamed of. Know that you are not alone, and that the licensed therapists at Regain are uniquely qualified to assist you in navigating myriad family challenges. Take the first step in defining what healthy family dynamics look like for you and your family by reaching out to a Regain counselor today.

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