Are You Part of a Toxic Family?

July 30, 2023   •  Posted in: 

‘Toxic’ is becoming an increasingly used word when discussing dysfunctional behaviors. As with its more traditional definition, toxic behavior describes actions or attitudes that are harmful, destructive, or negative to others, oneself, or the environment.

Toxic behavior can have serious consequences for individuals, relationships, and communities, leading to stress, conflict, and even mental health problems. It’s important to recognize and address toxic behavior to promote healthy relationships and environments.

This article looks at toxic families – what they are, how you know if your family is toxic, what the impact is, and how to deal with toxic behavior within families.


What is a toxic family?

A toxic family is one in which the members exhibit patterns of behavior that are harmful, negative, or dysfunctional. These patterns can range from emotional or verbal abuse to physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or manipulation.

The behavior of one or more family members can create a toxic environment that can have long-lasting effects on the well-being and mental health of all members.


Understanding family dynamics

The individuals around us, especially our families, shape who we are,how we connect with others, and how we view ourselves and the world.

Because we all grow up within some type of family, this is a specific area of psychological research which seeks to understand the dynamics and dysfunction that can lead to distress or mental health conditions.

Here are three theoretical approaches to family dysfunction:

1.  Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)[1] are traumatic or stressful experiences that occur during childhood and can have a negative impact on a person’s mental and physical health throughout their life.

These experiences can include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, and exposure to violence or substance abuse.

Research has shown that individuals who experience multiple ACEs are more likely to develop chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Understanding and addressing the impact of ACEs is essential for promoting the well-being and resilience of children and families.

Effective prevention and intervention efforts can help reduce the long-term effects of ACEs and improve health outcomes for individuals and communities.

2. Family Systems

Family Systems therapy[2] emphasizes that one cannot understand an individual’s behavior in isolation. Instead, one must consider the entire family system, with its hierarchies, rules, boundaries, and communication patterns.

Family Systems therapy explores the unique systems within each family to discover and understand them. This approach helps individuals understand why they behave in certain ways and make informed choices about future relationships.

The theory of Family Systems was developed by psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen, who believed that our emotional brain evolved to manage interpersonal relationships necessary for survival.

Bowen defined eight concepts to help unpack and understand family dynamics, which can cause imbalances and affect the entire family. By understanding these concepts and how they apply to the family, you can work to reduce tension and improve relationships.

3. Constellations therapy

Constellations work[3] in therapy, also known as Systemic Constellations, is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals gain insight and understanding into their family dynamics and relationships.

It involves the use of visual representations, such as maps or figurines, to create a “constellation” of a person’s family system, including past and present relationships.

Through this process, the therapist and client can identify patterns, conflicts, and emotional entanglements that may be impacting the client’s current relationships or behaviors.

Constellations work can also help individuals process unresolved trauma or grief. This helps gain a deeper understanding of their own identity and sense of belonging within their family system.

By exploring these dynamics and relationships, individuals can gain insight into their own patterns and behaviors, develop greater empathy and understanding for others, and ultimately, work towards healing and growth.

How to Deal With Toxic People

Dr. Gregory Jantz discusses the challenge of how to deal with toxic people. At best, they can rob you of time, emotion, and have you question your own sense of worth. At worst, toxic people can literally sap the life from you, leaving you hollow, broken, unsure, irritable, afraid, and feeling alone. In this episode, you’ll discover how to spot toxic people, and how to deal with them effectively. You deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Learn to set boundaries and reclaim your life!

Listen to Podcast

What does toxic behavior look like?

Toxic behavior can take many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Verbal abuse: Using hurtful or insulting language, yelling, or shouting
  • Physical abuse: Using physical force to harm or intimidate someone
  • Emotional abuse: Manipulating, belittling, or controlling others through emotional means, such as guilt-tripping, gaslighting, or threatening
  • Passive-aggressive behavior: Indirectly expressing aggression, such as through sarcasm, sulking, or giving someone the silent treatment
  • Narcissism: Excessive self-centeredness, vanity, and a lack of empathy for others.
  • Bullying: Intimidating or harassing others to gain power or control
  • Gossiping: Spreading rumors or negative information about others
  • Jealousy: Envy or resentment of others’ success, often leading to sabotage or backstabbing


How do you know if your family is toxic?

Do the majority of interactions you have with family leave you feeling exhausted, upset, frustrated, angry, numb, manipulated, sad, trapped, disempowered, scared, worthless or confused?

If so, this could be a sign that your family is toxic.


What are the signs of a toxic family?

Some signs of a toxic family can include:

  • Lack of communication: Members do not communicate effectively, and when they do, it often leads to misunderstandings, arguments, or even violence
  • Constant criticism: Members are critical of each other and find fault in everything that is said or done
  • Favoritism: One or more members are favored over others, which can lead to resentment and conflict
  • Control and manipulation: One or more members try to control the behavior or actions of others, often through emotional manipulation or guilt
  • Secrets and lies: Family secrets or lies are kept, and members are not encouraged to express themselves or be honest with each other
  • Denial of problems: Members may deny there are any problems in the family, which can prevent them from seeking help or addressing issues
  • Emotional or physical abuse: Members may use emotional or physical abuse to control or intimidate others

It’s important to remember that every family is different, and so while you may not recognize all of the signs above, trust your gut instinct. If you feel your family is toxic, talk this through with a trusted friend, a therapist or other mental health professional.


What is the impact of a toxic family?

Growing up in a toxic family can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health, self-esteem, and overall well-being. Children who grow up in toxic families may experience a wide range of negative emotions and behaviors that can continue into adulthood if left untreated.

Some of the potential impacts of growing up in a toxic family include:

  • Low self-esteem: Children who are constantly criticized or put down by their family members may struggle with feelings of low self-worth and self-doubt
  • Anxiety and depression: The stress and uncertainty of living in a toxic environment can lead to anxiety and depression, especially when combined with other factors such as neglect or abuse
  • Trust issues: Children who grow up in toxic families may have difficulty trusting others, especially authority figures or those in positions of power
  • Relationship problems: The patterns of behavior learned in a toxic family can carry over into adult relationships, leading to problems with intimacy, communication, and trust
  • Substance abuse: Some children who grow up in toxic families may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with their emotions and stress
  • Physical health problems: Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to physical health problems such as headaches, stomach issues, and high blood pressure

It’s important to seek professional help if you grew up in a toxic family and are experiencing any of these symptoms. Therapy and other forms of treatment can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms, develop positive relationships, and overcome the negative effects of your childhood experiences.

Toxic family dynamics have often been in place for many years, being passed on from parents to children and on to their own children in turn. In addition to the above benefits to your own wellbeing, breaking the cycle of toxicity and dysfunction will benefit your children and generations to come.


How do I deal with my toxic family?

Boundaries are the main way you can help manage your interactions with toxic family members.

Setting boundaries with a toxic family can be challenging, but it’s important for your well-being and mental health. Here are some steps you can take to set boundaries:

  • Define your boundaries: Think about what you are and are not comfortable with in your interactions with your family. This could include things like not tolerating verbal abuse, setting limits on how often you see or talk to them, or not engaging in certain topics of conversation
  • Communicate your boundaries: Once you have defined your boundaries, communicate them clearly and respectfully to your family members. This can be done in person, over the phone, or in writing. Be firm and consistent in your communication, and avoid getting defensive or engaging in arguments
  • Stick to your boundaries: It’s important to enforce your boundaries once you have communicated them. This means being consistent and following through on the consequences you have set for any violations
  • Seek support: Setting boundaries with a toxic family can be emotionally challenging, so it’s important to seek support from friends, therapists, or support groups
  • Take care of yourself: Prioritize your self-care and well-being, especially during times when you may need to reinforce your boundaries. This can include things like exercising, getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in hobbies that you enjoy

Remember that setting boundaries with a toxic family is a process, and it may take time to establish and enforce them. However, by prioritizing your own well-being and communicating your needs clearly and respectfully, you can begin to create a healthier relationship with your family.

In addition to setting boundaries, there are further ways in which you can deal with toxic family members.

  1. Limiting the frequency and duration of visits with toxic family members where possible will allow you space to recover between interactions. This is crucial for taking care of yourself as well as giving you headspace to consider how you might approach the relationship in proactive ways in the future.
  2. Direct your energy into relationships that feel healthy and nourishing. Although these interactions might give you further clarity on the toxicity within your family, which can be isolating, spending time with people who offer a more straightforward, warm, and beneficial relationship is a good way to invest in yourself. You deserve to feel comfortable and safe with others.
  3. Consider mediation if you feel it might be helpful to have a third-party involved in any difficult conversations you need to have with toxic family members. Mediators are trained to remain impartial and to focus on achieving whatever goals you may have when interacting with family, such as agreeing access to grandchildren, working through conflict or negotiating finances.

It’s important to seek professional help if you suspect your family is toxic, as therapy can help you cope with the effects of a toxic environment and work towards healing and recovery.


Should I cut off from my toxic family?

Survivors of family abuse live life with the heart of an orphan. When you sever ties with a toxic family, you are not abandoning them. You are establishing no contact so that they can no longer abandon you.

Dr. Sherrie Campbell

The decision to cut off from toxic family members is a very difficult one to make. Each person will have different thresholds or considerations personal to them. Individuals considering this option will likely have explored and exhausted every other option before considering estrangement.

For some, cutting off from toxic family members might be a gradual reduction in the time you spend in their company. This may not require any explicit communication as to your intentions.

For others, telling your relation that you wish to step back from the relationship for a period of time or indefinitely may be the only way to draw a clear boundary between you. This type of estrangement may require a more direct communication and thus could cause conflict.

Prepare yourself for the possible fallout from either type of estrangement. Make sure you have adequate support in place for yourself as it can be upsetting and lonely. If you are unable to find this support through other friends or family members, consider the option of support from a therapist.


Seeking help from The Center • A Place of HOPE

Coming to terms with the impact that a dysfunctional family has had on you isn’t easy. Growing up around toxicity can affect your own experiences and relationships deeply, including the relationship you have with yourself.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, our experts understand how difficult it can be for you. We are experienced in supporting individuals to overcome abusive relationships so if you feel you would benefit from this type of help, get in touch.

Please call during opening hours, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PT, Verify Insurance or complete the form below.

[1] Mary Boullier, Mitch Blair, Adverse childhood experiences, Paediatrics and Child Health, Volume 28, Issue 3, 2018, Pages 132-137
[2] Brown, J. (1999). Bowen family systems theory and practice: Illustration and critique. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 20(2), 94-103.
[3] Konkolÿ Thege, B., Petroll, C., Rivas, C., & Scholtens, S. (2021). The effectiveness of family constellation therapy in improving mental health: a systematic review. Family process, 60(2), 409-423.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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