Writer’s note: Hey, Psych2Goers! A disclaimer : this article isn’t meant for diagnosis, treatment, or personally attack anyone. It is to create awareness among the general public, so if you or someone you know may be struggling, don’t hesitate to seek professional help from Psychiatrists or other trusted professionals. If you have experienced emotional or physical abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering.
If you relate to this, we have also left a list of hotlines below you or a loved one can use to seek help for abuse.
National Child Abuse Hotline (US and Canada): 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)
National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233)
Video Phone for Deaf Callers: 206-518-9361
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
TTY: 800-799-4TTY (800-799-4889)
Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 (US and Canada) or 85258 (UK)
National Runaway Switchboard: 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929)
At times, relationships can become so dysfunctional they become toxic—detrimental to mental health, emotional health, and even physical health (Hutchinson, 2020). According to a therapist and training provider who specializes in working with women with autism spectrum disorder, Dr Claire Jack (2020), despite the abundance of love which so many of us have towards family members, some of us have grown in families which are bound by a web of abusive, critical, and manipulative behaviours. A toxin is a poisonous substance—and the toxic family thrives on behaviours and relationships which infiltrate negativity into every part of your life.
Here are 6 telltale signs that you are, indeed, living in a toxic environment:
- They don’t allow you to express your individuality
Your background is from a family who has stable jobs in the professional sector, they are lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects. However, one day, you voice out your opinion to embark on an educational journey in an art school. Your parents and siblings regard your future career choice as a serious threat to your family’s way of doing things.
“You won’t be good enough and you would earn less than the rest of us,” said your brother during one family dinner.
As a consequence, you are forced to question your abilities and whether this was something you could do as part of this family.
A healthy family environment should allow for the autonomy of its members. It’s a place where you can feel free to express opinions, to have disagreements, and to be respected for the choices you make. Each family member is able to admit to their own mistakes and apologize for their behaviours. A healthy family can accommodate change and growth—both of individuals and of the family as a unit, with the embracement of children’s spouses and grandchildren (Jack, 2020).
2. There is always some drama going on
Mother : I heard your friend, K obtains A for her Math exam. Why can’t you obtain the same grade? What’s wrong with you?
Father : Yes, even your twin sister has obtained A in that exam. What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you be like your sister?
“Toxic parents exhibit a chronic lack of empathy towards their children,” says Shannon Thomas, trauma therapist and author of Healing from Hidden Abuse. “These behaviors can manifest through biting remarks about appearance, relationship status, mental or physical health, financial struggles, or career challenges.”
A supportive, loving family may discuss you when you’re not there—often to see how they can help you out. The toxic family spends time gossiping about you—and your other siblings. The gossip is often unpleasant in nature, aimed at bringing you down. Being nasty about family members to other family members is at the heart of many toxic families (Jack, 2020).
How to handle such parents?
It is understandable that it is hard to keep your cool when your parents don’t understand you. However, in this situation, it is wise and strong to not fight words with words. Try to view it from the lens of your parents, they have such expectations because they believe in you and they know you are capable of it. Sometimes, parents happen to do such comparisons due to societal pressure. The society is at all times ready to force on you, their standards and expectations. But as an individual, it is your choice and expectation that should matter. Set your own goals and analyze how far you are from them. You do you. That’s all that matters.
3. You’re asked to lie about things that happen at home
“If your teacher asks you about the bruises on your arm, say that you bump hard into the table,” the mother warns his 8 year-old son while adjusting his school necktie.
As stated by Jack (2020), abuse within families can range from emotional abuse to physical and sexual abuse. Within the toxic family, abusive behaviour is not called out for what it is. On the contrary, you may be made to feel that you deserved to be abused. You may be told to keep quiet about the abuse in order to preserve the reputation of the family. The abuser is protected within the family and allowed to get away with their behaviour.
4. They exert control and autonomy over you
You : Can I please go to a picnic trip with my friends next month?
Your mother : No, you can’t. Your final school examination is just around the corner.
You : But…I promise to study my hardest after the trip…
Your mother : No, you can’t go. Trust me, it’s for your own good.
The above conversation happened in a parent-to-child relationship, where the parent demands blind obedience and conformity.
It is highly advisable to apply moderate amount of behavioural regulation and monitoring for children. Enforcing boundaries and monitoring are associated with positive outcomes (Bean, Bush, McKenry & Wilson). On the contrary, when the control is at high level, the negative behavioural and psychological impacts weigh heavily on children. They might feel that they are incompetent and they don’t matter (Kakihara, 2009).
If you suffer from depressive or anxiety symptoms, seek professional help as soon as possible. When looking for therapeutic help, look for one who is proficient in relational therapy and have experiences in dealing with controlling parent issues.
5. They don’t recognize your space or boundaries
You, as a teenage student, found out your mother is scrolling through your phone without asking for your permission.
Having our own boundaries and space is definitely crucial in a healthy parent-child relationship. Be clear and consise by stating exactly what you need from your parents. Make sure your request is concrete, coherent and measurable. Be assertive and compassionate at the same time. Being assertive involves stating how you feel and what you need without trying to hurt the other person. This includes maintaining eye contact, maintaining a sense of calm, being open to having a conversation, actively listening to the other person, monitoring your tone, having a straight posture, and being direct. At the same time, being compassionate is also important. This means understanding where your parents may be coming from and understanding the difficulties they may be experiencing in making sure you grow into a good person, while also simultaneously honoring your needs. Practicing compassion helps us stay grounded and come from a place of love versus defensiveness (Mancao, 2020).
6. They will constantly belittle you
You follow your father for one of his fishing trips. He meets his school friend there, and they start talking about their children. Your father tells his friend that you are lazy, about your poor academic performance at school and how he wishes that you would get the same grade as his friend’s son.
A toxic family member will constantly belittle you. He or she will make fun of you, essentially implying that pretty much anything you say that expresses your ideas, beliefs, or wants is silly or stupid. A toxic family member will not hesitate to belittle you in public, in front of your friends or family. The problem is they are not kidding and what they’re doing is not a joke.
According to a psychologist, Dr Thomas L. Cory (2020), in order to counteract this, first and foremost, essentially it is advisable to calmly but firmly confront the toxic behavior. You can do this by calmly identifying the behaviour(s) to your parents, letting them know their behavior hurt you, and suggesting alternative behaviors that would work better. If your parent refuses to change, it is advisable to limit their contact with you for some time. Then, it is wise to talk with them again, repeat your requests, and let them know that you will not stay in the relationship if they continue their toxic behavior. The bottom line: you can attempt to seriously improve a toxic relationship only if you’re prepared to leave it. However, a notable exception, according to Dr Thomas: There should be a “zero tolerance” policy for physical abuse.
Keep in mind that the toxicity of the above individuals is clearly a matter of degree. You may have experienced some, if not all, of these behaviors – hopefully in a mild form – occasionally in your relationships. And that’s the key word: occasionally. In a toxic relationship these behaviors are the norm, not the exception. Most of us manipulate once in a while, play helpless, induce guilt, etc. We’re not perfect nor are our relationships. What distinguishes a toxic relationship is both the severity of these behaviors and how frequently they occur (Cory, 2020).
Bean RA, Bush KR, McKenry PC, Wilson SM. The Impact of Parental Support, Behavioral Control, and Psychological Control on the Academic Achievement and Self-Esteem of African American and European American Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online September 2003:523-541. doi:10.1177/0743558403255070
Cory, T. L. (2021, March 30). Defining Toxic Relationships: 8 Types of Toxic Relationships and Their Signs. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://healthscopemag.com/health-scope/toxic-relationships/
Hutchinson, T. (2020, June 22). To estrange or not TO Estrange: Toxic family dynamics. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-pulse-mental-health/202006/estrange-or-not-estrange-toxic-family-dynamics
Jack, C. (2020, June 01). 7 signs of a family that’s turned toxic. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/202006/7-signs-family-thats-turned-toxic
Jack, C. (2020, October 26). 5 ways Toxic families rely on Gaslighting. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/202010/5-ways-toxic-families-rely-gaslighting
Kakihara F, Tilton-Weaver L. Adolescents’ Interpretations of Parental Control: Differentiated by Domain and Types of Control. Child Development. Published online November 2009:1722-1738. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01364.x
Mancao, A. L. (2020, March 25). How to set healthy boundaries with parents (and what that looks like). Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/setting-healthy-boundaries-with-parents#:~:text=Setting%20boundaries%20with%20parents%20look,clear%20on%20what%20you%20need