Maybe you feel down and insecure after some comments during Thanksgiving dinner. Or maybe you call your mom and don’t get asked any questions about your life. If you’re feeling isolated, alienated or hurt by your family members, their behavior might be toxic. How do you know? Here are six common signs of toxic family members.
It’s one thing to give constructive criticism, but it’s another when someone does nothing but criticize you. These comments aren’t meant to help you grow but rather to tear you down. Because they’re family members, they might have a wealth of information to draw on — whether it’s old exes, your favorite nerdy high school activity or your latest job failure. If this criticism is persistent and hurtful, it’s a sign of a toxic family member.
People who support you should lift you up rather than break you down. While there are sibling rivalries and friendly competition, if your family members repeatedly try to beat your achievements, they may be toxic. Competition shouldn’t undermine you but rather push you to do better. When a family member competes with you to impede your achievements, they’re demonstrating toxic behavior.
Family members shouldn’t impede on your achievements; they also shouldn’t ignore them. Nontoxic people are proud of what you achieve and celebrate you for your accomplishments. While they don’t have to recognize every time you eat a salad over a donut or do your work instead of sleeping in, they should be proud of your big, milestone achievements.
It’s one thing to get upset, but if your family is isolating you, constantly yelling at you or giving you an endless silent treatment, their behavior may be toxic. First, reflect on your actions—did you so something that may cause someone else to get rightfully upset? It’s okay for your mom to feel bad that you chose to hang out with your partner’s parents instead of coming home for the holidays. But if she’s icing you out for weeks after and won’t let it go, the behavior might be toxic.
It’s nice to be close to your family, but it’s important to have boundaries, too. If you haven’t established clear boundaries with your family, doing so can help ease tensions when problematic situations come up. These boundaries can be time restrictions — how often you’re expected to visit, how often you keep in touch — but they can also be emotional. You might not want to share every bit of your personal life with your parents, and if you don’t, they shouldn’t get mad when you keep some things to yourself. Being family isn’t an excuse to disrespect your boundaries.
We’re expected to care for our family, but this can become toxic if we put others’ needs first to the point of hurting ourselves. Caring for your family is an important part of maintaining strong relationships; however, it should not come at the cost of your mental health and resources. If you’re constantly caring for your family, they should also be caring for you. It’s not fair to ask you to put your life on hold for them if they won’t do the same for you.
While you may see the signs of toxic behavior, your family might not be aware of their actions. Talking through their behavior can help identify the problems and gear them toward solutions. If you’re hoping to have a discussion, make sure you keep things more neutral than accusatory. Focus on how their behavior makes you feel and express how they’ve been hurting you.
Family can be a great support network, but when you’re dealing with toxic family members, it may be time to reach out to others. Try confiding in a close friend to talk about your family’s behavior and how it makes you feel. If there are specific toxic members of your family, you can also try talking to your nontoxic family members about their behavior. They may be noticing the same things.
If the toxicity is a problem your family members aren’t willing to fix, it may be in your interest to try detaching. While you may be physically present at some big family gatherings, try and detach yourself from their harmful words and actions. Detaching means refusing to engage deeply with the family member, placing your emotions far away from their toxicity even if you have to be physically near them. Playing bored and uninteresting will make the toxic person bored and uninterested with you, and they'll move on to another target.
While you shouldn’t have to tiptoe around your loved ones, it may be safest to avoid specific topics that may incite toxic behavior. If they keep criticizing you about your job, shift the topic if anyone tries to talk about work. Admit that you understand their opinions about the topic but that you’d like to talk about something else.
If none of the alternative methods have helped, it may be time to see help from an outside professional. Therapists can help you work through and understand your issues with your family or even provide solutions or methods to help communicate with them. Alternatively, you can also try group or family therapy with members of your family.
Dealing with toxic family members can be difficult, whether you’re tight-knit or are more distant. It’s important to first recognize that their behavior is toxic and then find your best way to cope. Not everyone might be able to confront their family, but they may find being detached and avoiding certain topics make family gatherings more manageable. Coping with toxic family members looks different for everyone — find the best method that works for you.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.
Our employer partners are actively recruiting women! Update your profile today.