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Signs of a Toxic Family

This is the second blog in a series about families and looks at the signs of a toxic family. When people first come to counselling, they often find it hard to talk about their family in a critical way. It can bring up great feelings of guilt or sadness. But there is generally a sense of awareness in them, that something isn’t or wasn’t right. It takes time and painful effort to slowly unpick the past and present relationships.  Some possible signs of a toxic family are:

1. Emotional neglect

This is particularly harmful in childhood, but the effects can last well into adulthood. Everything that happens within the family revolves around the needs and dramas of one member – often a parent. Children can get caught up in this, and can be viewed not as people, but rather as things to be controlled, used and manipulated.

Sometimes they favour one child at the expense of others – or one child can become a “scapegoat” and bear the brunt of the emotional abuse. 

2. Unhealthy levels of control

Controlling parents may use bribery, emotional blackmail, or lies are used to manipulate children to get what they want. For example, they may use affection or withdrawal of affection, even distress to control a child. Examples of psychological control include not allowing children to make their own decisions, invading their privacy and fostering dependence.

3. Chronic conflict

One of the key signs of a toxic family is constant conflict between its members with no resolution and lingering resentment. Conflicts simply can’t be resolved in a healthy manner. Children can often blame themselves over their parents’ fighting. 

4. Parentification

This is where parent-children dynamics are completely reversed – one or both parents are regularly absent or so caught up in addiction or their own mental health issues that they are are unable to carry out even the most basic of parental responsibilities. The children have to take on responsibilities and and care for themselves or other family members on a daily basis. They “grow up” too fast. 

5. Dominance

One family member, usually a parent, rules everything. They have no consideration for other members’ feelings or opinions and make them feel voiceless and powerless. 

Dominant-submissive dynamics can also occur between siblings. One sibling bullies or dominates other siblings – often without parents being aware. 

6. Abuse

 This can mean physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, financial, spiritual, and even legal abuse. Even if the violence was between parents, a child witnessing this will still experience the psychological effects of an abuse victim.

7. Exploitation

This may not be as blatant as physical or verbal abuse but involves deliberate manipulation or abuse of power. It happens when someone is taking advantage of a person or a situation. This could be emotionally or financially. A healthy family is a unit of support and love, but it is not a constant source of obligation. Love is supposed to be given freely, if not unconditionally.

8. Infantilising

This means deliberately treating or making someone feel much younger than their age—as someone incapable of responsibility, decision making or at succeeding in things in life. Parents can view their children as an extension of themselves and as a result, they are threatened by the thought of their children “getting away” from their hold.

9. Discipline vs punishment

Healthy families provide disciplining as an important part of parenting –  it’s how children learn about safety, about having respect for others and for their environment and about boundaries. It is proactive – a way of learning. 

On the other hand punishment happens if there are no lessons to be taught – it is simply an exercise of control. Even not talking to another family member when you displeased them counts as toxic behaviour. 

10. Harsh judgment and criticism

We all sometimes dread family get-togethers for those incessant questions such as “When are you getting married?”“Are you doing something with your life?” It’s normal for families to be a little critical because they only want what they think is best for you.

It becomes toxic when a family member feels they never get anything right. Even when they do succeed, others find ways to put them down. They belittle their achievements and constantly make them feel incompetent and unsuccessful.

Contact Me

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also: A Toxic Family, Characteristics of a Narcissistic Parent