How to spot and deal with toxic family members

Do you have a toxic relative in your family? Find out how to spot toxic family members, and the best ways to deal with them.

It is never good to be around toxic people for a significant amount of time (or indeed, any amount of time)! But it’s much harder if they are your family members.

Families should be your safe haven – a place you get support and validation. But not everyone is lucky enough to have emotionally healthy relationships with their relatives. Indeed, some people even move between countries and continents just to be closer to family members.

Unfortunately, a sad reality that many have to face is that they live with or have toxic family members. Some are just born into it and do not have much control over it.

If you are one of these people, there are ways to handle this kind of family member to minimize its negative effects in your life. But first, how do you KNOW for sure a relative is toxic?

What kind of behaviours do toxic family members exhibit?

Some indications of a toxic family environment can be evident. However, there are times when the signs are difficult to recognize. A general rule of thumb about this was developed by Katherine Fabrizio, MA, LPC, who specializes in working with daughters of toxic mothers:

“If you end up feeling bad about yourself after most encounters with a family member, there’s probably a good reason for that, one worth looking into.”

10 giveaway signs a relative may be toxic

To help you identify toxic trays in your relatives, here are 10 giveaway behaviours or actions toxic family members may exhibit.

1) Toxic relatives micromanage everything in our lives

Toxic family members can be prone to trying to control various, if not all, aspects of your life, including your decisions or relationships with other people.

If you constantly hear the phrase, “It’s for your own good,” then that is an indication of someone attempting to wrest too much control of your life.

2) Toxic family members constantly criticise us

Constructive criticism can help bring out the best in a person. But when the criticism is too cruel and persistent, it already demonstrates toxicity or dysfunction. As trauma therapist Shannon Thomas puts it:

“Toxic parents exhibit a chronic lack of empathy towards their children. These behaviors can manifest through biting remarks about appearance, relationship status, mental or physical health, financial struggles, or career challenges.”

3) Toxic relative threaten us

Handing out idle or empty threats, especially when angry, can be normal for most family members. However, those who exhibit toxic behaviors will dish out threats all too often, use those threats as means of control, and can even carry them out.

4) Toxic people blame others

Toxic individuals will rarely see their own faults but find it easy to play the blame game with other people, even their own family members.

According to Dr. Tom Jordan, a clinical psychologist, “chronic blaming is a form of emotional abuse” and can have long-term adverse effects on the person being blamed.

5) Toxic relatives might gaslight you

Gaslighting is defined by Psychology Today as the “use of deflection and distraction and blame by one person to hide some truth, or to benefit in some way, at the cost of another.” When used to manipulate family members, it can lead to a negative perception of yourself.

Gaslighting isn’t a one-off. In order for it to have the desired effect (to make you doubt yourself and destroy your self-esteem so they can gain control over you) it needs to be repeated often.

Here are some examples of gaslighting a toxic relative may use:

  • Countering: They may question your memories or version of the truth by saying things like: “You have a bad memory – you never remember correctly.” Or ” You would say that; you always think the best/worst of them.”
  • Withholding: By withholding, a relative will refuse to engage in a reasonable discussion. They may dismiss you with statements like “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or just shut you down by saying, “I’m not discussing this.”
  • Trivializing: This can be one of the most damaging. Your relative will dismiss your (valid) feelings by accusing you of ‘being too sensitive’ or ‘overreacting’.
  • Denial: A toxic relative may pretend to forget doing or saying something, or even claim events didn’t happen.
  • Diverting: Rather than address a concern, a toxic relative will divert the conversation. Often this is by turning it back on you, for example: “You can talk. Why did you not call me yesterday?” So you’ll find that you never get to discuss THEIR issue s or behaviour, somehow it always becomes about your faults.
  • Stereotyping: Toxic people use stereotyping to diminish and manipulate people. For example, they may tell a woman that people will think she’s crazy or attention-seeking if she seeks help for abuse.

6) A toxic relative may neglect your needs

One of the most common behaviors manifested by toxic family members is neglect. Being disregarded by or having unmet needs or attention from your family can result in emotional starvation and have a lasting effect on the affected individuals.

7) Toxic people dismiss the feelings of others

Family members are expected to support one another, particularly in difficult times. Toxic family members, though, express little to no concern for your feelings. So if a family member often disagrees with you or disregards your feelings then they are exhibiting toxic traits.

8) Toxic people are emotionally abusive

Toxic family members can be so emotionally abusive that it can break down your self-esteem, magnify insecurities, or even cause deep-seated psychological distress.

9) Toxic relatives may give you the silent treatment

Whenever someone commits a wrongdoing, it should be corrected with compassion and respect. Whenever there is an argument, it should be dealt with appropriately. However, family members who display toxic behaviors would rather use the silent treatment during these situations.

The use of silent treatment or stonewalling has led to highly damaged psyches, more so when it is committed by family members.

10) Toxic people tell lies

Your family should be a place of trust and security. So constant lying or deceit within a family is a manifestation of toxic or dysfunctional behavior.

Eight tips to help you deal with a toxic family member

Coping with the toxicity of family members can be a struggle and, more often than not, painful. But here are some ways you can deal with them.

1) Brace yourself upon arrival

If you have already seen a pattern of toxic behavior within the family, it is best to prepare yourself whenever you meet them. Manage your expectations beforehand and understand that you cannot control how they act or behave.

2) Reduce your contact

Maintaining a relationship of low contact with toxic family members means interacting with them only during family affairs. Outside of such events, avoid communication and meeting with them as much as possible.

3) Set clear boundaries

If you can talk with family members about their toxic behaviors, then set clear and healthy boundaries with them to determine what actions and words are acceptable or not.

It might be difficult to do because as Psychology Today put it, “Our boundaries were learned in the family.” What you must do then is be assertive and distance yourself, if necessary.

4) Forgive, but don’t forget

Releasing forgiveness is tough, especially if you have been hurt many times over. But remember that forgiveness does not mean you approve of other people’s behavior, it is realizing that you will not be controlled by it anymore.

Keep in mind, though, that forgiveness does not entail forgetting about their transgressions and keeping yourself prone to abuse.

5) Keep private matters to yourself

When conversing with toxic family members, do not give them ammunition to manipulate or control you. There are things that you have to keep to yourself, and there are matters that you can open to other people.

6) Don’t expect change

One of the mistakes that most people dealing with this problem commit is to expect toxic family members to change. Some even reason with or appeal to them in the hope that the abusers would amend their ways.

However, several studies have shown that in some abusers, there is a high incidence of personality disorders. In these cases, getting rid of chronic toxicity would require professional intervention.

7) Own your strengths and weaknesses

Everyone is flawed, there is no doubt about that. Then again, no one, not even family members, can use them against you. Everyone also has their own strengths, which can more than make up for one’s weaknesses.

8) Surround yourself with people who will give as much as you do

To the right people, you are more than enough. Thus, rather than obligate yourself to be around toxic family members all the time, identify friends or a loving support system who will reassure you of your worth and make you feel good about yourself.

Know when to cut ties with toxic relatives

There are times when going no-contact with toxic family members is the only healthy option to take. If being around them has taken its toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health, then you have to make the decision to cut ties with them completely.

And you do not have to feel guilty about it, especially if you have done everything you can to improve relations but no progress can be seen.  Remember that you are not responsible for their behaviors.

Don’t be afraid to get help

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with toxic family members. Some of the tips above may work, some may not. However, it is important to understand that their behaviors are not your fault at all.

It is also nothing to be ashamed of as you are not alone in your ordeal. So do not be afraid to talk about this to someone and seek help if you think you need it.

Get more advice to handle toxic people

It’s not just in your family you may encounter toxic people. Here’s more advice to help you spot and deal with them:

Photo by ActionVance