When Your Family Is Toxic
“It’s not the load that breaks you down; it’s the way you carry it.”
—Lena Horne, American singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist; she became one of the first African American actors to sign a long-term contract with MGM
Because Black families were broken apart by the institution of slavery, emancipation led to a tightening of bonds between family members. Black families became stronger than they’d ever been in the past and everyone in the family had a role to fulfill, whether it was the youngest children, aunts and uncles, parents, or grandparents—even the in-laws had a role. They all worked together to rebuild their lives and lend support during rough times, whether it was financial, physical, emotional, or psychological, and they all celebrated good times together.
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, like manipulation, aggression, or unkindness. The word “toxic” here describes behaviors 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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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?
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 personalities, their behaviors, or their ways 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 high levels of anxiety.
Repeat these affirmation and aspire to a life of richness and fulfillment:
I am able to say no without being afraid of displeasing.
I erase from my life all the people who prevent me from achieving happiness.
My life matters.
I deserve a fulfilled life.
I deserve respect and attention.
I choose to cleanse myself of my fears and doubts.
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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