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When Family Becomes Toxic: The Signs and Effects


Family can be a positive or negative influence or a combination of both. Negative, or toxic, family dynamics may lead to frustration and cause emotional distress through interactions with family members or even the thought of them. It may be hard to recognize you are in a toxic or dysfunctional family or that you grew up in one. It is hard to see a situation when you are on the inside. There are ways to recognize and change how you engage in these toxic situations.

Recognizing a Toxic Childhood or Family Environment 

Most people do not realize the effects that their childhood family environment had on their development until they are adults. Some signs that you may have grown up in a toxic family environment include having to meet unrealistic standards, such as having chores or tasks that kept you from completing homework, playing with friends, or getting enough sleep. Some examples of what one might endure in a toxic family environment include:

  • Having to care for younger siblings by providing discipline and care to them
  • Staying up late with parents with substance use disorders (SUDs) to ensure they got to bed safely
  • Providing emotional support to parents with SUDs 
  • Cooking meals or doing excessive chores at extremely young ages
  • Receiving harsh criticism that made you feel unloved, unwanted, or lesser than
  • Having personal needs not met, such as being forgotten and not being picked up from school or after-school activities, not having adequate food at home, or suitable clothing and shelter

 Healthy family environments include supporting basic needs, including:

  • Making sure your needs are met, such as providing adequate clothing and food
  • Taking care of your health
  • Providing affection
  • Instilling discipline and setting boundaries

Recognizing a Toxic Family Environment

If you feel that you have dealt with, or are dealing with, a toxic family situation, try and recognize your feelings after interactions with family members. If you feel negative or down on yourself after family interactions, you may need to draw boundaries. For example, look for these particular feelings from your family that may be warning signs:

  • You feel controlled 
  • You feel disrespected and unloved
  • You feel hatred and disapproval instead of love

Substance Use and The Toxic Family Environment

A family member who uses alcohol or drugs isn’t inherently toxic, but substance use disorders (SUDs) may develop, which can lead to unhealthy dynamics within the family. Ways that substance use may influence a toxic family environment include:

  • Substance use that impacts a family member’s mood or behavior negatively
  • Substance use that is hidden or not spoken of among the family or to outsiders
  • Enabling a family member’s use of drugs or alcohol
  • Emotional, verbal, or physical abuse resulting from a family member’s alcohol or drug use 

Unfortunately, there is a relationship between substance use and abuse. SUDs take over the sufferer’s life, resulting in an uncontrollable need to use drugs or alcohol, which may lead to engaging in negative behaviors such as lying, stealing, manipulating, or abuse to obtain the substance.  Abuse within the toxic family can include:

  • Physical abuse or violence
  • Verbal abuse such as name-calling or harsh criticism
  • Sexual abuse, such as inappropriate touching
  • Gaslighting, or making someone doubt their perception of reality or memories

How to Deal with a Toxic Family Environment

Dealing with toxic family members is a personal and individualized pursuit. Some may cut off contact entirely with toxic family members, while others will limit contact and try to figure out the situation while protecting their emotional and psychological health. If you are currently in a toxic family situation or grew up in one, these strategies may help you navigate and cope:

  • Figure out what you want from your family relationships
  • Develop clear boundaries you want to set, by limiting the number of family visits and maintaining a certain level of contact that is comfortable for you
  • Practice separation and not getting involved in family issues

Separation may involve avoiding topics that evoke strong emotions, keeping conversations casual, and leaving if situations start getting toxic or heated. However, staying out of toxic family situations is easier said than done. You must make a plan to avoid getting drawn into the negative cycle that creates a toxic family environment. Some strategies include:

  • Establish topics to avoid while you’re with family, and informing them of these off-limit topics
  • Figure out how to change topics
  • Deflect a provoking or prying question by asking a different question
  • Deciding what you’re willing to share, and what you want to keep private

Toxic family members may use details about yourself to control, manipulate, and criticize you, so establishing boundaries on what you share with them is a form of self-preservation. Before engaging with your family, remind yourself of what your off-limit topics are so you don’t engage in conversations that may create dysfunction and negative situations. Furthermore, understand that setting boundaries are a risk in a toxic family environment since you risk rejection. Saying “no” to situations that lead to distress and unhappiness may be the best way to protect yourself from perpetual exposure to toxicity. You do not have control over anyone but yourself, and you cannot change toxic family members. You only have the power to change yourself and how you respond to or engage in situations. 

What to Do If You Feel You Are A Part of a Toxic Family Environment

Often, a toxic family environment involves a substance use disorder (SUD) and, unfortunately, may lead to unhealthy dynamics. Toxic family members may attack you, lessen your self-esteem, or disagree with your life choices. These situations can cause division between you and your family and impact your self-worth. You may need to set boundaries and create a personal path in life, avoiding the conflict and negativity that comes from interactions with a toxic family environment. Give yourself the power back. If you or someone you know has a substance use disorder to drugs or alcohol and is living in a toxic environment, call Enlightened Solutions today at 833-801-LIVE.