Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
December 17, 2022

When Family is Toxic: How to Deal With Stressful Family Gatherings

Many families experience times of difficulty. It’s normal to feel at odds with family members and even to be angry or upset by their actions. Family dynamics are complex and can be difficult, because conflict is unavoidable. No family is perfect. 

In healthy families, conflict is met with care and respect. When someone hurts another family member, they acknowledge that hurt and do their best to avoid the same mistake in the future.

But not everyone has a healthy family. When family is toxic, it can be challenging to deal with. If you have a toxic family, you were likely raised with people who have poor behavior, take out their emotions on other people, and refuse to change even when they hurt others.

Growing up with even one family member like this often affects the entire family. Unhealthy dynamics don’t just go away on their own. Everyone else typically develops unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with toxic behavior. It's a cycle that causes a lot of stress and tension for everyone involved.

If you grew up in one of these environments, you might feel incredibly anxious when holidays come around. Days like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas can put a lot of pressure to get together with your family – but a family gathering might be the last thing you want.

Dealing with a family like this is shitty and frustrating. It can also significantly impact things like your relationships and behaviors as an adult. If this is you, know you’re not alone. Many clients I work with are trying to understand their family’s dysfunctional patterns. So let’s talk about signs you grew up in a toxic family, the effects of growing up in a toxic family after you reach adulthood, and what to do about stressful family gatherings.

signs you grew up in a toxic family

Signs You Grew Up in a Toxic Family

In a healthy family, members feel safe and respected. They feel comfortable expressing themselves, communicating honestly, and safely navigating conflict that arises.

But in a toxic family, every interaction can feel like walking on eggshells. Honesty, vulnerability, and openness are not encouraged. Things often feel tense and scary. 

Here are some signs you grew up in a toxic family.

  • Love from toxic members felt conditional 
  • Emotional neglect or abuse, such as ignoring you, telling you to shut up, giving the silent treatment as punishment, or issuing verbal threats
  • Physical abuse, including violence or bodily threats
  • Lack of boundaries, like invasion of your personal space, going through your belongings without your knowledge or consent, or one parent complaining harshly about the other parent to you
  • Excessive attempts to control you, your time, your activities, and/or your relationships
  • Heavy or cruel criticism of you or your lifestyle
  • Lack of communication, such as withholding information or sweeping problems under the rug without addressing the issues at hand
  • Problems with addiction 
  • Mental health issues among family members whose behavior is toxic. Some examples are untreated disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
  • Manipulative behavior, like lying or throwing a fit to get what they want

In general, toxic behavior is often cruel, invasive, or disrespectful. And if you grew up in a toxic family, it’s likely you spent much of your childhood feeling unsafe and stressed out.

Effects of Growing Up in a Toxic Family

When family is toxic, the effects don’t just impact you as a child. Unfortunately, the effects of growing up in a toxic family often last well into adulthood.

People pleasing and perfectionism are coping skills that can arise when you grew up feeling responsible for other people’s emotions. My clients frequently began forming these coping skills in childhood. Maybe when you were a kid you knew that if you made any noise in the house you’d get screamed at. Or you might have learned that it was safer to stuff your feelings and desires down because your parents punished you for any displays of emotion. In order to avoid punishment from a toxic parent, you may have molded yourself into someone who was quiet, well-behaved, and never asked for anything. 

These coping mechanisms are trauma responses. They served as a way for you to feel safe and in control of your environment when you were young. They may have helped you survive your toxic family as a child. But ultimately they also keep you stuck in habits or behaviors that no longer serve you when you’re an adult. It’s not your fault that you developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. However, you’re the only one responsible for your health as an adult. With patience and support, you can find healthier ways to cope. 

Another effect of growing up in a toxic family is difficulty maintaining healthy relationships. Relationship problems often stem from a lack of trust. You may have been taught that if you showed any vulnerability, you’d be abandoned or rejected. This can lead to issues like difficulty setting boundaries in romantic and platonic relationships, keeping people at arm’s length, and struggling to feel emotional intimacy with others.

Many adults who grew up with a toxic family also experience increased mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Low self-esteem and a lack of self-compassion are common among those with toxic families. Cognitive distortions, also known as thinking errors, also play a role in poor mental health. These patterns of thinking are habits that can form for a number of reasons, including a toxic home environment. 

effects of growing up in a toxic family

Navigating Family Gatherings When Family is Toxic

People with toxic behaviors can have a really difficult time connecting with others in a healthy way. Their harmful behaviors often stem from their own trauma. But it’s up to them to face that trauma and stop the cycles of harm they cause. It’s their job to own up to their mistakes. It is not your job to continue to be their emotional punching bag. You have every right to put limits on your time together, including not getting together at all. 

Setting healthy boundaries is crucial for maintaining your sanity when it comes to family get-togethers. Remember that “no” is a complete sentence. You may not be able to change your toxic family members, but you do get to control your time and attention. You don’t have to spend time with people who are hurtful or cruel. 

Additionally, you may want to keep a healthy emotional distance from toxic family members. For example, many toxic people use someone’s personal details or difficulties against them. If this is the case, you might consider not telling your family members about your personal life. You can avoid answering personal questions by excusing yourself or changing the subject. You can also distract them by asking them to talk about something you know they’re interested in. 

Whenever possible, limit your time with people with toxic behaviors. If you’re unable to avoid a family gathering, come up with a strategy ahead of time to protect your energy. This can include thinking of an “escape plan” if you need to leave early. Or it can be a series of questions you can ask to deflect rude or nosy comments. Remember, you get to decide for yourself what’s best for you. You don’t owe anyone – including family – your time anymore. 

Therapy Can Support You When Family is Toxic

If you want support navigating the effects of growing up in a toxic family, consider therapy. I can help you work through your challenges and set goals so you feel confident, capable, and empowered. You’ll learn to come up with healthy coping mechanisms, set sustainable boundaries, and improve your mental health.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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