Toxic Family Dynamics: The Signs And How To Cope With Them
By: Darby Faubion
Updated July 14, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
There are many people you can choose in your life and get rid of if needed. 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 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 whether 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: Many teenagers call their parents controlling. There is, however, a difference in 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 dismiss the concerning thoughts and say the other person is just trying to "do what's best for me." For adults, when your personal decision-making is prohibited by another person, that is controlling behavior. Some ways that people who are toxic try to control others include:
- Trying to persuade you to make decisions about your life that you aren't comfortable with
- Using money or food as a means to have you do what they want
- Installing tracking apps on your personal devices without your knowledge
- A controlling adult may try to tell another what he/she can or cannot wear with regard to clothes, jewelry or make-up.
They Always Blame You: Individuals who engage in toxic behavior rarely see the wrong that they do. They do, nevertheless, find it easy to find fault in others. When toxic relationships occur within a family, one family member may blame the other for their problems, rather than taking responsibility for his/her own 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.
Don't Confuse Punishment For Discipline. Discipline is a means of teaching someone to live by a code of behavior or correction that is used to teach 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 is having a bad day, he/she may take frustrations out on another family member. At times, the punishment may be excessive for the type of behavior that needed to be corrected. Adults in toxic relationships often use the silent treatment as a form of punishment.
They Make Threats. Family members don't have to engage in physical altercations or follow through with a form of punishment for it to be considered toxic behavior. At times, simply threatening another family member can be a form of toxic punishment. The fear that the innocent party feels after being threatened by another family member is very real.
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, the family member who is engaging in the toxic behavior will make threats often and use those threats as a means of control. Even when threats are not carried out, they can have a lasting effect on the person who is threatened.
They Are Always Critical Towards You. A toxic family member seems as if he can never be satisfied. No matter what accomplishments other members of the family achieve or how well adjusted the other areas of life are, the toxic person will always 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, 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 are dismissive of your feelings. A close family will encourage one another. Family members will listen as you express your feelings and will offer support in difficult times. The toxic family member, on the other hand, will show little, if any, concern for your feelings. They often disagree with what you say, even if they know you are right. If the toxic person is the reason you are feeling anxious or depressed, she will likely try to convince you that you are the problem, rather than addressing the situation and trying to resolve it.
Taking sibling rivalry to extremes: Any family that has more than one child is likely to see sibling rivalry in action from time to time. In fact, sibling rivalry can help foster healthy competition and drive to succeed. However, when the behavior becomes extreme or dangerous, the behavior is considered toxic. Some examples of toxic sibling rivalry include:
- Blaming the other sibling every time they get into trouble
- Trying to humiliate the other sibling
- Making competition among siblings personal and vindictive
How to Deal With A Toxic Family Member
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 ways to begin overcoming toxic family dynamics include:
- Each family member should have an opportunity to express how he or she feels about the family dynamics and what they feel could make things better. This should be done without the interruption or criticisms of other family members.
- Set boundaries. After talking with one another about concerns, it's time to set healthy boundariesfor 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, he should be given the option to do the task himself or accept the fact that it is being done by someone else and show appreciation. All family members should have clear instructions about what is expected of them and why. The other family members should express gratitude, not criticism of one another. Be assertive when setting and enforcing boundaries.
- Try to 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. At other times, there may be underlying conditions, such as mental illness, that may cause behavioral disturbances. If you suspect that you or anyone in your family is suffering from any illness that may alter personality, it's important to consult with a primary physician and/or mental health professional to determine if there is any need for medical intervention.
It's important to note if a medical or mental health disorder is the underlying cause, there are treatment options available. Help and support during times of recovery can help strengthen the family bond and resolve the toxic family dynamic. .
- Don't be afraid to be independent.One of the most toxic behaviors an adult child can do is to expect adults parents to support her. 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 her. Set expectations of what your adult child's rights and responsibilities are 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.
- Know when severing ties is necessary.While no one wants to think about cutting communication with a loved one, when emotional and/or 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 will 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 need to be made.
- Seek Help.Dealing with toxic family dynamics can be difficult. 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 who is 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 who is experienced in handling tough family situations can help you learn effective ways to communicate and how to 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 home. Read below for some reviews of ReGain counselors, from people experiencing similar toxic family issues.
What’s the definition of a toxic family?
Toxic families can be painful to handle. If you’re a member of that kind of unit, you may struggle to express your voice. You might feel like your family doesn’t care about you. Before getting into the emotions in a toxic family, it’s essential to define what it is. The word “toxic” means poisonous or deadly. A toxic family is one where the members of the unit are treating one another in a destructive or harmful way. If you have a toxic family member, you are not alone. Family members are notorious for pushing your buttons, but a toxic family member is slightly different. A toxic family member can refer her to various things, but the constant tends to be that toxic family members put you in a negative mindset of some kind. Toxic families or toxic family members may make you feel bad about yourself, your accomplishments, or your life overall. They may do this covertly or overtly, but after you spend time with a toxic family member, you are most likely to feel more down on yourself than you did before seeing them. You’re more likely to feel as though a black cloud is following you based on their specific comments or actions toward you or relating to you. You could have toxic parents, toxic siblings, or toxic family members of some other relation. If you have toxic parents, it can be particularly difficult, because it’s harder to distance from them then it may be to distance from other family members. So, what can you do about your relationship with a toxic family member? How do you know if you have a toxic family member in the first place?
What are some signs that my family has an unhealthy family dynamic?
- Some signs of a toxic family dynamic are:
- Name-calling and other forms of bullying
- Belittling you or your accomplishments
- Invalidating your experiences and feelings
- Angry outbursts, or anger management issues
- Destruction of household or personal items
- Controlling behavior
- The crossing of personal boundaries
These are a few of the red flags that your family is toxic. However, they aren’t the only ones. There are many signs your family is toxic. Note that every situation is unique and that every relationship with a toxic family member will look different. For some, you may experience bullying. For others, you may have undergone emotional neglect as a child or encountered things that you shouldn’t have seen, such as physical violence. The bottom line is that if you feel awful about yourself around a particular family member based on their behaviors or speech, it is worth looking into the possibility that they may be toxic.
How do I heal from a toxic family dynamic as an adult?
You may be concerned that the wounds of your toxic family will be permanent. Therapy is a place where you can work through that pain and evolve from it. Your trauma is valid, but you don’t have to let it fester. You can confront it in a safe space with a counselor, therapist, or family therapist, such as an LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor). Growing up in a toxic environment or with a toxic family member can have long-lasting effects on you, your self-perception, and your self-esteem. The best thing to do as an adult is to be mindful of your needs and work to honor them. Family get-togethers may be difficult and triggering if you grew up with a toxic family member or toxic parents, so one example of honoring your own needs might be limiting the amount of get-togethers you go to or setting boundaries when you go to those get-togethers. Going to therapy is one way to heal from a childhood toxic family dynamic as an adult.
It’s crucial to understand that you’re in control of your own life now that you are an adult and that you can make your own decisions outside of your family. Surround yourself with supportive individuals and build a support system of friends and other chosen individuals that you feel good around. Make an effort to do the things in life that make you happy, and that makes you feel successful. Don’t feel obligated to spend time around people that make you feel bad about yourself, and know that you can step away from a conversation whenever you need to, or whenever your boundaries are not being respected. You may limit the amount of time that you spend with people, or you might cut ties with family members entirely if necessary. It may sound harsh if you have a toxic family or toxic family member; after all, so many of us grew up believing that blood relation means an obligation. However, it would be best if you protect yourself. You can use your discretion and value system to determine how you handle this situation. The most important thing is that you feel safe, physically, and emotionally.
Can having a toxic family life harm my romantic relationships?
The lasting psychological effects of this upbringing might impact your romantic relationships if you grew up around a toxic family member or any toxic environment. Toxic family members can affect your self-esteem and the way that you function in the world. You may have insecurities or wounds surrounding attachment that impact your mental health and interpersonal relationships, or you may find yourself repeating behaviors from toxic family members yourself. However, it is possible to heal and break the cycle. Working through the wounds from your toxic family member or toxic family environment will benefit your relationships for the rest of your life.
"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 in order to help resolve our relationship. He worked with us about once a week at the start then going more to once every ten days in the latter part of the counseling for about six months. We have managed to resolve 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 is 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. While learning where to start or where to look for help may be hard, there are resources to help you begin a journey toward healing and happiness.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Who is Sherrie Campbell?
Sherrie Campbell is a clinical psychologist and the author of various books designed to help people. One book fits well with this article, and that book is But It's Your Family…: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath. The book is an account on learning to separate yourself from abusive family members and thriving afterward. This book helped many learn to cut from their toxic family, and move forward with their lives.
How Do I Set Boundaries With a Toxic Family Member?
Setting boundaries with a toxic family member, or another person, can help you keep your sanity, but how can you do it?
Be firm. Don't try to beat around the bush. Tell your family member you need to talk to them, then set the boundaries. Emphasize that these boundaries are not meant to be crossed, and then make sure your toxic family member doesn't try crossing them.
Keep repeating the boundaries, should your toxic family member try to cross them. If they bring their own boundaries, follow them as well, as long as they don't contradict your own. Some family members may make it so you can't set any boundaries.
Is the Silent Treatment Toxic?
A toxic family member may punish you by giving you the silent treatment, where they ignore you as a punishment. To them, they want you to beg for their forgiveness. This is an immature way of handling a relationship, and is something you don't want to do under any circumstances. If a family member is giving you this, don't entertain it.
When Should I Cut Ties With a Toxic Family Member?
Many of us have family members who have their problems, but we love them regardless. However, there's a limit. At some point, it may be worth it to cut ties with that family member if you want to preserve your mental health.
Here are some signs that it may be time for you to cut the ties.
- Your family member only talks to you when they have something negative to say. They never praise you or want to talk about anything else besides the negative.
- The family member is abusive, be it verbally, physically, or emotionally.
- This family member only uses you for money or another service, and doesn't put in any effort for you.
- You've tried everything, including seeking the help of a professional, and no progress has been made.
What Is a Toxic Family?
A toxic family is one where your family members don’t respect your boundaries. Toxic family members create an unhealthy family situation. Toxic family members also build stressful interpersonal relationships and cause mental and emotional distress.
How Do You Know If Your Family Is Toxic?
You may have been raised in a toxic family environment, but not have known it at the time. It’s normal to think that your familial relationships are like everyone else’s, but when you get older, you might see that you had to deal with a toxic family. The emotional abuse you suffered by growing up with toxic family members may have included:
- Physical and emotional trauma
- Sexual abuse
- Mental and emotional abuse
- Physical violence
- Toxic patterns of love then hurtful interactions
- Family toxicity
- Family members that don’t respect your boundaries
- Long term interactions with a dysfunctional family
- Get a phone call or phone calls that are emotionally charged
- Dreadful holiday gatherings
If toxic family members raised you, don’t feel that you are alone. There are ways that you can deal with toxic family, including measures that cut off contact with them.
How Do You Handle a Toxic Family?
It can be hard to deal with toxic family members. However, you need to feel safe in life, and it’s normal to feel insecure when you are around your dysfunctional family.
There are several ways that you can deal with a toxic family. They include:
- Limited the number of long term interactions you have with your toxic family members
- Don’t feel that you have to go to holiday gatherings is the family environment won’t feel safe
- Look for ways to change the subject if a topic comes up that will upset toxic family members
- Put a long distance between where you live and where your toxic family members live
- Limit interpersonal relationships with toxic family
- Look for ways to change the energy when you are with toxic family members
Is it Okay to Cut Toxic Family?
It is absolutely okay to cut toxic family members out of your life. If you experience mental and emotional fatigue just being around your family, limit or cut off contact with them. If there is a history of physical violence in your family, and you don’t want your children subjected to that, look for ways to keep your distance. Don’t feel bad for cutting off contact with your toxic family members; they are the ones who created the family situation and emotional abuse.
Can Family Be Toxic?
Yes, family can be toxic and cause a toxic relationship. Living with toxic family can also hardship within your family situation.
Toxic family can cause mental and emotional problems, emotional abuse, physical violence, long term hardship, and many other sad situations.
It’s normal not to want to acknowledge that your family toxicity is hurting you, but when your family members don’t respect your boundaries and continue to cause your harm, you can only change the subject for so long before you realize that your family is indeed toxic.
What is Toxic Parenting?
Toxic parenting is when you cause emotional abuse or challenging interpersonal relationships with your children.
A toxic parent may not realize that they are causing emotional abuse or long term psychological damage. They also don’t feel as though they are doing another wrong. In fact, a toxic parent may find ways to change the situation so that you are allegedly causing them physical distress and emotional abuse.
How Do You Tell If Someone Is Toxic?
It can be challenging to determine if someone is toxic at first, but over time you may start to realize that someone is unstable. They may act out of sorts, befriend you, then suddenly push you away, tell related stories of harmful activity against them, but then you witness them partaking in the same behaviors and many other patterns of unhealthy and toxic habits.
If you realize that you are in a toxic relationship with someone, the best thing you can do for yourself is cut off ties as soon as possible. You may think that you can change the person or that they have never been given a fair chance, but the truth is that they have a mental disorder and will eventually find a way to hurt you. Interestingly enough, they will play the victim and accuse you of hurting them, thereby perpetuating the problems.
What Are Toxic Traits?
Toxic traits include:
- Telling a lot of stories
- Repeating stories with subtle differences each time you hear them
- Attention seeking behaviors
- Emotional instability
- Being a victim of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as a child
- Refusing to get help; there is nothing wrong with them, the world is wrong
- Failure to respect your boundaries but get angry when you try to cross theirs
- While this is a shortlist of toxic traits, most if not all of these can be found in toxic individuals.
Is It OK to Walk Away From Family?
Yes, it is ok to walk away from family, especially if they are causing you mental instability. Toxic family members can be cut out of your life if they refuse to change or get help. The majority of toxic families have an undiagnosed mental health condition, and they do not want to admit they need help. Instead, they blame everyone else for their issues and often think that the world is against them.
What Is a Toxic Sibling?
A toxic sibling is someone who you are related to, but that causes constant drama within your family unit. They may be selfish, say hurtful things, and wreak havoc wherever they go. If you have a toxic sibling, sometimes the only way to manage it is to cut off ties. While this can cause issues with your parents, you only need to worry about yourself and your immediate family.
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