20+ Signs of Toxic Family Relationships and What You Could Do About Them

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Sometimes, you’re not quite sure if you live with a toxic family member or not.

So, what are some signs of a toxic family relationship? How do you deal and cope with it?

We asked experts to shed some light to these questions.

Sheila Tucker, LAMFT, MA

Sheila Tucker

Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist | Owner, Heart Mind & Soul Counseling

They are consistently critical of you

In this relationship, your family member is never satisfied with anything you’ve accomplished, or are currently doing. There’s rarely any praise, however, they’re quick to point out downfalls.

They use money as manipulation

Family members who give money with strings attached fall under this heading. As an example, I worked with a client whose family member agreed to pay for their wedding in its entirety.

The gift was more than generous until the family member began to dictate color schemes, food, venues, and even the dress. Even the slightest pushback resulted in the family member threatening to withdraw all of the money.

What you can do

Set boundaries, and stick to them

This one may prove to be a little tricky in the beginning. Typically toxic people will attempt to walk over your boundaries or criticize their existence. And think about it, it makes sense. You’re not giving them what they want.

Setting boundaries involves you deciding what works best for you.

It’s acceptable to make a clear statement to your family member that you’re no longer discussing a specific topic, or you’ll excuse yourself if they begin criticizing you.

The next step is to follow through.

Gently remind your family member that you’re not talking about “that” and then change the topic. Or, gently remind the family member you’re excusing yourself due to the way you’re being spoken to, and then leave.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a one and done. It’s more of a wash, rinse, and repeat mentality. It takes practice, and willingness, persistence.

Limit your time with this family member or keep the contact cordial

If possible limit the contact with your family member. You may do this by either limiting the number of family events you attend or by limiting your time with this person while at an event.

If you live with a toxic family member, this may mean you spend more time out of the house.

When spending time with the toxic person keep the conversation as light and superficial as possible. It can also be helpful to keep the focus of the conversation on your family member.

Seek the help of a therapist in your area

Although a therapist cannot change your family member, they will be able to help you change the way you relate to this person, and how you relate to yourself when you’re around this person.

Dr. Sherrie Campbell

Sherrie Campbell

Clinical Psychologist | Inspirational Speaker | 
Author, But It’s Your Family: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath

Toxic families function on the divide and conquer method

Kids are a pawn in their game of control and manipulation. They tend to enjoy pitting their children against each other. There are in groups and out groups and no one knows when they will be in or out.

When you’re being raised in these families and you still need food, home and shelter there is not much you can do but survive. As you age and get out you have every right to cut ties or greatly distance yourself from their craziness.

Dr. Jamie Long

Jamie Long

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale

One sign of a toxic family relationship is a pervasive and persistent pattern of invalidation

Invalidation is when someone discounts, dismisses or fails to acknowledge another person’s perspective or feelings about a situation. It can look like a person rewriting history (e.g., denying something happened), telling you that you shouldn’t feel that way, or minimizing the importance of your feelings.

Most of us are guilty of invalidation from time to time, but in toxic families, invalidation happens frequently and it leaves the recipient feeling like they’re going crazy.

If you’re the recipient of invalidation, know that you are not crazy.

Stay strong in your perspective and confidently re-assert yourself in a calm manner. For example, to the invalidating person, you can say, “I know you disagree with what I’m saying but this is just how I see it. Please respect that we have different viewpoints on this issue.”

Jared Heathman, M.D.

Jared Heathman

Psychiatrist, Your Family Psychiatrist

You are getting negative automatic thoughts

Automatic thoughts are the initial feelings we get in relation to an event or action. Frequent negative automatic thoughts can be a sign of clinical depression, but everyone will experience them at some point in time.

If you normally feel optimistic and positive, frequent negative automatic thoughts around a certain family member is a sign of a potentially toxic relationship.

A family should be supportive, understanding, and caring.

If they are usually passing judgment and critical, we begin to assume another negative comment is forthcoming. The smallest action on your part could produce a negative automatic thought in anticipation of criticism. This is not healthy.

Related: 8 Signs Your Family Doesn’t Care About You & How to Deal with It

Katherine Eisold Miller

Katherine Eisold Miller

Founder, Miller Law Group | Director & Trainer, Center for Understanding in Conflict | Podcast Host, Divorce Dialogues |
Author, The New Yorker’s Guide to Collaborative Divorce

I believe that fundamental attribution error is at the heart of many of these misunderstandings

Essentially, we judge ourselves based on our own intentions (I am a good person and if I did something to hurt you, that doesn’t change my essentially good intent) but we judge others based on the impact of their actions upon us (if you hurt me, you must have intended that pain so you are a bad person).

If people can break the chain of this misunderstanding early enough in the relationship, before the resentment gets too deep, then the toxic dynamic can be stopped.

This is a simple idea but actually quite challenging to do and it probably makes sense to get some professional help from a therapist, coach or mediator of some kind.

It is challenging because as human beings we often conflate acknowledgment of the other’s feelings with an agreement with the truth of their statements. If I let you know that I heard how my words hurt you then somehow that means that I am admitting guilt.

Increasing understanding of the whole situation, including your feelings, my feelings, and the situation will help deescalate the situation and allow us to grow closer rather than more distant.

Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, LMFT, ATR

Christine Scott-Hudson

Licensed Psychotherapist | Marriage and Family Therapist | Owner, Create Your Life Studio

The definition of toxic is something harmful to your health and well-being, and can even become lethal if consumed in sufficient quantities.

Toxic families negatively affect your mental, emotional, and physical health.

Your mind, heart, and body are stressed and taxed by unhealthy levels of family drama and should be treated as any other environmental toxin. Protect yourself!

Practice radical self-care before, during, and after exposure to harmful people.

Limit exposure. Reduce time with them, and find protection while in the presence of toxicity. Watching tv or a movie together can help keep them focused on the show, rather than on you.

Remember the mantra “Less exposure equals more composure.” The stress and anxiety of having to be hypervigilant and having to be constantly on guard in an invalidating environment take a toll on your health.

The types of behaviors that toxic families engage in are the following:

  • Invalidation
  • Hostility
  • Scapegoating
  • Blame and drama
  • Over-controlling and emotional dominance
  • Mean jokes and sarcasm
  • Passive-aggressive communication styles or aggressive communication styles
  • Jealousy and contempt
  • Manipulation
  • Enmeshment
  • Loose boundaries
  • Unhealthy comparison and constant criticism

These toxic family traits drain the scapegoat/target emotionally and make them feel bad about themselves even long after the interaction.

Pay attention to your own bodily reaction to spending time with your family.

Check out the classic fight/flight/or freeze symptoms of trauma in your own body. Some somatic cues that your family may be toxic are you do not want to go see them and feel sick or scared to be around them.

Pay attention to how you feel before seeing them.

If you dread going to see them, that is a clear sign that something is off. Do you feel drained around them? Do you start to feel sick right before you must go visit them? Do you feel like you want to run away?

Pay attention to how you feel while you are with your family.

Do you feel sad around them? Do you feel stressed out around them? Do you feel angry around them? Do you feel afraid around them, or nervous? Does your body want to flee?

Pay attention to how you feel after spending time with your family.

Do you feel down after spending time with them? Do you feel drained after interacting with them? Do you feel down on yourself? Do you use drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, sex, or numb out with electronics or sleep after spending time with your family?

Toxic families are not good for your health. Limit exposure. Do not share vulnerable or personal things with them. Take good care of your own physical, emotional, and mental health needs before, during, and after seeing them. Find a supportive psychotherapist to help you learn how to set appropriate and healthy boundaries and to protect yourself.

Brandi Lewis, M.Ed, LPC

Brandi Lewis

Owner, Reach Counseling Solutions, PLLC

Your physical energy is affected

I have seen clients who may become physically ill with common colds (for example) or have an inability to sleep without assistance after an interaction with their family members. These clients commonly speak about feeling very tired or drained after an interaction.

From a therapeutic standpoint, it is arguable, that their energy (or immunity) is literally being drained after an interaction and their body is responding accordingly.

You have a fear of speaking up or fear of consequences of standing up for oneself

Toxic family relationships can cause people to worry about going “against the grain” because doing so can draw attention and scrutiny.

You become increasingly apologetic

They may apologize for things that aren’t their fault as a means to avoid conflict. Some clients may also become apologetic because they have been accustomed to being the family scapegoat and they are often blamed for family troubles.

Margo Lee Burton, R.S.W., M.S.W., B.Ed., C.Y.T.

Margo Lee Burton

Transformational Therapist

A clear sign of a toxic relationship is unclear and imbalanced communication

This happens when in conversation, two individuals in a family, for example, two adult siblings, routinely end in both individuals blaming each other, or both being defensive, speaking over each other rather than listening. In order for this toxicity to end, at least one of the siblings has to change.

For this example, we will assume one of them has decided to seek help, Sibling A. Sibling A learns about an excellent tool to highlight toxicity playing out; the “Dreaded Drama Triangle”, a social model conceived by Stephen Karpman, depicted below.

Dreaded Drama Triangle

The toxicity cycles through this “dreaded drama” dynamic over and over again, if someone does not stop it. In this example, Sibling A learns about this triangle and begins to understand the role he or she plays in the toxicity, particularly in the ‘poor me’ attitude, the blaming, and even the toxicity of rescuing.

Through this acknowledgment and awareness, empowerment is created – the power of choice becomes accessible. This is when the “Empowerment Dynamic”, developed by David Emerald can be introduced and utilized.

Empowerment Dynamic

Sibling A learns through the guidance of a therapist, or by reading and practicing, how to pause and respond through empowering roles, like the creator, coach or challenger.

There are formulas to help make this happen. Sibling A would need to adopt such things as using “I” language, therefore owning their own experience, listening and reflecting back what is said, rather than offering new material or advice and one of the most important knowing when to end the conversation before a pattern unfolds.

This all takes practice and patience; breaking patterns is a challenge and can be extremely rewarding.