A toxic family is defined as one where there’s a consistent pattern of family members exhibiting harmful behaviors toward other members. While conflict is a normal part of a family dynamic, a toxic family handles conflict in ways that are damaging to one or more members.
In a toxic family, there’s a constant pattern of toxic interactions. These are interactions where one or more family members physically or emotionally harm another family member.
While any family member can be toxic, this article will mainly focus on parental toxicity since it’s the most prevalent and damaging form of familial toxicity.
We’ll look at toxic family dynamics, signs you’re in a toxic family, and ways of overcoming it.
How family dynamics take a toxic turn
Human children are born helpless and remain helpless throughout their childhood. They’re highly dependent on their primary caregivers (usually parents) for survival. Consequently, children are biologically programmed to please their parents to win their approval, affection, and support.
From the very first smile, an infant gives to her mother to scoring good grades in school, children engage in all kinds of behaviors to please their parents. And it all makes sense. You don’t want a child to be thinking for themselves- they can’t do that till they hit their early teens anyway- or making their own decisions.
They’re inexperienced and will probably end up harming themselves if they do.
Then come the teenage years when they first start to question their identity. Having had enough exposure to the world, they realize it’s up to them to be who they want to be.
Usually, all they want to be is ‘cool’ because the peer pressure at this age is too high. They want to be cool so they can impress their friends and join the cool gang in school. They haven’t fully established their identity yet. They’re experimenting with it.
Unsurprisingly, this period is rife with parent-child conflict because the child is breaking out of their old ways. The kids start asserting their own identities. They act as if they’re less dependent on their parents than they really are.
This creates friction between the parents and the child. The parents feel like they’re losing control of the kid. The kid feels controlled and wants to fly out of the nest. The same behaviors that the parents displayed during childhood that you’d call ‘caring’ start becoming toxic in teenage and young adulthood.
Almost all the toxic parental behaviors revolve around the parents not letting their kid become their own person.
Enmeshment, acceptance, and abandonment
When kids are becoming adults, they start to appreciate all the things their parents did for them. They feel like it’s their responsibility to take care of their parents, especially when they get older.
The problem is that a lot of parents continue their toxic behaviors, which alienate their kids and leave a bitter taste in their mouths. How parents treat their grown kids lies on a spectrum ranging from enmeshment to abandonment. The mid-point of this spectrum is healthy acceptance of the child.
The two ends of the above spectrum are both forms of rejection. They characterize unhealthy parenting.
On the enmeshment end, the boundaries between the parents and their kids are blurred. The child is enmeshed with the parents. The parents still think the child is an extension of themselves. Enmeshment or extreme acceptance is a form of rejection because the parents reject the child’s identity and boundaries.
The abandonment end of the spectrum is equally toxic. It’s when parents, at best, fail to provide adequate love and care to their children. At worst, they may straight-up abuse the children.
Parents who physically or emotionally abuse their children are, again, refusing to accept their children by devaluing them.
The middle part of the spectrum is where healthy parenting lies, i.e., accepting the child as a separate person with their own thoughts, opinions, goals, and behaviors.
Of course, sometimes parents shouldn’t accept their kids for who they are. For example, when they choose to become criminals or law-breakers. That is not the issue with most families.
Toxic family dynamics
Not allowing their kid to be a separate, autonomous individual is the biggest driving force behind parental toxicity. If parents are suffering from their own psychological problems, that only makes things worse.
In most cases, parents treat their kids the way they were treated by their own parents. This cultural transmission of unhealthy parenting behaviors goes unquestioned by them.
Lastly- and many find this hard to wrap their heads around- selfishness motivates parental toxicity. How can those who’ve sacrificed so much for you be selfish? It seems counter-intuitive.
Try to think of parents as investors. Investors give money to a company so it can grow and yield rewards for them later on. Similarly, parents think of their children as investments for the future. They expect their children to grow up, give them grandchildren (reproductive success), and take care of them when they’re older.
There’s nothing wrong with seeing your kids as investments. The problem with toxic parents is that in their desperation to ensure returns on investment, they disregard the well-being and happiness of their kids.
Yes, most parents only care about how many grandchildren you’ll leave them and whether you can take care of them when they’re older. This is why they over-interfere in your career choice and relationship decisions.
This is also why most parents only care about the report cards of their kids, not what they learn on a day-to-day basis. And why they only care about how much you earn and never ask if your work fulfills you.
You see, they can’t care about your fulfillment or happiness because that comes from authentic self-expression, which is a need of your own identity. You may want to be true to who you are first before you think about chasing your other life goals.
Toxic parents don’t care whether you’ve ‘found yourself’. In fact, if who you are goes against their desires, they’ll actively try to suppress it. They only care about what they can extract from you. They’ll beat you down when you’re struggling and bask in your reflected glory when you succeed.
Signs of a toxic family member
Let’s look at the specific ways in which parental lack of acceptance manifests in daily behavior. Following are the signs that show a family member is toxic:
1. They have no regard for your boundaries and opinions
As an adult, you’re supposed to be making your own decisions. Sure, your family members can provide suggestions and advice, but they can’t impose their decisions on you.
In enmeshed families, parents still believe their kids are an extension of themselves. So, they have no qualms about invading the privacy of their kids. They over-interfere and ask too many questions. They tell you why and how you’re wrong every time you assert yourself.
There’s a difference between asking questions to have a conversation and asking questions to over-interfere. The latter always makes you feel controlled. If you’ve already communicated that you don’t appreciate their interference and they don’t care, they’re definitely being toxic.
2. They abuse you
Abuse, in any form, is unacceptable. While it’s rare for parents to physically abuse their adult kids, a lot of psychological abuse often slips under the radar.
Constant criticism, disrespect, name-calling, blaming, and belittling are all ways in which a toxic family member rejects who you are and tries to put you down. Gaslighting and emotional manipulation through guilt are their other go-to strategies.
3. They make you anxious
You feel anxiety and a sense of discomfort when you’re around a toxic family member. You’ll get the so-called ‘bad vibes’ from them.
When you come into contact with them, your subconscious briefly and quickly replays your past, toxic interactions with them.
If your interactions with them have been overall toxic, a net negative, you feel anxious around them. It’s just your mind trying to protect you. You may find yourself staying at a distance from them or not making eye contact with them.
Just being in the same room with them can make you feel weak because they’ve tried to dominate you over the years.
4. You can’t communicate with them
You feel you can’t have an open, respectful conversation with them. You can’t have an open, respectful conversation with those who have no regard for your thoughts and opinions.
5. You’ve contemplated leaving
If the thought of leaving your family has crossed your mind or you have threatened to do so, it’s likely that yours is a toxic family. Sometimes the abuse becomes too much to bear and you feel you’ll be better off alone.
6. They drag you into heated exchanges over petty issues
In a tightly-knit social unit, such as a family, where each member depends on the other, conflicts are bound to arise. But toxic family members get into conflicts over the tiniest things and don’t know how to handle them. They make personal attacks on you, even if it isn’t your fault.
This behavior can either stem from a deep sense of disrespect they have for you or because they simply don’t know how to handle conflicts. Or it could be both.
Either way, they have no right to disrespect you.
7. You feel inexperienced
At first, parents do everything for their kids. As the kids grow older, the parents ought to gradually stop doing things for their kids. When kids can take up responsibilities, their self-efficacy and self-esteem rise. They feel more independent.
Toxic parents keep doing things for their kids right into adulthood. As a result, these spoon-fed adults feel they lack vital life experience.
8. You’ve been parentified
Sometimes parents do the opposite. They give their child too many responsibilities too soon. This may happen if the parent loses their partner because of divorce or death. The child- usually the eldest child- finds they have to ‘parent’ the parent or younger siblings.
The parentified child grows up too soon and they feel like they’ve missed out on childhood.
9. You’re infantilized
Infantilization means treating your adult child as a kid. This is very common and shows how toxic parents are reluctant to let their kid become an adult. By treating their adult son or daughter as a kid, they want to remain stuck in the initial, pre-teenage parental phase.
10. You have a fear of abandonment
Abandonment issues arise from not receiving adequate amount of love and care in childhood. Perhaps the only toxic parental behavior that shows up in early childhood and can continue into adulthood.
People with abandonment issues don’t feel accepted and lack a strong sense of self. They grow up to become people pleasers and go to great lengths to gain acceptance from others. While all humans dislike rejection, they have a very low tolerance for rejection. (Take the abandonment issues quiz)
The greatest danger of toxic families
You may think some degree of toxicity is expected in a family, but try to consider its costs. It basically puts brakes on the healthy development of a person. One who doesn’t mentally break away from their parents risks never figuring out who they are and what makes them tick. They’ll forever live under the shadow of their parents.
I understand many people don’t care about developing a strong sense of self, but they risk going through life with low self-esteem. They make their parents’ goals their own and base their self-worth on fragile and volatile things. They’re an identity crisis waiting to happen.
How to deal with a toxic family member
Toxic family members can be harmful to your mental health. It takes a lot of work to mentally distance yourself from them. The ideal way to resolve any conflict is to assertively voice your concerns and try to make them understand how they’re affecting you.
However, it’s difficult to change people who’re set in their ways. So, here are the strategies you can use to deal with toxic family members:
1. Focus on what you can control
In any toxic interaction, you can’t control the behavior of the toxic person. What you can control is your response to their toxicity. As the saying goes: It takes two to quarrel. Your responses to toxic behavior should communicate:
“I’m not interested in this nonsense.”
Ideally, you should ignore everything the toxic person says. Let it roll off you like water. The next best thing is to give brief, unemotional responses. For example, if your over-interfering parent asks:
“Who were you hanging out with?”
As an adult, you’re not obligated to give them details. You don’t have to explain anything. If you’ve never made decisions for yourself, this will require some practice. What you absolutely shouldn’t do is get angry or get into an argument. This gives them the satisfaction that they can push your buttons and control you.
2. It’s okay if they don’t like your decisions
If you’ve grown up in a toxic family, you might feel you always have to please your parents. You walk on eggshells, fearing the scorn of your toxic parents. It’s time you took ownership of your decisions. If they don’t like them, it’s okay.
If you don’t question their choices, neither should they.
Don’t say things like:
“I have made up my mind.”
This makes you come across as a rebel, and they might get defensive. Instead, show it. Show that you really don’t care if they don’t like your decisions. Be absolutely unbothered about what they make of it.
3. Distance yourself, emotionally
You should limit your interactions and the time you spend with toxic family members. Decide what topics you’re willing and not willing to talk about with them, if you decide to talk at all.
Try not to get pulled into their controlling behaviors. When you distance yourself from their toxic behavior, they realize it’s not working. They get a sense of your boundaries. Only reward pleasant behavior (if they show any) with your attention and engagement.
4. Cutting the cord
It won’t be easy cutting off all ties from your toxic parents if you still depend on them. If you can live on your own and their toxicity has reached extreme levels, this might be a viable option.
At the end of the day, your parents are your genes. When you cut them off, you’re bound to feel guilty. This is why emotional distancing is a much better option than a complete cut-off. Cut that umbilical cord of emotional dependency instead and regain control of your mental state.
Think your parents are toxic? Take the toxic parents test to check their level of toxicity.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 400+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4.5 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.