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Toxic Family Dynamics: Signs You Grew Up in a Dysfunctional Family

Have you ever found yourself staring longingly at that adoring family who look like the perfect picture of happiness and love – and wonder why yours can’t be more like that?

All families have arguments and go through rough patches (we’re human, after all). 

It’s how they’re handled that counts… 

If you grew up in a loving, functional family, difficulties will have been resolved in an open, communicative and healthy way.

If your family was dysfunctional, on the other hand – unfortunately – your experiences are likely to have been very different.

Family dynamics can be toxic in all kinds of different ways, and we’re going to be exploring some of the signs you grew up in a dysfunctional family here.

But first, let’s look at why family is so important – psychologically speaking.

Toxic family and psychology – why identifying you grew up in a dysfunctional family is essential

How we grow up shapes who we become. As children, we don’t have the ability to identify between “right” and “wrong”, and healthy or unhealthy behaviour. Because of this, if a child grows up around toxic behaviour they’re likely to either normalise it or internalise it by believing it’s their fault – and often both.

Family – and particularly our parents (or primary caregivers) – form the basis for our self-worth, how we connect and what we believe relationships to be. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, it’s going to shape the kinds of relationships you form in later life – both when it comes to love and friendships, and perhaps even professionally too.

The mind feels comfortable in the familiar which is why children of alcoholics are at a greater risk of marrying an alcoholic (or becoming one) and more than half of abused children (51%) will experience abuse again in later life.

If you believe you grew up in a dysfunctional family, identifying the toxic behaviour and how it impacted you is imperative so that you can grieve, heal and also break the pattern once and for all.

Living in a toxic household – what are the signs?

Sometimes toxic behaviour is obvious, other times it is more subtle and seeps into our psyche without us even realising. 

If you’re still in the middle of a toxic dynamic, it can be very difficult to see the situation clearly for what it is. That’s because over time the behaviour becomes normalised.

Below are some of the signs to look out for:

Physical symptoms after (or during) time spent with family members – emotional distress impacts the body as well as the mind. If after spending time with certain family members you feel any of the following, this should serve as a signal that the dynamic is not serving you: feeling drained, back and neck pain, jaw-clenching, digestive troubles or a tightness in your stomach.

There was favouring in your family – in toxic families, often one child will be favoured and the other will bear the brunt of the abuse – the designated scapegoat. In these cases, both children are likely to suffer from low self-worth. The abused child will feel rejected and unlovable whilst the favoured one may only feel worthy for external factors e.g. their achievements. 

There was role-reversal – you grew up “too soon” and were expected to bear adult responsibilities. For example: providing emotional support to a parent, taking on excessive chores and responsibilities around the house or caring for your siblings. If you were parentified as a child, you run the risk of playing a “caretaker” role in your adult relationships, prioritising others needs over your own.

You feel guilty or a sense of obligation – love is a free exchange, something that is chosen. Toxic family members can emotionally exploit other members under the guise of “family” e.g. “family is all we have”, “family is always there, no matter what”. Abusive relationships never need to be tolerated – family or otherwise.

Zero boundaries between family members – being close is one thing but healthy relationships also have a sense of autonomy. Examples of lack of boundaries: having no personal space, family members walking into your room and going through your personal things, reading diaries, listening-in to phone calls.

Indirect communication – in dysfunctional families, information, news or gossip tends to get spread in an indirect manner via other family members.

You have a pattern of troubled romantic relationships – children from dysfunctional families will often end up playing out these unhealthy dynamics in later life – either from a subconscious desire to “fix” the dysfunction they encountered in childhood or because it feels familiar.

Leaving your dysfunctional family behind – what steps to take next

If you come from a dysfunctional family, the first thing you need to do is to remind yourself that you are under no obligation to anyone – including your family. Many people experience a lot of guilt when it comes to distancing or disconnecting from family members but the most important thing you can do (whatever you decide) is to make yourself a priority.

Here are some steps you should be taking:

Practise self-care – making yourself a priority means looking after both your mind and body so you can heal. Self-care looks different for different people – yoga, walking, running, baths, massages…. 

Identify your “inner critic” – if you grew up in a toxic family, you’re likely to have a very harsh inner critic. Practice self-compassion and kindness as much as possible.

Create a chosen-family – we can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends. Build a support system of friends who are worthy of your time, energy and love.

Establish firm boundaries – if you decide to continue seeing certain family members, be clear on your own limits. Are there certain topics that feel triggering which you want to avoid? Tell them upfront. This can be as simple as, “I’d rather not talk about that today” and a change of conversation. Likewise, organise to see them for brief stints rather than over long periods of time e.g. meeting on neutral ground for lunch instead of staying at their house.

Accept that they are unlikely to change – if you’ve grown up in a toxic family, you may fantasise that certain family members will suddenly “see the light”, apologise and change. But unless they are prepared to seek professional support and do the work, that’s extremely unlikely. What you can change is how you respond and how much you choose to engage with them.

Go to therapy – identifying toxic behaviour, how it impacted you and the coping mechanisms you adopted in order to deal with this behaviour are essential in order to heal. A therapist can guide you on this journey providing you with the space, guidance and support you need in order to recover – and that you likely never experienced growing up.

Whether you choose to stay connected to your family or you come to the decision that you need to create some distance (or disconnect completely) – this is about doing what’s best for you. Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have devastating consequences, and some people need distance or separation in order to fully heal.

Speaking to a therapist can help you unravel your experiences, how they impacted you and how they are impacting you today so you can take the steps to move forward freely, as your most authentic self.