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Surviving a Toxic Family Environment


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Family can bring up a mixed bag of emotions and memories. For some of us, family is the glue that holds us together. Many have good memories about certain family members, but have deep seeded resentments about others. And some try to not think about family at all, as it brings up memories of abuse, trauma, and fear.


For the latter, surviving a toxic family is akin to surviving a battle. There are scars, wounds, and traumas that need healing – but where does anyone begin? Here’s what the experts say about how to handle difficult families.


What is a Toxic Family?

Not all families fit into a nice little mold that can be dissected and psychoanalyzed. Toxic families vary, depending on the situation and person who experienced them. Common qualities include –


1. Controlling

If you felt micromanaged or controlled growing up, you may come from a toxic family. People may have tried to control your relationships, career decisions, money, or other important areas of your life. When a favor was done to help you, there was always something you had to do in return. In other words, you had to align with their expectations to continue receiving support and love.


2. Disrespectful

Toxic family members may belittle your choices, attack your weak spots, and use passive aggressive tactics to widdle away at your self-esteem. Though families don’t have to agree with everything that you do, they should try and respect the choices you make – particularly once you are an adult.


3. Abusive

Toxic families are usually abusive, be it verbal, physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual. Gaslighting, extreme criticism, and expecting you to lie to protect someone are also forms of abuse, though they are less openly toxic. Abuse does not include typical family arguments where a member says something unkind. Abuse is a regular, everyday occurrence that makes you feel sad, afraid, or unhappy.


4. Secretive

Every family has secrets of some type. But families that thrive on secrecy, refuse to tell their children the truth, or expect their kids to lie for them to protect themselves are promoting a toxic environment. It’s impossible to expect one’s children to be open and honest if the entire family harbors secrets and expects everyone involved to do the same.


How to Handle a Toxic Family

Here are the best ways to handle a toxic family as an adult –


1. Set Boundaries

You aren’t required to talk to your family every day, go to family functions, lie for family members, or protect them once you are older. Decide what kind of relationship you want with them, and make a point to set firm boundaries to maintain that relationship. You can be cordial and avoid big fights while maintaining a healthy distance between you and them.


2. Detach from the Situation

Don’t let family members pull you into drama when you have to spend time with them. Avoid messy situations, topics that bring up difficult feelings, and keep interactions casual and to the point. If the conversation starts drifting in a direction that makes you feel uncomfortable, feel free to end it in a polite way.


3. Say No

A lot of toxic families thrive on guilt and fear. Family members may have bullied you into doing things you don’t want to do, saying things you don’t want to say, and going places that you don’t want to go. Start practicing saying no when you want to say no, and don’t let others make you feel guilty about it. You have a right to keep yourself away from situations that you don’t want a part of.


4. Stop Trying to Change Them

The only way that toxic family members can change is if you change the way you react to them. Family takes part in a dance or routine, and when someone changes the dance, the others are forced to adjust. If you stop overreacting, letting them push your buttons, and playing their games, they will have to adjust if they want to maintain the relationship with you.


Do you struggle or live with toxic family members? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkcounseling.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.


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