Navigating Toxic Families in 2021
Unfortunately, many of us are not lucky enough to be part of an all-loving family. Your parents might be fighting all the time. Maybe they’re selfish and indifferent. Maybe they’re separated and you hate the people they allow in their lives. Maybe you don’t get along with your siblings. Maybe you feel angry, anxious, helpless, or forced to hide your emotions, and your self-esteem is very low.
Some family members have toxic behaviors—manipulative, aggressive, unkind. The word “toxic” here describes behavior and not the person, because no one is 100 percent good, bad, or toxic. All of us come with both positive qualities and our share of flaws, and therefore it would be unfair to reduce a person, or a family, to a single adjective. The word “toxic” refers to the behaviors that people in the family might be displaying—behaviors that result in concrete problems.
When people outside our home are being “toxic,” we can choose to simply walk away. However, when the toxic individuals are our parents or siblings, the situation becomes much more complex.
If you’re dealing (or have had to deal) with frightening and threatening events at home, you are more likely to suffer from academic problems, behavioral problems, and health problems. If you are being physically or emotionally abused or know someone who is being abused, you don’t have to tolerate it. You can get help by speaking to a school counselor or talking to one of the counselors at the National Child Abuse Hotline. Their twenty-four-hour hotline number is 1-800-422-4453. If you don’t feel comfortable making a call, they have a twenty-four-hour internet chat available with trained counselors at ChildHelp.org/hotline. Abuse can make you feel powerless and like you have no control over your life. And it can be scary to reach out for help, but if you are being hurt, you owe it to yourself to talk to someone who can give you some options that may make your life better.
Here are some signs that you’re part of a toxic family:
You don’t trust other people. If the toxic people in your life have used manipulation to control you, you might find that you no longer trust others—at home or outside of home—and that you have difficulty creating healthy relationships. Your guard is always up, and over time, getting rid of this constant state of alert seems to become more and more difficult.
Here are some examples of manipulation:
● A toxic parent may use emotional blackmail to gain your affection; for instance, they may often speak badly about the other parent, trying to form an alliance against them.
● A toxic parent may be passive aggressive. Instead of openly expressing how they are feeling, the person makes subtle comments to give you a guilt trip. Rather than clearly saying what’s bothering them, they find petty ways to spite you until they get your attention.
When you can identify where the trust was broken, and why this is an issue for you, then you can work on forgiving, healing, and establishing boundaries with a toxic family member.
You don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like. Our models of “love” are based on an inheritance of dysfunction passed down through slavery, oppression, racism, bigotry, and patriarchy. Our models of “love” are based on what Hollywood tells us is romantic. Physical and psychological violence, abuse and neglect, might distort your perception of what a caring relationship is even more. Subconsciously, you expect the people around you to overreact, be demanding, blame you, or abandon you. In many cases, we accept toxic behavior because we don’t know any better! If you’ve always felt like you were walking on eggshells around your dad, you might not question a friendship where your best friend is always on the verge of yelling at you. Her toxicity will feel familiar.
You don’t know how to deal with stress. Our bodies respond to extreme stress by triggering a “flight or fight” response wherein a flood of stress hormone—called cortisol—is released into the body, signaling to the brain that it’s time to either flee or stand your ground and fight. The hormones have several effects that help the body survive an attack: our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and we begin to breathe faster. This dilates our blood vessels and the air passages in our lungs, which sends more oxygen to our vital organs and brain. Our senses sharpen. While under the duress of stress, we remain on high alert, and the reasoning and memory centers of our brains are less active, so our attention becomes more focused on either fighting the danger or running away from it.
If you’re constantly in a stressful situation at home, with frightening or threatening situations occurring too frequently, stress becomes chronic and disrupts the brain’s and body’s responses. High levels of stress have been linked to many different medical conditions like autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, and mental illnesses. How do you know if you are under chronic stress?
You feel like a small kid. Toxic family members refuse to acknowledge that you have a mind of your own. They treat you like a helpless little thing. They want to control and command you, and if they meet even a little resistance, they become upset and make you feel guilty. You’re not allowed to make your own decisions, your privacy is constantly violated, and you lack any kind of independence. You’re anxious all the time, afraid to do something new, and unable to fit in. You do not feel listened to or respected, and develop low self-esteem or even inappropriate behaviors.
You don’t know who you are because you’re not given the chance to build your own identity. As a result, you may suffer from anxiety attacks and depression. Because of your low self-esteem, you criticize yourself a lot; you feel stupid, worthless, and not deserving of anything better. You come to accept the idea that you are “less” than others.
Sometimes, the opposite happens. Instead of feeling like a small kid, you feel like the adult in the family. One or even both parents are very immature on all levels. Their weak sense of responsibility, their lack of interest, their carelessness or poor control of their impulses make them unreliable. You’re forced to take on adult responsibilities and grow up too fast, which is neither appropriate nor healthy.
You ignore your emotions. Maybe you’ve never learned to properly express your feelings, because the “wrong” words could lead to serious abuse from one of your parents. So you hide your pain, your resentment, your anger. Maybe you find yourself prioritizing other people’s emotions over your own. If you ignore your emotions, it might be difficult for you to know who you are, how you feel, and what you want in life. You’re held back by your doubts and your inability to relate to other people.
Sometimes, the emotional distance that exists within your family might not be obvious to those looking from the outside. Some parents meet the primary needs of their children: the family never runs out of food, books, or even fun vacations. But behind the façade, these individuals are cold: no hugs, no kisses, no signs of affection, no support, no understanding. As a teenager, you might find that you’re self-sufficient but lack the ability to connect with others on an emotional level. Maybe you don’t feel worthy of affection and harbor feelings of inferiority.
You can’t stand failure. If you’re in a toxic environment at home, you might constantly feel inadequate and unworthy. Your parents might have asked too much of you, without ever showing gratitude or satisfaction. And here you are now—with low self-esteem and an unquenchable thirst for attention, on the verge of an anxiety attack at the very idea of failure. You often feel anxious and insecure. You may have difficulty concentrating. You’re irritable, hyperactive, worried, and tense.
Toxic families are full of conflict, abuse of authority, and dysfunctional dynamics that affect all their members. Because of their personality, their behavior, or their way of communicating, toxic parents hurt or destroy emotional balance, motivation, and self-esteem. This constantly creates an atmosphere full of tension, skin-deep emotions, and a high level of anxiety.
What Can You Do?
No one deserves to live in an emotionally toxic environment. Some malicious, intrusive, or violent behaviors and words have lasting, harmful consequences. But what can you do? You might feel that you’re stuck, with no way out.
Define the situation. If it sometimes gets violent, making sure that you are physically safe has to be your number one priority. Have a list ready of places you can go in an emergency situation. Pick people you know will protect you until the crisis passes—like very close friends or relatives. If you don’t have anyone available to help you, go to a public place where other people will see you and where you feel safe. If you are physically injured and need help right away, go to a fire station or to a police station. Explain the situation at home to the people you go to.
● If you cannot leave your house and your parents are being abusive, try to go to your room and lock the door.
● If you are in immediate danger and cannot leave the house, try to find a safe place within the house. Lock yourself in a bathroom, for instance, somewhere where you are protected. Call Emergency Services for help. If you don’t have a phone handy, scream and holler for help.
● If you are able to get out of the house, but don’t know where to go, head for the closest fire or police station.
Remember, you’re not at fault. Use the toxic attacks from your family member as an opportunity to practice the art of not taking things too personally. If you can master it in this relationship, then it will be much easier for you to apply the skills as well in your interactions with others outside the family. Family members with toxic behavior patterns will probably try to imply that you did something wrong and give you a guilt trip, trying to destroy your confidence and destabilize your resolve. Remember, there is enormous freedom that comes from knowing that you’re not to blame—even when the person with toxic behaviors tries to make you feel that you are.
Talk about it. When you feel ready, approach the abusive family member and confidently (nonaggressively) communicate to them how upset you are about the way they behave. The goal here is not necessarily to change their behavior, because after all, only they can control what they do. The idea is to change your reaction. You’re no longer pretending that everything is fine, that you’re okay having this person walk all over you. You’re showing your strength and letting them know that you are very aware that their behavior is inappropriate. If the abusive family member cannot be reasoned with, seek support. It is important to get help—either from a counselor at school, or from a therapist who can help you resolve both relationship conflicts and individual conflicts. Sometimes, you might have to involve law enforcement, particularly if your life is in danger. In any case, find an adult you can trust to be open with. Many times in situations like this, the child doesn’t speak out because they are scared or ashamed. But if you are afraid of your parents, that’s a big red flag that you need to get help. Remember, this isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s not wrong to protect yourself. And keep trying to find people who can help you if the first adult you talk to is unwilling to help you. Try a teacher, a school counselor, the school nurse, a doctor, friends of the family, other people in your family you can trust. Don’t stop telling until you get the help you deserve and need.
● Distance yourself from the abusive individual. Someone once said it, and it is often repeated: “Avoid negative people, they always have a problem for every solution.” Distancing yourself doesn’t necessarily mean burning bridges, but it’s okay if you need your own space for a while. You’re not being an ungrateful child, sister, grandchild, niece, cousin, etc. On the contrary, you’re being thoughtful by avoiding the drama or avoiding all interactions with someone who constantly criticizes you, gets on your nerves, provokes you, disrespects you, and puts you down. It is your right to remove yourself from a painful situation and search for serenity.
● It’s important to set boundaries. When you are an adult, you have more say in how much contact you need to have with violent relatives. As an adult, you have more independence, and more flexibility in determining what (if any) relationship you want to have with people who behave in toxic ways. For one thing, you have the ability to set boundaries with others and let go of connections that aren’t loving and bringing you greater joy. In order to protect yourself, you may need to set boundaries right now with people in your life, regardless of what stage of life you are at. To do so, remember: be clear and direct. Get right to the point. Speak in statements that begin with “I” not “you.” Tell the person what you are experiencing, why you are setting the boundary, and exactly what the boundary is. For example, “I don’t like how I feel when you call me names, and I’m not going to tolerate it any longer. I won’t be spending time with you from now on.” If the conversation turns violent or becomes abusive in any way, simply say, “I expect to be treated with respect. We’re done talking. Goodbye.”
Practice self-care. Surrounding yourself with positive people is the key to staying confident when dealing with an abusive family member who demeans or humiliates you. This is especially true if the abuse comes from a parent. Very often, friends will show you the respect and appreciation that family never afforded you. Chosen carefully, friends will help restore your dignity and your happiness. If you are forced to live or work with an abusive person, then make sure you get enough time alone to rest and recover. Having to be Zen in the face of toxic mood swings can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, the toxicity can infect you. Abusive family members can keep you awake by causing you to constantly question yourself: “Am I doing the right thing? Am I really so terrible that they despise me so much? Why don’t they agree with my life choices?” Thoughts like these can keep you in a stressful situation for weeks, months, or even years. Sometimes this is the goal of an abusive family member: to put you in a state of anguish. And since you can’t control everything they do, it’s important to take care of yourself so that you can stay focused on your health and be prepared to live positively. Practicing meditation on a regular basis is one beneficial exercise.
Distract yourself. Living with violent family members can pose many challenges, including not being able to leave the house when things get rough. It may help to isolate yourself away from the fighting and distract yourself behind a closed door—at least until you are able to find someone you can talk to. This can be beneficial if your parents are verbally abusive to you or others in your family. Some of the following activities may help you distract yourself during a crisis if you are not in immediate danger.
● Write about what you’re experiencing in a journal. Writing will allow you to release your pent-up emotions and preserve your mental health. Your journal is the one place you can say whatever you feel like saying without any fears or retribution. Keep your journal in a safe place.
● Try listening to music or soothing white noise like waves crashing on a beach or rainforest sounds. This will counter the upsetting sounds of fighting and yelling. Or put on some headphones and listen to your favorite music.
● Find an activity you enjoy like drawing, painting, watching a movie, or reading a book. Even if it just gives you a short break from the chaos, it’s worth it to step aside and engage in something you enjoy doing.
Forgive, but don’t forget. Let go of your desire for payback; regardless of how despicably a family member has acted, never let hatred take hold in your heart. Fighting hate with hate will hurt you more. When you decide to hate someone, you automatically start digging two graves: one for your enemy and one for you. Hateful grudges can destroy your life and those around you. Forgiveness gives you the strength to move on to something more beneficial for you, something you love. After all, the best revenge is to be the opposite of the person who hurt you. The best revenge is to be very positively alive, in a way that creates peace in your heart.
Forgive. It is important to forgive in order to free yourself. In a way it’s a selfish act. Forgiveness is necessary for your own progress. You have to understand this: abusive people will not change overnight; there is no point in deluding yourself. However, it is possible to detach yourself from the destructive power they have over you. An abusive parent might have caused your inner turmoil, but you’re responsible for the attitude adjustment that will allow you to overcome the abuse.
Sometimes, you just have to let it go. Yes, people can change, and some toxic family relationships can be repaired, but only if both people involved are ready to do the necessary work. It’s hard and painful work, especially if you believe that trust cannot be restored. Unfortunately, sometimes all you can do is just let go. This is your life—and you have the right to walk away. No explanation needed. You don’t have justify your decision…to anybody.
-- A creator of safe spaces, and an initiator of difficult conversations, M.J. Fievre, B.S. Ed, spent much time building up her Black students, helping them feel comfortable in their skin, and affirming their identities. Her close relationships with parents and students led her to look more closely at how we can balance protecting our child’s innocence with preparing them for the realities of Black life. When―and how―do you approach racism with your children? How do you protect their physical and mental health while also preparing them for a country full of systemic racism? She began to research the issue and speak to school counselors and psychologists to find (and apply!) strategies parents and teachers can use with their children to broach uncomfortable but necessary topics.
M.J. is the author of Badass Black Girl, a daily dose of affirmations for Black Girls
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