Skip to the main content.

4 min read

How To Recognize Toxic Family Members, and What To Do About It

a family at a therapy session

Media offers us a vision of family that is often quite skewed. A warm family dynamic with family members who unconditionally love and support each other is nice, but not always the true vision for many of us. Toxic family dynamics can be common, and often are not even recognized because the individual has never experienced anything different.

In this article, we'll share some ways to identify toxic family members or a toxic family dynamic, and what you can do if you see these types of behaviors in your own family.

What are the Effects of a Toxic Family?

A toxic family dynamic isn't always completely cut and dry. Often, a family may have both positive and negative aspects, and you may feel guilty for feeling anxious or frustrated with family members. Others may have had a more overwhelmingly negative experience and struggled with feelings of emotional distress.

Someone who grew up with toxic family members often experience mental health challenges, such as low self esteem, poor emotional health, and conditions like anxiety or depression. They may also engage in their own harmful patterns, learned from family relationships growing up.

Common Signs of a Toxic Family Member or Household

For most people, a toxic family relationship doesn't become apparent until they've grown up and begin to recognize that what they've experienced in their family relationships is not universal. Even then, it's not always easy to interpret how certain family members have acted can make them a toxic person. Here are some tell-tale signs that your family member may be part of a toxic relationship.

You Feel Depressed or Anxious Around Them

If you find that being around this family member makes you feel anxious or depressed, then there may be something unhealthy around your connection. Sometimes the toxic behavior is more insidious, and lies under the surface of your interactions. For example, the harmful behavior may not be obvious, like verbal abuse, but can be passive-aggressive criticism. Trust your feelings and take some time to examine why they make you feel that way.

Conditional Love and Affection

A toxic family member may make you feel as though you are only deserving of love or affection if you bend to their will or act in a certain way. An example may be that you try to assert to your mother that you need something or that she's hurt your feelings in some way, and she says, "Well, I was in labor for 20 hours with you and have given you so much, I can't believe that you won't (insert some favor or action)."

They Don't Respect Your Privacy

A parent who didn't allow you your own space can be toxic. Everyone needs access to their own private world for emotional well being, and if you aren't allowed to have that it can negatively impact your mental health.

They're Dismissive of Your Needs

Emotional abuse is not only insults, yelling, or criticism. Sometimes toxic family members simply do not acknowledge your emotional needs or offer emotional support. This is called emotional neglect, and can be harmful to mental and physical health. Emotional neglect can lead to unstable attachments, and this can affect how you relate to others in adulthood. Emotional neglect doesn't even need to be anything dramatic, it can simply be telling a family member that you're angry, sad, or scared, and them telling you to "get over it" without acknowledging your feelings.

A Family Member Misuses Alcohol or Substances

Some dysfunctional family members engage in drug or alcohol use, and this can create toxic dynamics throughout the entire family. This can negatively impact their mood and behavior, and they may not offer a stable environment for the other family members. There may also be an enabling factor involved.

They Sow Conflict With Other Family Members

A toxic family member may try to get other family members onboard against you. For example, a parent may tell your younger siblings if you have a disagreement and try to get them to rally to "their side", rather than attempting to resolve the conflict with you.

Punishment is Unwarrantedly Harsh

Toxic parents may lash out with punishments that are unnecessarily strict or harsh for the infraction. In some cases, this means that you experience verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. They may use threats, harsh language, or violence to get their points across.

They Make You Feel Bad About Feeling Bad

A toxic family member may make you feel guilty if you are feeling sad, angry, or anxious. "It's no big deal", "I'll give you something to cry about!", and "get over it!" are common ways to minimize your bad feelings. Feeling as though you aren't "allowed" to feel negative feelings can create a toxic environment.

You Were Expected to Meet Unrealistic Standards

Self-esteem can be negatively impacted if throughout your childhood a toxic family member expected perfection, or held you to an impossible standard. This toxic person may have been verbally critical, or simply never praised or acknowledged your efforts.

How You Can Deal With Toxic Family Members

With toxic family dynamics, there are no wrong ways to manage these relationships. Some go no-contact, while others may choose to have partial contact, while not engaging too closely with the family environment and protecting their own needs. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from toxic relationships with family members, should you choose to stay in contact.

Decide What You'll Share and What You'll Keep Private

If you decide to remain connected to certain family members, you may choose what parts of life to share with them. Understand that what you say in confidence may not remain so. Setting boundaries and sticking by them can protect you from the toxic individual.

Don't Try to Change Anyone

Don't waste energy trying to change anyone else's behavior. It can only lead to frustration and upsetting interactions. Focus on self-care and making a safe space for yourself and your own family.

Detachment Can Be Essential

When you are around the toxic patterns and dysfunctional family dynamics, keep yourself separated. Don't get involved in any in-fighting or gossip. Keep conversation light, avoid touchy situations, and leave when you need to.

Dealing With Toxic People in Austin, TX

Managing your own well-being after a lifetime in a toxic household can be tough. A mental health professional can offer support and tools to overcome the dynamics of toxic families.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group our team of doctoral-level family psychotherapists in Austin offers evidence-based therapeutic practices to identify toxic relationships, heal from the trauma, and avoid repeating toxic patterns.

Give us a call today and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Austin therapist to help you heal from your dysfunctional family, and focus on your well-being.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

A woman with postpartum depression

How Postpartum Depression is Treated

Pregnancy, birth, and the immediate aftermath of parenting are times of enormous change and upheaval in a person's life. Pregnant and postpartum...

Read More
a teen in therapy

Effective Therapy Activities for Teens

Most of us understand that there is some difference to how therapy sessions are structured for teens and adults. However, many parents may be...

Read More
therapy office in austin

What Should I Do If I'm Attracted to My Therapist?

A strong therapeutic relationship can be essential to success in therapy, but when the professional relationship begins to take on romantic feelings...

Read More