7 Signs of a Toxic Family

fighting family

During the past several months of lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing, families across the country and around the world have been separated, unable to see each other, hug each other, and support each other.

In many ways this extremely difficult time has brought families closer together, at least from an emotional standpoint. It has helped many people realize how important their families are to them, which can often be taken for granted amidst our busy lives.

Sadly, not everyone comes from a loving home. Some families can be toxic, manipulative, and abusive to each other, and it can take a serious toll on the mental and emotional health of everyone in the family.

Claire Jack, Ph.D., hypnotherapist, life coach, and researcher, has outlined seven warning signs of a toxic family. If you’re absolutely certain that your family is not toxic, then there’s a good chance you’re right, but if you’re less sure, perhaps some of these qualities will strike a chord with you.

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7 Signs of a Toxic Family

According to Jack, if your family exhibits any of the following traits, it may be a toxic situation:

1. They gossip about you

Keep in mind here there’s a difference between family members talking about other family members, and gossipping. In a healthy, loving family, siblings, children, parents, and other relatives will talk about each other, often in an effort to help one another through difficult things or to praise and uplift them for their accomplishments.

In a toxic family, members will gossip about each other in a way that brings one another down. Jack says that this trait is often at the heart of a toxic family [1].

2. They know your weaknesses and exploit them

When you live with people, you get to know them really well. For this reason, your parents, siblings, and whoever else resides in your home often know what your deepest insecurities are. A healthy family will help you work on those things and lift you up, a toxic family, on the other hand, will do the opposite.

In an unhealthy, unsupportive family environment, family members will use those insecurities against you, picking on your deepest vulnerabilities in order to bring you down and make you feel badly about yourself, or perhaps even to embarrass you in public [1].

3. They try to prevent you from changing

As people get older, their values often change. While this is a normal part of life, a toxic family will not allow you to change, even if it’s for the better. 

In cases like this, family members who want to be openly different from what is “expected” by the rest of the family are often ridiculed or put down, in an effort to prevent them from becoming the person they want to be [1].

4. They fight- a lot

Often the reason a toxic family becomes that way is because of one or both parents. In a healthy family, parents love all of their children equally and show their affection for them without making them feel as though they need to do something to earn that love.

With an unhealthy family, children are often put in situations where they feel as though they need to compete for their parent’s attention or affection. In many cases, one child can be made to feel better or worse than the others, and this can lead to fighting and competition between siblings. This, of course, prevents siblings from developing healthy relationships with one another, which can deprive them of the special bonds siblings are supposed to have [1].

5. Abusive behaviour is accepted or hidden.

In a toxic family, abusive behavior, whether it be emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, is often not identified or dealt with. In many cases, the victim of the abuse is made to feel like it was their fault, or that they deserved it in some way. Sometimes they are told to keep quiet about what happened in order to protect the family’s reputation, effectively allowing the abuser to get away with their actions [1].

6. You don’t have a voice

This goes hand-in-hand with allowing abusive behavior. If you’re saying anything that does not go along with the narrative the family has created for itself, you will not be allowed to vocalize it. When you do, it will be dismissed.

Jack uses the following example:

“Let’s say you were physically abused as a child and your siblings were aware of the abuse. As adults, perhaps it suits them to be close to your parents for practical reasons. When you try and discuss what happened to you as a child, you’re told it “wasn’t that bad” or that you’re making it up.”

These narratives are usually created in order to support the individual needs of different family members, even if it is at the expense of others [1].

7. They are volatile and unpredictable

The toxic family is held together by weak threads. People use each other. They play games and manipulate. You can be someone’s favorite one week and the next week you find out they’ve been saying horrible things behind your back.”

In toxic families, no one can ever relax with the knowledge that anyone in their family will have their back. They are constantly worried about what others are saying about them, and cannot trust anyone to support them. This creates a volatile, toxic family environment that can damage individuals’ mental and emotional well-being [1].

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What to Do if You’re in a Toxic Family

Perhaps your entire family environment is toxic, or maybe it’s just a few select family members who are causing the problem. Either way, there is no one way to deal with toxicity within the family dynamic.

While dealing with emotionally toxic people or families can be a very nuanced, delicate process, at its core you have two main options: cut off contact entirely, or work through it by limiting contact and ensuring you take care of your own emotional well-being when you do have contact with your family members [2].

If you choose to work through the issues, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from harm. First, it is important to decide what you want and what your boundaries will be. That could mean limiting how often you spend time with your family or family member, or making certain topics of discussion off-limits. 

Once you have decided where those boundaries are, it is important not to cross them. You have to remain steadfast with your limits to avoid ending up back in the same unhealthy situation.

Detachment is another effective tool for extricating yourself from a toxic family environment. Practicing detachment from your family could look like not participating in messy situations, avoiding topics that bring up strong emotions, and ending conversations or leaving if necessary.

Make a Plan

If you are headed to a family function, it is important that you make a plan ahead of time about which topics you will not discuss, how you’re going to change the subject if you need to, and how you’re going to let family members know that there are topics you don’t want to talk about.

Remember that you don’t have to share everything with your family, and if you have a toxic family environment it may be in your best interest to keep significant or personal details private. Knowing what those details are, and learning when and how to say no when family members ask about them will help you avoid altercations, arguments, or potential abuse or ridicule.

You Can’t Change Them

It is also important to remember that you cannot change anyone. Other people’s behaviour, and whether or not they change, is beyond your control. Of course, it would be lovely if they woke up one day and realized that how they treated you was harmful, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. The only person you can change is you, and how you interact with those people.

Plan The Meeting

Katherine Fabrizio, MA, LPC, also suggests planning meetings that work for you, because giving yourself power in any situation can go a long way in preventing you from succumbing to your family’s toxic behaviour. She makes the following recommendations:

  • 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 [2].

Talk to Someone

Finally, talking to someone, in particular a mental health professional, can help you to maintain a grasp on reality, and work through some of the difficult emotions you might be experiencing because of your family members. It will also help you to overcome any lingering effects from a difficult childhood.

Of course, you may take all of these steps and realize that you have no choice but to cut off all contact. This can be a challenging, emotional experience, and having someone to talk to and to help guide you through that painful process will be beneficial in lightening the emotional load that it may place on you.

Protect Yourself

All families struggle, argue, and go through difficult times, but there is a difference between occasionally rough patches and consistent, unrelenting emotional or physical abuse. If you believe you are seeing toxic traits within your family, consider talking to a therapist who can help you navigate that situation in a way that protects your own mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Keep Reading: Toxic Marriages Are More Painful For Kids Than Divorce

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