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A Toxic Family

A Perfect Family?

What do people mean when they say they have a toxic family ? Toxic families tend to have well-established patterns of bullying, discrimination, manipulation, even physical, emotional or verbal abuse.  The dynamics of a toxic family affect most of its members, making their lives miserable.

Family shapes the first years of our lives and the upbringing we receive is crucial to the kind of adults we become. But of course not everyone is blessed with a healthy, loving home and navigating difficult family relationships is one of the most common reasons people come to counselling.

A family will never be perfect. Life happens in ways that bring challenges even into the most loving homes. It’s crucial to remain understanding and supportive when someone you love is going through something difficult. However, when negativity becomes a pattern and it has brought only sorrow and anxiety in your own life on a regular basis, you know it’s not right.

Shared history, emotional, and biological bonds make it hard for anyone to navigate or get out of these relationships. Unlike other relationships in our lives, we can’t just simply cut off familial ties although some of us do make the tough decision to cut contact with some or all of the members of their family.  

But where is the line between functional and dysfunctional? How can you determine if this line has been crossed?

A Healthy Family

It’s normal to have arguments between family members. No matter how much we love each other, we all have differences, we all get on each others’ nerves from time to time. 

But a healthy and loving family knows how to handle these conflicts and differences with trust, respect, and open-mindedness. You’re in a good and loving home if you’re allowed and encouraged to have your own thoughts, to speak up, and to live your own life according to your own terms.

Causes of dysfunction in families

One of my favourite authors, psychotherapist Dr. Harriet Lerner explains:

 “Families are dysfunctional because families are anxious systems. There is always something that sends emotional shock waves through a family as it moves through the life cycle. Anxiety, for example, drives triangles. Family members take sides, lose objectivity, and over focus on each other in a worried or blaming way, and join one person’s camp at the expense of another. Anxiety heightens reactivity, which makes family members quick to try to change and fix each other.”

In worst-case scenarios, it could stem from having abusive parents (often with their own histories of neglect and abuse)  who control and distort everything in their path.

Here are other reasons why a family becomes toxic:

  • Substance abuse among one or more family members
  • Mental health problems or personality disorders in family member/s
  • “Enabling” family member/s  in the above scenarios (there is a crucial difference between supporting someone and enabling them.)
  • Unexpected death/s or catastrophic life events
  • A history of family dysfunction from the previous generation
  • Absent parent/s

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: Difficult Behaviour, Difficult Behaviour 2, Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships