All of us are familiar to one degree or another with toxic families. We either have that one friend that we hear horror stories from or, we ourselves could be part of a toxic family. But, what do we do if we are in a gray area and not sure if we have a toxic family or not? Read on to find out how you can tell if you have toxic family members, and what you can do about it, to empower yourself and get out a bad situation.
What Is A Toxic Family Member?
It’s perfectly normal to have occasional arguments between family members. After all, we’re only human. No matter how much we love someone, we are not going to agree and get along with our family 100% of the time. In a healthy family relationship, they handle conflict and differences with respect, trust, and open-mindedness. You are allowed and encouraged to have your own opinion, speak up, and to live your own life.
A toxic or dysfunctional family is the exact opposite. In a toxic family relationship, it is riddled with toxic patterns of abuse, manipulation, discrimination, emotional or verbal abuse, etc.. Often, family members will enable another’s toxic behavior, narcissism, or psychopath behavior. No matter what type of dysfunctional family dynamic you have experienced, it can often lead to family members having a challenging time trusting others, low self-esteem, or building a healthy relationship of their own. In some cases, it can lead to anxiety, depression, or another form of mental illness.
If a family gathering or phone calls with your family members consistently give you more anxiety and stress than excitement, or if you dread every interaction with them since it is just filled with family drama, then it is more than likely you have some form of a toxic family relationship.
How Do You Know If A Family Member Is Toxic?
A dysfunctional family is always a heartbreaking situation. It means that those that should be closest to us and our biggest supporters and source of love, instead, are our most significant source of pain and anxiety, as they actively try to pull us down. Here are some signs that you have a toxic family or toxic family members.
Emotional Neglect: When one or more of the family members display toxic behavior, they often get most, if not all, of the attention. This leads to the victims, usually the children, feeling “emotionally starved.” All of the family revolves around appeasing the wants, desires, and drama of the toxic parent. The child is then left with scraps of love and attention, and are only seen in ways that they can be used or manipulated. Emotional neglect can lead to insecure attachments, clinginess, lack of healthy boundaries, and dependency, craving whatever attention they can get, all the way into adulthood. Other times, the person affected by the toxic relatives will go to the opposite extreme of aloofness and emotional avoidance and try their hardest never to get attached to anyone.
Controlling: Everyone wants what is best for their loved ones. Sometimes we can feel that they don’t know what is best for them, so we meddle, to try and help them. Control becomes unhealthy and unstable when it is relentless and done for selfish reasons. Lies, money, or emotional blackmail are used as tools of manipulation for the toxic person to get what they want. They will often use the phrase, “it’s for your own good,” or, “you’ll thank me later when you’re older.” Parents will typically try to control every aspect of their child’s life, in an attempt to live their unfulfilled life and hopes and dreams through their child.
Chronic Conflict: One common sign of a toxic family dynamic is constant fighting between family members or a parent with the other. It’s normal for there to be occasional bickering in a family. However, it is when the fighting never ends, and wounds and resentment are continually festering, instead of resolving issues, that it becomes toxic. The causes of conflict are different in every family. Usually, however, they are a result of a corrupt parenting style, and abusive, controlling, or neglectful parents. When children grow up in this kind of hate-filled environment, they usually blame themselves for their parents’ fights. The children can develop anti-social behavior and emotional problems like depression or other mental health issues since they feel threatened by the constant conflict.
Parentification: This is where the parent-child dynamic is completely reversed. One or both parents are frequently absent, making the child responsible and in charge of caring for other family members daily, just as if they were an adult. Did you ever feel like you’d been forced to “grow up” too soon? Were you given heavy responsibilities while you were only a child, that did not seem age-appropriate? We’re not talking about being given chores or told to clean up after yourself. Parentification is when the parent is absent due to psychological problems or substance abuse, and the child is required to take on the role of an adult and perform daily functions, like cooking, feeding younger children and taking care of them, cleaning, and sometimes even being responsible for remembering to pay the bills. Because children in this toxic situation sacrifice their own developmental needs and pursuits to take care of their family, this leads to poor identity development, unassertiveness, and the inability to develop healthy familial relationships in the future, since they always feel the need to fulfill the “caretaker” role and regularly neglect personal self-care.
Dominance: One family member, usually a parent, or even an older sibling, will rule everything. They have no consideration for anyone else’s feelings or opinions. Whatever they say is the law, and it is “their way or the highway.” The domineering, authoritative figure makes the other family members feel powerless and without a voice. This tends to lead to the victims growing up with low self-esteem, and frequently questioning themselves and their opinions.
Violence: This is the most obvious sign of a toxic family. Violence is not just physical abuse, though. It can also mean verbal or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, psychological, spiritual, economic, or even legal abuse. If you’ve grown up around domestic violence from a toxic relative, even if you were not directly physically abused, that still counts as violence, and you can suffer the psychological effects of an abuse victim.
Exploit: Do you ever feel that your sole purpose in life is to care for a parent or sibling? That they will only show you affection or value you if you serve their financial or emotional needs? This sign of a toxic relationship may not be as in your face as physical or verbal abuse, but it is is still a form of manipulation. A healthy adult should be able to care for their own needs without needing someone else to provide for them continually. It is not your responsibility to care for their every need and want. A healthy person should never exploit you emotionally or financially. A family should be there for you, yes, but only as a support system. They shouldn’t demand your every waking moment and pull you away from your other responsibilities in life or your own family. Helping a sibling or parent emotionally or financially should never be a constant source of obligation and condition of receiving their love.
Discipline Vs. Punishment: Discipline is very different from punishment. Discipline is a necessary aspect of parenting, so your child can learn to follow the rules. It is proactive and a way of instilling morality. We’ve all been told to stay in our rooms, been grounded, or had a privilege taken away because we did something wrong. On the other hand, toxic punishment happens when there is no lesson to be taught. You are punished just for the fun of it or punished more heavily than the rule-breaking requires. This is a form of cruel control. Even as an adult, it can still happen. If a family member refuses to talk to you when you did or said something they don’t like, this is toxic punishment.
Harsh Judgment And Criticism: Family gatherings can be something we all sometimes dread due to the persistent questions of, “when are you getting married?” “you still have the same job?” “are you doing something with your life?” “when are you going to give us grandkids?”. It’s normal for families to be a little critical and nosey because they only want what they think is best for you. A toxic family takes this to an entirely new level. With them, you will never get anything right. Even when you are successful, they will still always find a way of pulling you down. They belittle your achievements, make you feel unsuccessful and incompetent, and continually hold you up against others for comparison. As a result, you develop a harsh inner critic and self-doubt. You feel like you will never be good enough or measure up to their unrealistic expectations of you. You can feel like a constant failure, and nothing you do will ever be right or good enough.
How Can I Deal With Toxic Family Members?
As you can see, there are many different forms of a toxic family. If any of these situations sound familiar, chances are you have some kind of a toxic family or toxic family members. So, what can you do if you find yourself in this challenging situation?
The highest priority should be your mental health and peace of mind. While your family is important, you matter most. One of the most crucial things to remember is you survived. Regardless of their toxic behavior, you are here today and have the chance to move forward and begin to heal. If you have a toxic or dysfunctional family, seeing a therapist can be very beneficial to work through issues and see what your options can be to move forward, heal, and live a happy and balanced life.
Set Boundaries: Clearcut boundaries are essential if you choose to maintain a relationship with your toxic family members. Boundaries are a way that you can protect yourself and avoid slipping back into unhealthy patterns. It will require you to be bold and assertive. Sometimes your family won’t see the importance of establishing boundaries and will call you selfish for doing so. However, it is not your responsibility to cater to them. Your most important goal should be keeping yourself healthy. Setting good boundaries can take the form of limiting contact or conversation topics. You know best what will set you back and cause you to slip back into your family’s toxic behaviors. Stand firm, and don’t let them bully you and change your mind on the boundaries you’ve set.
Closure: Some people just need another chance at being better. But, everyone has to be willing to try; it can’t just be you beating your head against a wall, trying to get your family member to listen and change. If you’ve already tried everything you can, and if it is better for your mental health and ability to grow and form healthy relationships of your own to have them out of your life, then it may be best to cut ties and let them go. Unfortunately, not all of us can get closure from an abusive relationship. Being denied closure can be one of the worst things. However, by them denying you closure, they still have power and control over you. You take that power away from them when you walk away. You don’t need them or their explanations to move on and have a happy and fulfilling life. Sometimes you just need to let go of what you can’t change and don’t try to fix everything. It is easier said than done, but in some cases, you may not get closure or find the root cause of their toxic behavior. Rest assured, though; it’s not because of you.
Sever Ties: You get to choose your friends and ensure that you are surrounded by healthy relationships so that you can be a happy and healthy individual. While you can’t choose your family members, you can choose who you spend your time with. There is a certain level of heaviness that you carry when you are trying to maintain a failing and toxic relationship with a loved one. The stress, worry, anger, guilt, negativity, depression, fear, doubt, or inner conflict can leak into all aspects of your life, negatively affecting your work, friend, or home life. The most significant kindness you can do for yourself is to let the toxic relationship and family member go. In some cases, if the toxic person is unwilling to listen or change, you should sever ties and all contact. This will allow you to finally heal and have a chance at a happy and healthy life. It may bring you pain and guilt to cut off all contact with someone you love, even if they are toxic, but in the end, it is for the best and essential for you to grow and find joy in life. Remember, you and your mental health are most important, and people that actively try to bring you down, control, manipulate, or abuse you, have no business being in your life. You deserve so much more than that.