Although we don’t remember most of them, our childhood years are the most important years of our lives. This is when our personality starts to form from the ground up and our behavior patterns in adulthood take shape. If we were brought up in a happy and peaceful family environment; our personality develops in a natural and unlimited way (as it should be), but if we had to grow up in a toxic family environment, our character will inevitably be shaped accordingly.
Even if we grow up in a relatively healthy family, some problems are expectable and inevitable in every family. But generally, family members who are emotionally healthy happen to know how to deal with such problems and they show the necessary dedication to solve them. In a toxic family, however, these problems are not resolved and are often completely ignored, and this can have side effects that are difficult to repair in the future.
Most of the time, we don’t even realize that our family was toxic until we’re adults. Naturally, we think of the family system we were born into as “correct” and “ordinary”, and somehow we start acting accordingly to adapt to this system from a very early age. For this reason, we can ignore the mistakes in family dynamics, no matter how visible they may be; and we may even miss the errors altogether until we see the “right” examples.
It may not always be easy to face the problematic structure in your own family system. Many people go through the stage of idealizing their family, but as time passes, they realize that they grew up in a family that is far from ideal. Maybe you are already aware that there are some problems in your family, but you justify this situation by saying something like “all families have problems”. The problems in your family system may be seen in other families around you, so you are convinced that it is some kind of cultural structure or maybe you think that you are the problem. Even if you know that you are not the problem and that you are aware of some toxic family behavior patterns; as you continue reading this article you may realize that you’re likely to face more problems than you think.
Especially if you ever had a narcissistic relationship in the past or if you’re still in a relationship but you think it has nothing to do with your past family traumas; you’re likely to disagree with everything you’ve read so far just because you don’t want to blame your family or some other person for your own problems. However, the purpose of this article is to help you take responsibility for the right things, not to make you blame your family. It aims to make you understand what you are going through without underestimating your ordeal. To take responsibility for your own life, not the mistakes of others.
Below are some of the toxic family behaviors:
1. The family looks smooth and even perfect from the outside. Family image is very important. For example, parents who are in an unhappy marriage may seem like the perfect couple upon the first glance. The outsiders never think that there is a problem in the family, or even if they notice something strange, they do not come across anything concrete to prove it. Since wearing a mask of perfection means being closed to outside help and support, every member of the family ends up being seriously affected by this situation.
2. Everything happens behind closed doors. Family members focus on hiding their problems rather than solving them. There are “family secrets”. Even if everyone knows about them, no one can talk about these dark secrets, no one can open up to each other.
3. Children’s basic needs are not adequately met. If parents are too self-indulgent, they may fail to meet their children’s basic needs such as food and drink, shelter, security, etc.
4. Children’s emotional needs are not adequately met. Parents can focus only on meeting the child’s physical needs and completely ignore their emotional needs. In families with emotional neglect, children may feel invisible.
5. Parent-child roles are reversed. The trust, support, financial or moral assistance that parents should provide may have to be given by the child instead.
6. You’re asked to spend time with family on an ongoing basis. There is no personal time or personal limit. There is not enough space for individual development.
7. Children are often compared and turned against each other. Being close is not welcome.
8. Children are not treated equally. One child is idealized while the other is constantly criticized. One child is ignored while another is spoiled. There are certain roles assigned to children in family dynamics and it is not welcomed for children to step outside of these roles.
9. Emotions, behaviors, and attitudes of parents have ups and downs. A parent who’s caring and loving may become angry, sad or unhappy all of a sudden. Children may feel like they are walking on thin ice when they’re around their parents.
10. Children are loved conditionally. They’re loved only when they behave as their parents expect them to, and they’re excluded when they act the way they are.
11. Children’s physical boundaries are not respected. Children are touched against their will, their diaries are read, their rooms are invaded.
12. Parents are hypocritical. Do as I say but not as I do. For example, the parent may use abusive language, but if the child swears, they’re punished for it.
13. Children are forced to work. The responsibilities of the parents are transferred to the children. When it comes to matters such as financial support or the domestic chores as well as taking care of the elderly or the younger siblings, it looks as if the whole responsibility belongs to the child.
14. Children are not treated in accordance with their age. Usually they’re expected have a maturity beyond their years, a sense of responsibility, etc. The child must be extremely well-behaved, quiet, logical and mature; they’re not allowed to be “a child”.
15. Family members are too stoic or too laidback. There is no healthy hierarchy in the family.
16. Children are over-criticized. These criticisms are direct and clear in some families, whereas some others disguise it with mockery and humor. Some degrading comments can be made about children’s bodies as well.
17. Children end up being afraid to show their weaknesses. They’re forced to be perfect and strong in every aspect. Their misery and anger can be the subject of ridicule or punishment.
18. Someone in the family may be an addict (alcohol, drugs, gambling etc.). Most of the time, these addictions are unknown to people outside the family, they remain a family secret. The said addiction affects all family members in one way or another.
19. Family members are not authentic, idiosyncratic beings. They try to be the way others want them to be. For this reason, they tend to hide their own identities and genuine feelings.
20. If the children are academically successful, then their happiness does not really matter; whether they’re socially agreeable or not concerns no one.
21. Family members have high expectations of their children. They can force their children to meet these expectations. Parents may feel that they are pushing their children for their own good or to help them unleash their full potential. On the other hand, they actually impose feelings of inadequacy on their children and hinder their potential by acting like this.
22. Children are forced into activities or occupations they do not want. For example, they may be bullied into pursing “prestigious” professions (doctor, engineer, lawyer etc.) even though the child has no interest in or talent for them. Or, if there are some specific occupations prevailing in the family, the child can be forced to choose one of them. For example, in a family environment where most members are artists or athletes, the children are directed to these areas with emotional pressure despite their lack of interest and ability.
23. Family has “values”. For example, if the family is conservative or secular, it is completely adhered to. It does not matter whether some members of the family think alike or not. There is an obligation to conform to this image. A respectful discussion cannot be achieved even on the most basic issues.
24. One or both of the parents may become overly attached to the child. The parent can justify and rationalize this situation as showing their love and pampering their child a little.
25. Children are often reminded of the sacrifices made for them. The child is made to feel guilty and is expected to compensate.
People who had to grow up in a toxic family environment may experience intense feelings of shame and guilt both during their childhood and in adulthood. Their self-confidence and self-esteem are likely to have been deeply affected. They may want to feel safe by constantly controlling their environment or remaining close to the people they see as stronger than themselves. They may gradually become their parents, even if they never wanted to. They may struggle with addictions and mental illnesses their entire lives. Even if they live a wonderful life in many ways, they may have trouble making sense of their sense of emptiness.
It is not easy to get rid of all these effects of toxic families, but in order to heal their wounds, it is necessary to be aware of them. Being aware of your toxic family dynamics will not instantly destroy these dynamics, but it will give you some insight into yourself and your family, and the opportunity to review your life and establish a cause-and-effect relationship between your decisions. You’ll decide to adjust your relationships with your family, your familiarity with them, and if necessary, you’ll set limits on your family relationships.
The most important moments of our lives and the decisions we make are shaped by our family dynamics. If we’re aware of these dynamics, we can take control of our lives.
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Brown University. Dysfunctional Family Relationships https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/dysfunctional-family-relationships
Counseling Center. Understanding Unhealthy Relationship Patterns in Your Family https://counselingcenter.illinois.edu/brochures/understanding-unhealthy-relationship-patterns-your-family