Have you ever found yourself gazing longingly at the perfect family, and wondering why things didn’t work out that way for you?

The reality is that despite appearances, there really is no such thing as the perfect family. After all, we don’t choose our family, and all of us are likely to experience difficulties at some time or another. In fact, these disagreements and differences in character can actually spur us on to grow – become more accepting, empathetic and considerate.

Having a toxic family is something very different, and should not be taken lightly.

Why’s that? Because how we grow up shapes who we become. Being exposed to toxic relationships and unhealthy dynamics when we’re young can distort our development and view of the world, and lead to a whole host of difficulties.

The problem is that toxic behaviour is not necessarily identifiable to us when we’re children. Our first relationships set the tone for our expectations in life, and when we’re small we simply don’t know any different. We come to see unhealthy behaviour as normal. In the same way, sometimes toxic family relationships are very obvious (physical assault, sexual abuse and name-calling etc.), other times it can be much more subtle (guilt-tripping, neediness and over-reliance) and harder to spot.

Growing up in a toxic environment can leave deep scars that we end up carrying with us through life – in our relationships, at work, and all the way through until we become parents ourselves. 

But these scars can be healed, and the negative patterns they create broken. The first step is to identify what happened, and recognise the behaviour as wrong. If that dynamic still exists, we need to create boundaries that stop it from happening again. And finally, we need to heal the wounds they caused.

Signs of a toxic family

  • One – or both – of your parents are overly involved in your life – Maybe you have a controlling father who tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with your life or a mother who’s constantly on the end of the phone telling you all of her problems. Over-involvement = lack of boundaries.
  • You dread going to see them – holidays spent with your family feel like a necessity or chore rather than something to look forward to. Maybe you find yourself making excuses for why you can’t see them or you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach just thinking about it. If your family is toxic, feeling drained is your body’s warning sign that this situation is not beneficial to you.
  • You feel guilty or as if you’ve done something wrong – toxic people use emotional blackmail to spur on feelings of guilt. This can be so subtle that it’s difficult to identify e.g. phrases like, “You go out and enjoy yourself, don’t worry about me”. On the surface it might appear like they’re being considerate but it’s designed to evoke guilt as a means of keeping you near.
  • You feel like you’re never good enough – no matter what you do, what achievements you make or how you behave, you feel like you’re never good enough for your parents. This might also present as a total lack of interest in your life.
  • You feel obligated to see them – you feel like you have to see your family or suffer the consequences. Maybe you feel like you’ll wind up in their bad books if you don’t, or there’ll be a big family drama if not. You should never feel obligated to do anything – spending social time with your family included.
  • You took care of a parent more than they took care of you – perhaps one parent was ill and you had to look after them growing up, or they were depressed and told you all of their problems. Or maybe you had more of a brother/sister/friend relationship with one of your parents. Blurry roles can be damaging as they generally lead to a failure in meeting the child’s emotional needs.
  • One family member always plays the victim – they see life as a personal attack and whip out the victim card anytime anything goes wrong. In other words, they refuse to assume responsibility for problems in life.
  • You find yourself choosing toxic partners – the way in which we interact with relationships today is closely intertwined with our past. We develop subconscious belief systems about what love looks like based on our experiences. So if we had a toxic family growing up we’re likely to recreate similar relationship dynamics in adulthood. If you find yourself constantly choosing the wrong partners, it might point to a toxic family environment.
  • There was favouring in your family – maybe your mum was especially close to your brother and he could do no wrong, or perhaps you felt like you were favoured and felt isolated from your brothers and sisters because of it. Favouring in families is toxic and benefits nobody.
  • You have low self-esteem – as children, we tend to shift blame onto ourselves. So if we’ve suffered abuse growing up (emotional, physical or sexual), then we’re likely to end up having a toxic relationship with ourselves. This can lead to issues with identity, self-worth and self-esteem. 

Toxic family dynamics: steps to take to protect yourself

  • Assert boundaries – if your family is toxic, creating strong boundaries is paramount for your health and safety. Boundaries are how we teach someone how they can treat us. To change this dynamic we need to tell people what they can and can’t do going forward – what we feel comfortable with and what we don’t. 
  • Surround yourself with people who make you feel good – we can’t choose our family but we can choose the other people in our life. Build your own support system or ‘family of friends’; people who support you and make you feel good about yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut ties – if a dynamic is toxic and you don’t see any way to move forward, you are well within your rights to sever that tie. Family is important but your health is more so. For some people, this means taking a ‘break’, for others it might mean cutting ties with someone completely. 
  • Speak to a therapist – growing up in a toxic family will inevitably impact how you feel about yourself and how you relate to others. Therapy provides a safe, non-judgemental space to explore these dynamics and the way in which they’re likely to be impacting you now. 

One of the most difficult things about growing up in a toxic family is that it can evoke very confusing feelings. We might love our family, but also recognise their behaviour as destructive.

Similarly, toxic behaviour doesn’t always come from a bad place. It usually has a domino effect, and stems from the kinds of experiences your parents had growing up. The most important thing is whether someone is willing to assume responsibility for their mistakes, and open themselves to creating a healthier dynamic with you going forward. Working with a therapist can help you navigate these conflicting feelings so that you find a way forward that works for you.