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

By Darby Faubion|Updated June 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

"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 members." - Dr. Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPCC

Overwhelmed By Toxic Family Dynamics?
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There are many people you can choose from 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 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 has its 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' 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:

  • 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 devices without your knowledge
  • A controlling adult may try to tell 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. 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 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.

Don't Confuse Punishment For 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 family member. At times, the punishment may be excessive for the type of behavior that needs 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 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 engaging in the toxic behavior will 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 member seems as if he can never be satisfied. No matter what accomplishments other family members 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. On the other hand, the toxic family member 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 feel 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.

Overwhelmed By Toxic Family Dynamics?

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. 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 they feel about the family dynamics and what they feel could make things better. This should be done without the interruption or criticism of other family members.
  • 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, he should be given the option to do the task himself 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 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. 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.

  • Don't be afraid to be independent. One of the most toxic behaviors an adult child can do is expect adult 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 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.
  • Know when severing ties is 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 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 must 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 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. 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 unit members 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 that 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. It can be particularly difficult if you have toxic parents because it's harder to distance from them than 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
  • Stonewalling
  • Belittling you or your accomplishments
  • Gaslighting
  • Invalidating your experiences and feelings
  • Angry outbursts or anger management issues
  • Destruction of household or personal items
  • Blackmailing
  • Controlling behavior
  • The crossing of personal boundaries

Criticism

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. 

If you have experienced any form of abuse, or believe that you are living in an unsafe environment, then first understand that you are right to find a way out of your predicament and move into a better life. If you would like to refer to anonymous help available 24/7, please consider referring to the National Domestic Hotline website or call at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or TTY 1-800-787-3224. Along with their phone number, the website can grant you access to resources for your situation along with a live chat function if you do not feel comfortable talking over the phone for any reason. 

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 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 number 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 toxic childhood 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 make 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 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 a toxic family; after all, 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.

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"

Conclusion

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 looking for help may be hard, there are resources to help you by referring to ReGain.

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