Toxic Family Systems: The Signs & How to Heal
Updated: May 23
For the most part, we're able to control who we allow access into our lives. We get to choose our friends. But we don't get to the choose the family we're born into. We don't get to choose our parents. As children, we can't make the decision to leave our parents if they're toxic because we just don't have that type of autonomy yet, and we depend on them for our survival. People in our family can have qualities we don't like. This doesn't mean that they're toxic; it means that they're human. What separates qualities we don't like in our family and a toxic family is abusive behavior.
We're going to look at a few abusive behaviors in toxic family systems that will help you identify if you are living with or have come from a toxic family. We're then going to give you some tools to help you take steps toward healing.
There's a difference between healthy parental control and abusive parental control. As children, it's healthy for our parents to have some degree of control over our lives so that they can keep us safe and help us make healthy choices. In toxic families, the parent's controlling behavior over your decisions is intended to manipulate you. A few examples of abusive parental control are:
using money or food as a way for you to do what they want you to do
turning off your phone from the cell phone provider when they're angry with you (i.e. you have no way of texting or calling anyone for help)
telling you what you can and cannot wear about clothes, make-up, or jewelry
pitting siblings against you to make you feel isolate when you've upset the parent
threatening to and/or actually physically hurting you to get you to do what they want
These are just a few examples of the abusive parental control that exists within toxic families.
You're Always to Blame
Toxic parents will rarely, if ever, take responsibility for how they made you feel. If they do apologize, it usually starts with, "I'm sorry you feel that way, BUT...", completely negating the responsibility their actions have had on you. It's easy for them to find fault in other people. They do not have the ability to self-reflect, and if you have the courage to call them out on inappropriate behavior, they'll be quick to blame you; "if you wouldn't have said that, then I wouldn't have gotten so mad!" "I don't see how what I said was such a big deal because you said something like that to me 3 years ago." They'll hold on to your previous mistakes and use them against you when you stand up for yourself. No matter what, in toxic family systems, it will always be your fault for their bad behavior.
When living in a toxic family, it feels like there's nothing you can do that will ever be good enough for your parents. You could achieve something incredible, and a toxic parent will find something about your character to demean. It's very common for toxic parents to feel like after they've had children, that they're not longer able to accomplish any goals for themselves. This causes them to essentially live through their children, and they view their children as extensions of themselves. They try to shape their children's lives in ways they would have wanted to live themselves. Toxic parents also have very low self-esteem, and since their children are just extensions of themselves, it's easy for them to treat them poorly and maintain such hypercritical behavior because it's how they internally feel about themselves. But due to their lack of self-awareness, they are not able to recognize that.
Dismissive of Your Feelings
In toxic families, the parents are not comfortable expressing their own feelings and emotions. They lack the ability to emotionally regulate, and if they're unable to emotionally regulate themselves, then they're not able to teach that valuable skill to their children. When the adult child of a toxic family leaves and learns how to emotionally regulate on his own, if he comes back to confront his parent's behavior or how it made him feel, he will be dismissed by his parents.
If the toxic parent if the reason you're feeling depressed, anxious, unsettled, or sad, they will try to convince you that you're the issue; that something other than them has caused you to feel this way. This can feel incredibly invalidating, hurtful, and confusing.
Pitting Siblings Against Each Other
We used this ideas as an example of control, but it deserves its own category because of how dangerously powerful this behavior is in a toxic family system. If a parent is angry at one of their children, they'll intentionally do things with the other sibling(s) that will foster connection, like doing an activity together or playing together, that will exclude the child they're angry at. They may even talk to the other sibling(s) about the "bad" child's behavior, causing the child to feel isolated and alone. They may even intentionally try to humiliate the child, or make competition between siblings vindictive and personal.
We need to remember that when toxic parents use this tactic, it isn't because the child did something "bad." It's because the child did something that caused the parent to feel an intense amount of rage and anger towards the child's character. In healthy family systems, children are learning and growing. The character of a child is innocent. They have the space to make mistakes, and they're still met with love at the end of each mistake. That is not the case in toxic family systems. Abusive behavior is manipulated to be like love, and these children start to equate abusive behavior as love. This can cause immense issues in adult relationships.
How to Heal
Toxic love, or abusive behavior (as I like to call it), should never be tolerated. Although it can be helpful for us to gain a better understanding of our parents childhood and how their childhood trauma contributed to the pain they caused us, it is never a reason to continue to tolerate abusive behavior. Ever. The next steps few steps involve ways you can heal if you grew up in a toxic family system:
set boundaries - this can be difficult for people who grew up in toxic families where healthy boundaries were never established. Basically, boundaries are to protect you. It's not about the other person; it's about you.
determine the source of toxic behavior - does someone in the family have a mental illness? Is there past childhood trauma in the parents' lives? Drug issues? Spousal abuse?
gain your independence - do what you can to ensure that you're not tied to them in ways that make you dependent on them. This includes financially.
sever ties when necessary - going no contact or ending the relationship you have with your parents is usually the last straw. This occurs when nothing else has worked and everything else has been tried over and over again. It's very difficult for adult children to get to this place where they make the decision to end their relationship with their parents, but sometimes, it's the healthiest thing they ever do.
seek professional help - therapists who work specifically with attachment issues and toxic family systems can be a great resource for you to have a safe space while you process through your family dynamics and the abuse you endured
Regain Editorial Team. (2023). Toxic family dynamics: The signs and how to cope with them.
At Root Counseling, we're passionate about helping people heal from toxic families, create healthy boundaries, and gain the freedom, independence, and peace they deserve. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.