Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Family Dynamics

7 Signs of a Toxic Family

3. They won’t allow you to change.

At the time of writing, we’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In many countries, people have been told to create social distance between themselves and other households, including family members who live elsewhere. Where the restrictions are being eased, the joy of seeing beloved parents, siblings, and children is evident—even where hugging isn’t yet allowed. I haven’t seen my adult son for over two months now and cannot wait for the day when we meet up again. (It’ll have to be when hugging is allowed because the temptation to grab him will be overwhelming.)

Despite the abundance of love which so many of us have towards family members, some of us have grown in families which are held together by a web of abusive, critical, and manipulative behaviours. A toxin is a poisonous substance—and the toxic family thrives on behaviours and relationships which permeate negativity into every part of your life.

How toxic is your family? Here are some potential factors to consider.

1. They gossip about you. A supportive, loving family may discuss you when you’re not there—often to see how they can help you out. The toxic family spends time gossiping about you—and your other siblings. The gossip is often nasty in nature, aimed at bringing you (or your partner) down. Being nasty about family members to other family members is at the heart of many toxic families.

2. They pick on your weaknesses. Whether you’re a mother or a sibling, you’ll know other people in your family well enough to know how they tick—including their deepest vulnerabilities. Toxic family members will use what they know about your deepest vulnerabilities to make you feel bad about yourself and, potentially, to embarrass you in front of other people.

3. They won’t allow you to change. Toxic families are restrictive families. Unless you’ve led a very restricted life, it’s very unlikely that your values as a 40-year-old are the same as they were when you were 18. Toxic families aren’t places of kindness and acceptance. Want to be openly different from what’s expected? Be ready to be ridiculed and put down.

4. There’s a lot of infighting. Toxic families become so for a reason, and often that reason is down to a parent (or parents). If a parent treats all their children equally and dishes out love and affection without withholding or creating a situation where children have to act in a certain way to think they’re worthy of love, it’s a lot less likely that there will be sibling envy and jealousy. When kids have had to vie for parental attention and one child is made to feel better or worse than others, it leads to infighting and competition.

5. Abusive behaviour is accepted or masked. Abuse within families can range from emotional abuse to physical and sexual abuse. Within the toxic family, abusive behaviour is not called out for what it is. Instead, you may be made to feel that you deserved to be abused. You may be told to keep quiet about the abuse in order to preserve the reputation of the family. The abuser is protected within the family and allowed to get away with their behaviour.

6. They won’t let you step outside the family narrative. Toxic families create a narrative and it doesn’t matter whether you’re telling the truth—if it doesn’t fit the narrative, you don’t have a voice. 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. Toxic family members create narratives which support their needs—even if it means masking over unacceptable behaviour in the past.

7. They are volatile and unpredictable environments. The toxic family is held together by weak threads. People use each other. They play games and manipulate. You can be someone’s favourite one week and the next week you find out they’ve been saying horrible things behind your back. These weak foundations make the toxic family a volatile and unstable environment. You can’t rest easy knowing that your family members have your back when they’re just as likely to stab you in the back.

If you are a member of a toxic family, you probably find yourself tired, upset, and confused when you are around them. In a future article, I will look at how you can protect yourself and manage your personal boundaries within the family.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

More from Claire Jack Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today