Toxic family members can really do a number on us during our childhood and even in our adulthood. But it’s never too late to take action. Keep reading to find out how to handle the toxic family members in your life.
What Is A Toxic Relationship?
The key characteristics that define a toxic relationship are a lack of support, being misunderstood without the willingness to understand, being demeaned, and being attacked (Very Well Mind). Simply put, any relationship that makes you feel worse than you’d otherwise would be.
Whereas, a healthy relationship would be defined by mutual respect, caring, compassion, a healthy interest in the happiness of their partner and the relationship, and shared decision-making (Solferino and Tessitore, 2019). A healthy relationship should also be honest, have trust, be able to have open communication, can compromise, and where people’s independence is respected (New York State).
Narrative Inheritance And Toxic Family Members
While researching this article, I came across an interesting concept regarding toxic families called, ‘Narrative Inheritance’. Narrative inheritance was defined as being:
I use this term to describe the afterlives of the sentences used to spell out the life stories of those who came before us. What we inherit narratively from our forebears provides us with a framework for understanding our identity through theirs. It helps us see our life grammar and working logic as an extension of, or a rebellion against, the way we story how they lived and thought about things, and it allows us to explain to others where we come from and how we were raised in the continuing context of what it all means. We are fundamentally homo narrans—humans as storytellers—and a well-told story brings with it a sense of fulfillment and of completion.
But we don’t always inherit that sense of completion. We too often inherit a family’s unfinished business, and when we do, those incomplete narratives are given to us to fulfill.
Goodall Jr (2005)
Simply put, this is how we can bear the sins of our father, with our families living vicariously through us, and how our family’s norms and values can shape us in one form or another. For me, my mum’s values and norms that she still keeps trying to ram down my throat were thoroughly rejected by me. My mum and I are polar opposites.
At the other end of the scale, you get people who can be corrupted by the family’s norms and values. People aren’t born racist, they’re moulded into being that way. Plus, for some people, they can feel like they have to carry on the family legacy, so to speak, rather than having the independence to find the own thing in life.
There are many ways our families can affect who we are as people, but toxic families can have the biggest effect, although the outcome isn’t always going to be a new generation of toxic family members. Breaking free from such families can certainly help avoid that.
The Harm Of Toxic Family Members On Children
It’s important to create the right environment for children to grow up in, because a socially toxic environment can poison their development (Garbarino, 1997). Raising children in nurturing environments will create happier and mentally healthier children when compared to toxic ones.
Such social toxins could be racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry which create a toxic environment for your children. Take my mum and her religion as an example. Parents rarely realise that the views they hold could be toxic to their family, especially their children. How do you think a child would feel knowing their parents are homophobic while the child believes they are part of LGBTQIA+ community? Not great, that’s for sure.
Obviously, the social environment the children grow up in also includes the rest of society (Michalski, 2017). However, the key players are our families. If a family is supportive enough, they can help children build resilience to handle toxic environments.
I can testify to that. My mum may have been emotionally negligent and self-obsessed. But if it wasn’t for the racism I endured throughout my childhood, what my mum lacked in the support I needed; wouldn’t have had such an impact. It was definitely a combination of the two that destroyed me, causing me to be suicidal by the time I was eight-years-old.
A study by Michalski (2017) looked into the effects of adverse childhood experiences on the outcome of male adults. The study was conducted using face-to-face interviews with 38 male prisoner and 66 male university student participants. The interviews found that nearly 80% of inmates had toxic family members that created adverse childhood experiences. Of the University students, only two of the 66 participants had a similar toxic childhood.
In short, living with toxic family members who create a harsh family environment, cause child maltreatment, and contain sub-optimal parenting practices can increase the probability of problems in adulthood (Michalski, 2017).
The Toxic Family Members Abusive Cycle
Even in a toxic family, there will have been good times and wonderful memories. But that doesn’ trump the overall toxicity, and often can stop us from breaking free from the toxic nature of our families. I too have nice memories with my mum, such as her playing football with me when my friends from my street went to school (they were the year above me, so they started school before I did). But that doesn’t make up for the emotional neglect I endured as I went through my entire school life enduring racism.
This point was also found in the Michalski (2017) study. Some prisoners recounted positive experiences and memories with their parents and caregivers, even the ones that had been removed because of sexual and physical abuse. This is where the abusive cycle comes in.
I’ve talked about the abusive cycle before, when I wrote my article ‘What Is Domestic Abuse? Advice And Information‘. In that article, I talk about domestic abuse and how the abusive cycle functions to keep the cycle of abuse going.
Essentially, toxic family members who are abusive will go through a predictable cycle in how they abuse you. The abusive event will happen, then they’ll seek forgiveness and give justifications (lies) for why they did what they did. After that there will be a honeymoon phase where everything seems ok. This is where the good memories can often be created. But soon enough, the tension will build again, leading to another abusive event.
Remember, abusive environments created by toxic family members aren’t always violence, although that can play a part. More often than not, it’s gaslighting, name calling, belittlement, and emotional, psychological, and financial abuse.
Handling Toxic Family Members
If you’re a child experiencing problems with toxic family members, then the best thing to do would be the reach out to a professional. I’ve listed some organisations at the end of this article in the Support section that can help children and people of any age trapped in an abusive situation. However, there are other strategies you can also try if you’re an adult, which I’ve listed below.
Standing up for yourself
When it comes to our toxic family members and our loved ones, we can easily ignore or dismiss the abusive behaviours in the name of keeping the peace. We don’t want to rock the boat because they’re our family. The problem is, in doing that, nothing will change and you’ll have to keep enduring such treatment from them.
If you want your toxic family members to change how they behave, then you’re going to need to say something. Trying seeing if you can save the family relationship by talking to them about what’s bothering you. However, just because you want the toxic family member to change, that doesn’t mean they will.
In such situations, you can try what Dr Carla Marie Manly (clinical psychologist) recommended. Just use a quick comment and then remove yourself from the situation before they can start a fight. For example, you could say, “I feel hurt when you swear at me. I’m leaving the party now and hope that next time you will talk kindly to me”.
Another step in standing up for yourself would be to set boundaries. Boundaries are a great way to protect your wellbeing from others. They create a line you don’t want others to cross. You can find out more about boundaries by clicking here.
Look for patterns with your toxic family members, because what happened in your childhood can repeat itself in adulthood. Doing this can have several benefits. It can help you realise how long the toxic behaviour has been occurring, because we rarely understand that it happened while we were children, because it becomes normalised. This can also help you break free from the relationship, should you need to.
Doing this will also help you identify if you’ve picked up any troubling behaviours because of your toxic family members. For example, you might need constant reassurance because of what happened in your childhood. Knowing why you need this could then help you overcome it.
Create a pros and cons list of staying in the toxic family members’ world, then create another for if you cut them out of your life and see where you stand. This could help you make your decision on if you’re going to cut them out of your life for good or just reduce contact with those toxic members of your family.
This can be a simple way to help you re-evaluate your relationship with your toxic family members. That’s because maintaining these toxic relationships will come with a cost at the expensive of your wellbeing and self-esteem.
I can understand how difficult it can be to cut toxic family members out of your life. I know, because I’ve tried. When it came to cutting my aunt out of my life because she kept sharing white nationalist content, it was a straightforward decision to make. I gave them a chance to change. They didn’t, so I removed them from my life and blocked them. My mother, on the other hand, is harder to remove, so instead I’ve reduced our interactions.
For more information on burning bridges, check out my article ‘Burning Bridges And Cutting People Out Of Your Life‘ by clicking here.
If you feel you can’t burn the bridges that connect you to your toxic family members, then you can try limiting contact as much as possible. I know I have massively reduced contact with my mum, rather than burning that bridge. Don’t get me wrong, I want to burn that bridge, but that bridge is my only connection to the rest of my family.
If something were to happen to my partner, I’d have nothing, and I don’t know how that might affect me. So for now, I ignore her unless she calls. I also don’t really pay much attention when she calls.
I blocked my mum on social member after teaching her how to use it and setting her up with her accounts and her smartphone. She’s not allowed that kind of access to me, because she’s an enormous source of my depression. Just talking to her will crash my mental wellbeing, and she doesn’t even have to say anything bad. It’s about finding a balance that works for you when it comes to how and when you’ll contact each other.
You don’t owe your toxic family members anything. If it’s in your best interest to cut the toxic family members out of your life, then do it. And if you need to, burn those bridges and completely cut them out of your life. Some toxic family members simply won’t be willing to change.
When you reduce contact or cut ties with your toxic family members, stay firm. Don’t allow them to weasel their way back into your life. There may be some push back from the toxic family members as they try to maintain the dysfunctional dynamic. Remember, your boundaries, your feelings, your needs, and your opinions matter.
Seek healthy love
As I keep saying in this article, trying to change your toxic family members can be an impossible task, like getting blood from a stone. So ditch the dysfunctional love that comes from your toxic family members and seek out healthy relationships.
I’ve tried countless times to get my mum to change, even writing a letter during the Black Lives Matter protests, which I shared as an article on here. She’ll never change, and I’ve always known that, because I’ve never been a priority for my mum.
Creating and maintaining a strong support network full of supportive and positive people is a great way to help manage toxic family members. I know I often rant to my partner about the terrible things my mum says. My partner also knows how much a phone call from my mum can affect me negatively.
Remember, a support network can include anyone, from other family members, friends, people from a support group, therapists, and people from your dance class or other hobby activity. Having these people in your support network can help blow away the cloud of toxicity left by your family. They can help pick you up when your toxic family members make you feel low.
It’s hard to leave toxic family members, so don’t blame yourself if you’re finding it difficult to do so or that you can’t. Instead, be kind to yourself. As I’ve said before, “Life is hard enough as it is, so try not to add to that by being your own worse critic”.
Whenever you have to deal with your toxic family members, practise some self-care afterwards. You could do this by creating a self-care jar. Prioritise looking after your own wellbeing, because your toxic family members sure won’t.
Don’t blame yourself
We can’t choose who gives birth to us and who we’re related to by blood. It’s not your fault if your blood family is toxic. You can’t always change your toxic family members, so don’t blame yourself for the things outside of your control.
Work on your resilience
Remember that the relationship with your toxic family members doesn’t define who you are. You are your own person. Focus on yourself and your needs and forget about your toxic family members.
I know my mum’s a bigot and I’ll tell her that whenever she becomes a mouthpiece for another white nationalist soundbite. My mum’s views don’t define who I am, and I champion equality and justice for all whenever I can. I’m all about inclusion. I even created an article on how websites can be more inclusive to people with disabilities. That’s who I am.
According to Psych Central, affirmations can be powerful tools for change. If you want to feel strong, try saying “I am strong” to yourself, for example. Of course, you’ll have to back this up with some practical steps too, such as standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.
Toxic family members can be hard to deal with, especially when you’re stuck living in the same home. Growing up in a toxic environment can have a significant impact on we are in our adulthood. For those that are legally too young to take action against your abusive family members, there is support available to help you. Please check my Support section below for a starting point about how to get that help.
For everyone else, I outlined several steps you can use to help you manage life with your toxic family members. It’s never too late to take action regarding your toxic family members. But the most important step, if none of the other steps work; bring out the big guns and burn those bridges. You don’t owe your family anything. Your mental wellbeing is important and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with toxic family members in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Garbarino, J. (1997). Educating children in a socially toxic environment. Educational leadership, 54, 12-17. Retrieved from https://www.theforumjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Educating-Children-in-a-Socially.pdf.
Goodall Jr, H. L. (2005). Narrative inheritance: A nuclear family with toxic secrets. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(4), 492-513. Retrieved from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.959.3707&rep=rep1&type=pdf, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1077800405276769, and https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1077800405276769.
Michalski, J. (2017). The Cumulative Disadvantages of Socially Toxic Family Environments: A Comparison of Early Life Experiences of Incarcerated Men and University Students. Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change, 2(2), 4. Retrieved from https://www.lectitopublishing.nl/Article/Detail/the-cumulative-disadvantages-of-socially-toxic-family-environments-a-comparison-of-early-life and https://www.lectitopublishing.nl/download/the-cumulative-disadvantages-of-socially-toxic-family-environments-a-comparison-of-early-life.pdf.
Solferino, N., & Tessitore, M. E. (2019). Human networks and toxic relationships. Munich Personal RePEc Archive, No. 95756. Retrieved from https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/95756 and https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/95756/1/MPRA_paper_95756.pdf.
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