August 14, 2022 — 10:27 AM
While every family unit is bound to experience some difficulties, there are some cases in which difficulties turn to toxicity. If you think you could be dealing with a toxic family member (or household), we asked experts how to know for sure, plus how to deal with it. Here’s what they had to say.
What does it really mean to be toxic?
First things first: What does it actually mean to be “toxic”? As doctor of clinical psychology Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, previously wrote for mbg, “A toxic person is someone who regularly displays actions and behaviors that hurt others or otherwise negatively impact the lives of the people around them, and they’re usually the main instigating factor of a toxic relationship.”
As such, we can arrive at a definition of a toxic family, too: A toxic family is one wherein family members regularly display actions that hurt or otherwise negatively affect each other.
Neo adds that it’s important to distinguish being toxic from acting toxic, noting that “the first is when it’s ingrained in our personality, and we actively enjoy hurting others; the second corresponds to aspects of our behaviors.”
In any case, being around toxic people—particularly within your home and/or family—can be detrimental to someone’s mental health.
How a toxic household affects your mental health.
From childhood onward, being in a toxic environment or around toxic family members will quickly take its toll. According to psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and a general sense of “walking on eggshells” in your own home.
“It can also affect one’s self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-love,” she tells mbg. “And oftentimes, when an individual is in a toxic family or there’s a toxic individual in the family, it’s a highly anxious environment, which affects the way they view the house, their family but also other people and the world in general.”
Indeed, having a toxic family has far-reaching effects, with licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Zar, LMFT, CST, explaining that it can even go on to affect your attachment style. “Being trapped in a long-term and unsafe environment can have really long-term impact. It might show up in other relationships—you might notice that it’s really hard to get close to other people, that you’re self-sabotaging when it comes to relationships, or you have difficulty trusting others,” she explains.
9 signs of a toxic family member or household:
Right off the bat, any kind of abuse—physical, mental, or emotional—is a sign of a toxic person and environment. Nuñez and Zar both make this point clear, with abuse being the farthest end of the toxicity spectrum and undoubtedly the worst in terms of how it affects a person.
Nuñez says that anybody who uses verbal words to make another family member feel less than is exhibiting toxicity (aka verbal abuse) and adds that even violent behavior that’s not directed at you (i.e., punching holes in the wall) is still unacceptable and a major red flag.
2. You feel depressed or anxious around them.
Another big tell of a toxic family member or household is how you feel around them. As mentioned, this can include a range of feelings, from depression to anxiety to low self-worth and feeling like you’re walking on eggshells.
“The biggest sign of being in a toxic family dynamic is the way you’re feeling, either when you’re around your family or in anticipation of seeing your family,” Zar explains. Some other emotions to watch out for are low self-esteem, feeling helpless around your family, and irritability, she adds.
3. They’re always criticizing or blaming you.
If a certain family member is always criticizing or blaming you and never taking accountability for themselves, that’s a sign of a toxic individual. As Nuñez explains, perhaps they’re always playing the victim, they say everything is always your fault, or they avoid responsibility at all cost.
If someone is toxic, you can bet they’re going to be manipulative, which can look like a lot of different things. They may gaslight you, guilt trip you, and/or be generally controlling. “If a family member is manipulating or making you feel guilty or bad for not doing something, that’s another characteristic of a toxic individual in a family,” Nuñez explains.
5. Punishment is unwarrantedly harsh.
Sure, discipline is a necessary part of raising children—but when discipline becomes too harsh, it can be a sign of toxicity. As Zar explains, there may be really harsh punishments when you don’t follow the rules, whether explicit or implicit. For example, she notes, you could miss a call from your dad, which leads to passive-aggressive behavior for weeks.
6. The household or family member can be unpredictable.
Zar says unpredictability is another sign of a toxic household, which leads to the aforementioned feeling of “walking on eggshells” in your home. “Everything can be fine and everyone’s got a smile on their face, and then you hit one land mine and everything blows up,” she explains.
7. They’re dismissive of your needs.
Our homes ought to be spaces in which we can be vulnerable and express our needs. If that kind of energy is not present, “and it doesn’t feel like a safe place to ask for your needs and be heard,” Zar says, that’s indicative of a toxic environment and/or family member.
8. There’s a sense of competition.
Toxic families can also breed an unhealthy amount of competition, particularly among siblings. As Nuñez previously explained to mbg, perfectionism can border on emotional abuse, and comparing siblings to each other can have extremely negative effects on children and their self-worth.
And last but not least, a general theme of controlling behavior, usually on the part of a parent (though certainly not impossible between siblings), is also a sign of a toxic family. This can look like belittling someone’s choices, having unattainably high standards, and conditional love. (Check out our guide on how to deal with controlling parents for more information.)
How to respond to toxic relatives.
When it comes to handling toxic relatives in the moment, Nuñez says it’s first important to identify what your personal boundaries are so that when they’re crossed, you can recognize it and respond. From there, when your boundaries are crossed, you essentially have one of two options: disengage, or face it head-on (of course, knowing the latter is the more volatile option).
Nuñez notes that toxic family members often want you to engage—almost like they get off on it. “It’s really important to identify what your boundaries are and to express those boundaries to the individual—that this is your bottom line. But if that doesn’t go well, then disengage,” she says.
“Give yourself permission to say, ‘Hey, I feel angry or resentful, and I need to talk about this,'” licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., previously suggested to mbg. Nuñez adds it’s also a good idea to soften your delivery using language that’s not directed at them, using “I” statements rather than “you” statements (i.e., “I feel sad when you make negative comments about me,” instead of “You always criticize me and make me feel like crap.”)
And remember, no matter how the conversation goes, you can only control your own actions. While this means the family member in question may still respond in a toxic way, you can control how you respond. “It’s really important to empower oneself that you are in control. You are in control of your own behaviors, actions, thoughts, and not the toxic person. So if you do feel like somebody is placing blame or making you feel less than, that’s their own stuff,” Nuñez says.
How to overcome a toxic family:
According to both Nuñez and Zar, overcoming toxic dynamics within a family is ultimately going to come down to your own boundaries and how well you hold them. “You can do this as an adult in a way that you couldn’t as a kid, and a lot of times within families that have been toxic our whole lives, we get stuck in that feeling we had as a little kid. It takes some work to recognize that you are an adult now and you can set boundaries,” Zar explains.
There’s also an important component around self-empowerment that we would be remiss to leave out. As Zar explains, we think setting a boundary sounds like, “Hey, Mom, don’t call me while I’m at work,” but what it actually sounds like is, “If you call me during the workday, I won’t pick up.'” Or, as another example, instead of “Can you not bring up politics around me?” you would say, “I will not participate in political conversations.”
The difference is that the boundary is not a question; it’s a clear directive, and more importantly, it’s something enforced by your actions instead of waiting on them to change. Zar notes that boundaries only work when you can hold them yourself, regardless of the other person’s behavior. As Nuñez points out, the only thing you can control is you.
When you’re living from a self-empowered place, toxic family dynamics will have that much less of an effect on you.
If there was ever something to see a therapist about, it’s unpacking toxic family dynamics. Some things are simply too deep and far-reaching to work through on your own, and that is OK.
“Find a professional you can talk to about identifying some of these toxic behaviors because oftentimes when an individual has toxic relationships within a family or somebody’s toxic, they’re unable to identify it because they ‘think it’s normal,'” Nuñez explains.
And not only can a professional help you identify the toxic patterns but further, they can help you understand how they’re affecting you, learn how to deal with them, and learn how to set and hold those boundaries we keep mentioning.
4. Find a degree of acceptance.
Last but not least, the hard truth of the matter is that sometimes change is not going to be possible within a family, or at least, it won’t happen overnight. As Zar explains, if you’ve given your family opportunities to hear your needs and boundaries, and they’re not receptive, that’s on them. Unfortunately, it leaves you between a rock and a hard place.
Whether you decide to go no-contact, limit how often you see your family, or just try to put up with things as they are, being able to accept it for what it is will take some of that mental burden off.
“It’s very, very hard to change a family dynamic without everybody’s consent or agreement, so part of the work is accepting that this is the way that your family is going to show up,” Zar says.
(Here’s more on how to deal with a toxic family if change isn’t possible.)
The bottom line is, every family has some issues but not every family is actually definitively toxic. When they are, though, it’s important to recognize so you can unpack how those dynamics have affected you and from there, work on healing and repairing.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.