Were You Raised in a Toxic Family? (The Signs)
Updated: Aug 15
It's common for conflicts and arguments to exist in families; that's not a negative thing, it's a natural part of life. In fact, healthy conflict can teach us a lot about ourselves and others and help us solve problems, learn how to communicate, and practice empathy, compassion, and healthy assertion.
But there's a difference between healthy conflict in families and toxic families. When speaking about toxic families, this doesn't mean every single person in the family unit is toxic. It could just mean one person, like mom, dad, or a sibling. But if one person in the family unit is toxic, it's makes the family toxic.
If you've traveled back home as an adult and stayed at your parents' house, have you ever noticed that you become this version of yourself you're not fond of? Do you notice yourself becoming emotionally drained and exhausted during or after your stay? When you're with your parents, does it seem like time with them is about making sure their needs get met, and you, as a person and who you are now, don't really matter much to them?
In this post, we're going to look at 7 signs that indicate you could have a toxic family.
#1: Competition and/or Jealousy
Your mom always wanted a career that would allow her to travel the world, but she chose a different career path. You got a remote job that gives you the flexibility to travel anywhere you want at any time of the year, and you've just booked your first international trip. When talking to your mom with excitement about your upcoming travels, she starts talking about how she wishes she could have a job as flexible as yours that would let her do that, and instead of asking you questions of curiosity about your upcoming trip, she starts talking about all the things that could potentially go wrong. It's hard to wrap your mind around a mom being jealous that her child gets to have opportunities to see the world, but in a toxic family system, jealousy from the parent to the child is incredibly common.
Anger is a normal, healthy, human emotion. But in toxic family systems, anger from the parents is scary. Parents in toxic families will overreact at the smallest thing, like you standing up for yourself and asserting a boundary, or you being 5 minutes late to a family dinner because you got stuck in traffic. This overreaction can look like verbal threats, screaming, or raging. To put it simply, parents in toxic families fly off the handle.
In a toxic family, you're very familiar with constantly being compared to siblings or cousins (if you don't have siblings). Even though you and your siblings are completely different people with different personalities, talents, goals, aspirations, hopes, and dreams, it doesn't matter.
If you're single and working as a vet tech and you have a sibling who is a married doctor with 2 children, you might be teased or ridiculed by your family for not "living up" to your sibling's lifestyle.
#4: Acting Like Victims
There's expressing disappointment, and then there's acting like a victim. Parents in toxic families will always make it seem like they're the victims of your actions, even if your actions are solely for your pleasure and enjoyment.
If you decide to spend a holiday with friends instead of traveling home to see your family, a healthy way for a parent to respond would look something like this:
"I'm sad we won't get to see you at the holiday get together this year, but we'll be thinking of you and we hope you have a great time with your friends!"
A toxic parental response looks like this:
"You're not coming home for Christmas? Are you serious?"
The different here is guilt tripping. In healthy families, parents understand their children are autonomous and have the ability to create boundaries and make decisions on their own. In toxic families, parents take every decision their child makes and perceive it as something that's done against them.
#5: Lack of Respect for Boundaries
Toxic families believe boundaries are harsh, are a threat against them, and don't respect others boundaries when asked to.
Politics is a heated discussion at family gatherings, so you've asked your parents to not bring up politics when you're around. They don't respect what you're requested, and they continue to discuss political things with you, even after you've asked them to stop in the middle of the conversation.
#6: Always Talking About Themselves
Toxic families only talk about themselves. They're pretty self-absorbed and don't have much capacity to hold space for you.
You just got off a phone call with your sister, and you realized that for the past hour, she only talked about herself and didn't really ask you any questions about your life.
Obviously, it's different if someone in your family is in crisis and is talking through something extremely difficult. But if you're noticing that your family member has been talking about themselves almost every time you talk, for the entire duration of the conversation, it's a pretty big sign you have a toxic family member.
#7: Energy Drainers
Do you feel completely drained after spending time with a particular family member or talking to them on the phone?
There's a difference between needing space after social interactions (like most introverts) and feeling completely defeated and drained. Toxic families are dramatic, needy, and high-maintenance, and this can cause you to feel like you're not yourself after spending time with them.
These are a just a few signs you have a toxic family, but it's certainly not all the signs. Toxic families gaslight, manipulate, and often display narcissistic behavior. It's also common for one or both of the parents to have a personality disorder.
In the next blog post, we're going to discuss how you can move on from your toxic childhood, including exploring ways you can navigate your relationships with people in your toxic family.
At Root Counseling, we work with people on helping them identify their family structure and heal from their toxic childhood. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.