The word “family” can bring to mind an array of complex emotions. Depending on your childhood and current family situation, these feelings could be mostly positive, mostly negative, or an equal mix of both.
If you’ve experienced a toxic family dynamic, your feelings may go beyond frustration or annoyance. Instead, interacting with or even thinking about your family might cause significant emotional distress.
Toxic or dysfunctional family dynamics can be hard to recognize, especially when you’re still entrenched in them. Here’s a look at some common signs and what to do if you recognize them in your own family.
Many people don’t realize the effects of their family environment during childhood until they’re well into adulthood.
The following signs suggest that you may have experienced a toxic family environment growing up.
You were expected to meet unrealistic standards
Family members take on different roles from time to time in order to help each other out. Maybe it was your job to clear the plates from the table after Sunday dinners. Or maybe you occasionally helped out with watching younger siblings. These are all normal.
But these tasks shouldn’t have kept you from completing school assignments, playing, or getting adequate sleep.
If you were raised in a toxic family, you may have been asked to:
- parent or discipline younger siblings or provide most of their care
- take on responsibilities like cooking meals or doing certain heavy chores before you could safely or capably do so
- provide emotional support as if you were a partner or other adult
You were harshly criticized
Most parents reprimand or criticize their children’s behavior sometimes. But these remarks should be constructive and focus on the behavior, not on the child. They should never make you feel inferior, unwanted, or unloved.
Your needs weren’t met
Nobody’s perfect. Maybe your parents weren’t great about picking you up from school on time, leaving you to wait. Or maybe they forgot to pay the electric bill once and the power went out for 2 days.
But supportive family members should support your basic needs by:
- setting boundaries
- providing discipline and affection
- taking care of your health and well-being
- making sure you received education
- ensuring you had food to eat and clean clothes to wear
While there could be other factors involved, regularly going without any of the above can strongly suggest a toxic or unhealthy family dynamic.
The other end of the spectrum
Parents who were highly involved in your life and didn’t allow room for growth may have also failed to meet your basic needs by preventing this development.
Personal space, both physical and emotional, helps children develop. Eventually, you need independence and the chance to form a sense of self.
If you suspect you’re currently dealing with family toxicity, start by thinking about the way you feel after interacting with certain family members.
Katherine Fabrizio, MA, LPC, specializes in working with daughters of toxic mothers. She offers this general rule of thumb:
“If you end up feeling bad about yourself after most encounters with a family member, there’s probably a good reason for that, one worth looking into.”
Here are some more specific things to look for. Keep in mind that you may also recognize these from your childhood as well.
You feel controlled
Toxic family members might try to control major aspects of your life, including your relationships and career decisions. They might imply (or say outright) that aligning with their expectations is a condition of their continued love and support.
You don’t feel love, compassion, or respect
It’s normal for family members to have occasional disagreements. But at the end of the day, you should still treat each other with love and kindness.
In a toxic family dynamic, you might feel contempt or disdain instead of love.
A toxic family member might:
- mock or belittle your choices
- attack your vulnerable points
- chip away at your self-esteem
Your family may not agree with everything you say or do, but they should still offer love and respect as you find your own path.
There’s substance use involved
A family member who sometimes uses, or even misuses, drugs or alcohol isn’t necessarily toxic. But substance addictions and compulsive behaviors can sometimes lead to harmful and unhealthy dynamics in familial relationships.
These signs can suggest toxicity:
- substance use that negatively affects mood or behavior
- emotional abuse or physical violence as a result of intoxication
- substance use that’s hidden from outsiders and never discussed
A pattern of enabling addiction or substance misuse can also contribute to a toxic dynamic.
You experience verbal, physical, or emotional abuse
Any type of abuse is toxic — it doesn’t just apply to physical violence.
Abuse also includes:
- inappropriate touching
- sexual gestures or innuendo
- sexual comments about your body
- physical violence
- sexual abuse
- harsh or extreme criticism
Sometimes, abuse isn’t easy to recognize.
For example, you and a sibling might both toss out some pretty nasty names during an argument. Or maybe you end up throwing clothes at each other across your room. But you make up and apologize once you each express your feelings.
If this type of behavior happens repeatedly and there’s never any resolution, it might be a toxic relationship.
Dysfunction is chronic or persistent
Very few families get along perfectly all the time. Disagreements, sibling rivalries, tense relationships, or miscommunications are common, especially during periods of stress or change.
For example, a family member could temporarily behave in toxic or unhealthy ways because of problems outside the family dynamic, such as:
- challenges at work or school
- trouble with friendships or other relationships
- health concerns or emotional distress
- financial difficulties
These behavioral patterns should be temporary. The person responsible may apologize, express regret, and work to change their behavior once they become aware of it.
True toxicity typically doesn’t change or improve easily. At least, not without professional support.
There’s no right or wrong way to deal with toxic family members.
Some people choose to cut off contact entirely. Others try to work with the situation by limiting contact with toxic family members and taking steps to protect their emotional well-being when they do see their family.
If you have a toxic background, or if your current family situation has toxic elements, these tips can help you navigate meetings and cope with any challenging or difficult moments that come up.
Decide what you want
Identifying what you want from the relationship can help you develop a clearer idea of the boundaries you want to set.
Say you like spending casual time with your sister on weekends, but not when she asks about your love life. You know she’ll share those details with your mother, who will then call to criticize and tease you.
You still want to maintain a relationship with your sister, so one solution might be limiting your visits with your sister to once a month and telling her ahead of time that you won’t discuss dating.
Having limits around interaction can empower you and help you feel better about the contact you choose to maintain. But once you set those limits for yourself, try not to cross them. Wavering can put you back into a difficult or unhealthy situation.
When you do spend time with family members, don’t let them pull you into the family issues you’d prefer to keep separate. You don’t have to get involved in anything you’d rather avoid.
Detachment can involve:
- not participating in messy situations
- avoiding topics that bring up strong emotions
- keeping conversation light and casual
- ending the conversation or leaving if necessary
make a plan
If you’re trying to stay clear of toxicity, try getting in the habit of:
- deciding beforehand what topics you want to avoid
- brainstorming ways to change the subject
- answering a provoking or prying question with another question
- letting family members know you don’t want to discuss certain topics
These can be difficult at first, but with some practice, they’ll start to feel more natural.
Decide what you’ll share and what you’ll keep private
You don’t need to share everything with your family. You might find it helpful to keep significant details private from toxic family members who have a history of using them to criticize, mock, or manipulate you.
“Many toxic family members are experts at putting you on the defensive by getting you to reveal yourself without reciprocating. But you don’t have to explain yourself or give anyone access to your innermost thoughts,” Fabrizio says.
Before seeing your family, consider reminding yourself of what you’d prefer not to share. If possible, come up with one or two ways to change the subject if needed.
That said, it’s always OK to simply say, “I’d rather not talk about my health/dietary choices/parenting skills/love life,” and end the conversation.
Learn when to say no
Setting boundaries for yourself and saying no to things that might compromise those boundaries can help you navigate difficult or toxic relationship patterns more easily.
It’s not always easy to say no to family members. Fabrizio adds, “If you reject any family member’s behavior (no matter how outrageous), you take the risk they may reject you.”
If you know a situation will make you feel unhappy, distressed, or uncomfortable, saying “no” might be your best option. You can explain your reasoning if you want to, but don’t feel like you have to.
A toxic family member may try to persuade or manipulate you into changing your mind. Have confidence in your decision and know you’re doing the right thing for yourself. Family members who love and support you should also recognize and support that need.
Don’t try to change anyone
When dealing with toxic family members, it’s not uncommon to hold out hope that they’ll change. You might fantasize about the day they finally realize how they’ve hurt you and get to work on changing their behavior.
Sure, people can and do change, but it’s beyond your control. Beyond telling them how you feel, asking them to consider your perspective, and encouraging them to talk to a therapist or other professional, there’s not much you can do.
The only person you can change is you. This might involve addressing negative feelings they cause, practicing self-compassion, or learning how to say no.
Plan meetings that work for you
Giving yourself power in any interactions you have can make a big difference.
Fabrizio suggests the following:
- Decide where and when to meet. Meeting for lunch in a public place can help you sidestep a host of potential problems.
- Consider taking alcohol off the table. Alcohol can increase tensions in already charged situations, so avoiding alcohol and gatherings that involve alcohol may help decrease the chance of a difficult or distressing interaction.
- Be clear about your availability. For example, you might say, “I’ve got an hour for lunch today.”
- Take care of your own transportation. This way, you have a way to leave when you need to.
Setting up meetings on your own terms helps you take some power back and feel safer during the interaction.
Talk to someone
Whether you’re currently entangled in a toxic family situation or working to overcome the effects of a difficult childhood, sharing your feelings with someone can be a big help.
This is particularly useful for maintaining a grasp on reality if toxic family members or upsetting interactions make you doubt yourself.
Working with a mental health professional is ideal, but opening up to a partner or friend can also help. You don’t have to share every detail. Sometimes even giving a general picture of the situation can help you express some of your frustrations and distress.
Sometimes, cutting off contact is the best move, even if the other person doesn’t intend to cause you harm. If the relationship does you more harm than good, it’s an option worth considering.
Deciding to cut off contact with your family, no matter how much hurt they’ve caused, can be extremely difficult. These tips are designed to help guide your thought process and next steps.
They don’t respect your boundaries or limits
If you aren’t sure cutting off contact is the right decision, Fabrizio suggests first stating your needs and giving your family members a chance to show they can respect the boundaries you’ve expressed.
If they still can’t do this after a few tries, things likely won’t change anytime soon. Cutting off contact might be the healthiest move in that case.
They physically or verbally abuse you
It’s generally safest to distance yourself from family members who cause you physical harm. If you have to see them, try to always meet them in public or have someone with you.
Verbal abuse can be more difficult to recognize, but some examples include:
- body shaming
- rudeness or contempt
- criticism of your life choices
- hate speech, prejudice, or slurs
They consistently lie to you or manipulate you
Family members who lie as often as they tell the truth can make you feel unsettled and confused. You might have a hard time trusting anyone, family or otherwise.
If you point out this behavior and it continues, cutting off contact may be the only way to distance yourself from it.
Talking to them or seeing them causes emotional distress
When you don’t feel good about seeing your family, or when any contact inspires only negative emotions, it could be time to consider whether taking a break might help improve the situation.
If you have thoughts like Why am I putting myself through this? or Do I have to see them? remember that you don’t have to see them or put yourself through anything you don’t want to deal with.
Cutting off contact doesn’t have to be a permanent decision, either. You may just need some time away from the situation.
“Above all,” Fabrizio concludes, “remember you have choices when relating to someone toxic.”
Whether you just need some temporary distance or an indefinite break from toxic family members, it helps to make a plan ahead of time.
Choose your method
Do you feel safe and comfortable telling them face to face? If not, there’s nothing wrong with making a phone call or sending an email. Remember, you have choices.
If the person has a history of being physically violent, avoid an in-person meeting. You might even consider reaching out for legal support. A restraining or protective order might be needed to guarantee your safety.
Do some preparation
Consider coming up with a few main points you want to bring up, keeping things simple and to the point.
If you’ve set boundaries or limits and they’ve failed to respect those, you could mention that as a key reason behind your decision.
You could let them know you don’t feel safe, heard, or respected within the relationship. You can even just say that the relationship doesn’t support your health or meet your needs.
Explain what’s happening
Let them know you won’t be contacting them or taking calls, responding to messages, and so on.
You can ask them to refrain from contacting you, but just be aware they may do so anyway. Blocking phone numbers and social media profiles can help prevent this.
Prepare for their reaction…
Be prepared for their reaction. If you know how they react in specific situations, you might have a good idea of what their response will be.
Involving a support person, such as a romantic partner or trusted friend, can help you stay strong against any guilt-tripping, shaming, or name-calling.
… and your own
After breaking off contact with a toxic family member, you might just feel waves or relief. It’s also not unusual to feel sadness, guilt, or grief. Have some time carved out afterward to practice some self-care, whether that’s spending time with a close friend or going for a big hike.
Growing up in an unhealthy or toxic family can contribute to a number of emotional, interpersonal, and mental health challenges that benefit from treatment.
For example, being controlled or manipulated could affect your ability to make your own decisions. You might feel fearful or anxious when you do make a decision.
You might also experience feelings of anxiety or depression. “Unpredictable or hostile relationships can cause anxiety, while relationships that involve stuffing your resentment can cause depression,” Fabrizio says.
Other long-term effects of family toxicity can include:
- feelings of isolation or loneliness
- low sense of self-worth or self-esteem
- patterns of troubled or dysfunctional relationships
- chronic feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness
- attachment issues
- posttraumatic stress
- parenting issues
Working with a trained mental health professional can help you begin to identify ways toxicity affects your relationships and well-being. Once you recognize these issues, you can begin taking steps to recover from them.
Toxic family dynamics can be hard to recognize. Any behavior or scenario that makes you feel unloved, unwanted, or even just bad about yourself is most likely not a healthy one.
All families struggle from time to time, but members still feel loved, supported, and respected. A toxic or dysfunctional family dynamic, on the other hand, can feel unstable, tense, and charged, and toxic family members can cause a great deal of harm.
If you’ve recognized toxic patterns in your family, consider reaching out to a therapist who can help you explore the effects of toxicity and offer guidance as you consider how to manage the situation.