By Jennifer Woolwine

10 Signs of a Toxic Family

Health + Wellness

baghdad to barnyard

December 7, 2020

Growing up in a toxic family environment can contribute to several emotional and mental health challenges throughout your life. Even though I had years of therapy learning how to establish boundaries and reverse some of the emotional damage I received, it is a constant struggle.

You have to remember to take care of yourself; sometimes, that includes cutting out toxic people in your life, which can be challenging when it comes to family members.

10 Signs of a Dysfunctional or Toxic Family

1.       You were expected to meet unrealistic standards.

Growing up, I was the oldest sibling in our household, and my mom and stepfather raised me. My stepfather raised me since I was a year old, and my biological father was not in my life until I was twenty-seven. While I am incredibly grateful to my stepfather for taking on the father role and raising me as his own, I was told I owed him because he raised me. It was also said that if I became successful, it was my DUTY to take care of my parents and siblings.

2.       They are controlling.

Now, I am not talking about strict parents that set a curfew. Controlling parents tell you what to do, when, and how to do it. They use money and guilt to exert power over you. Growing up, my parents controlled what music I listened to, the TV or movies I watched, my friends, and even the money I earned from part-time jobs in high school. They always thought I was lying and would constantly drive to my work to ensure I was telling the truth that I was at work.

3.       Constant conflict. I was in an environment that felt like a war zone or where you must constantly walk on eggshells. I was disciplined as a child, and there were a few instances where it went a little too far, or one or both parents lost control. My childhood consisted of more emotional abuse. Being screamed at for how often I blinked, or if you showed any emotion, we were made fun of.

4.       Your family does not respect boundaries. This can affect anyone at any age. The dynamic starts in childhood and continues well into adulthood. Unfortunately, if you let family members violate your boundaries, they see they can still control you if they push hard enough. They know what buttons to make and use that against you.

5.       You experience verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. Any type of abuse is toxic and NOT okay, whether moving, physical, or psychological. Growing up in a violent household can cause depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse issues. It is also common in a toxic family that the family members will protect the abuser instead of the victims.

6.       There are two sides to toxic people, a public persona and a private persona. This person can seem kind and caring and will say all the right words in public, but their actions speak entirely different in private. It was very confusing as a child, especially when you didn’t know what parent you were getting.

7.       Family secrets must be kept hidden. Even when you know family members are participating in behaviors such as lying, cheating, stealing, or addiction, these behaviors are concealed to protect the “family image.” Our family cared more about what others thought of them and wanted to look like the perfect family.

8.       Getting together with your family is rarely or never a peaceful experience. It is a toxic environment if you feel anxious or stressed whenever you are around a family member or the entire family. Family drama is widespread; all issues are on a crisis level or blown out of proportion.

9.       They never apologize for hurtful actions or words. No matter what they do to you, they make you feel it is your fault for being too emotional or saying you are being selfish or unforgiving. It feels like a temper tantrum when they do not get their way. This is where sticking to your boundaries is crucial. If you give in, even a little, they will use it to their advantage.

10.       They get jealous or try to compete with you. It seems ridiculous that a parent would be jealous of their children, but I have witnessed it firsthand.  You want your parents to be supportive and proud of your accomplishments, and you should not feel guilty for making different life choices than your parents.

How to Cope with a Toxic Family

If I could share one piece of advice, it would be you do not have to help your family through EVERY crisis. Toxic people are always in crisis because it is a skill they have mastered. They will call you for sympathy, attention, or support but are never that shoulder for you to rely on when you need it. They also know how to exploit it by doing things they know you want, but there is an alternative motive behind it.

Set boundaries, and no matter what, stick to them.

I had to learn how to say NO to my family. You do not have to explain or justify your decision either. Another lesson I learned in dealing with a toxic family is not to expect them to change. Poisonous people do not take responsibility for their mistakes or actions or even acknowledge them. It is better to accept things and make peace that it will never be what you want it to be.

Surround yourself with people who will give as much as you do.

My in-laws have always treated me respectfully and genuinely cared about me. They never try to make me feel less than others or manipulate me, and I am lucky to have them in my life.

My blog is my journal.

This blog is a journal to me, and it has been very cathartic to share with all of you. They will see it as a personal attack or that I am being judgmental, but that is not my intent. I wouldn’t be true to myself or transparent in hiding this part of my life. It is something that I am constantly dealing with.  The holidays can be stressful, especially with toxic families, and if you need someone to talk to, I am here. Please know that you are not alone.


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  1. Dee says:

    Jennifer, I’m so proud of you I know I say that a lot but I am! Thank you for writing this post, I believe it’s going to help others. I lived this truth with some family members, and determined in my heart at a very early age that my words and actions would be fueled by love. I’m so thankful for the love of the Lord who showed me exactly what kind of an example to live my life by. The viteral that toxic people want to heap upon you when you don’t cave to their demands and whims can be hard to live with, and sometimes walking away is the best thing. Thank you for being you, and just know that I’m here cheering you on as well!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read it Dee. I just hope it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be very difficult to navigate, but I know a lot of people can relate to this. Thank you for always being so encouraging and positive! XOXO Jennifer

  2. Lee says:

    So many points you listed I can relate to! My mother was super controlling and my sister is bipolar. She tried to drown me when I was young until the lifeguard stopped her. I’ve had to get over a long time Pollyanna expectation – always looking forward to seeing my only sibling then always going away confused and in tears. I never know if she is seeing the world through rose colored glasses or if everything is black.
    My Daddy was my even keeled mainstay and the Lord gave me my husband’s folks who filled in the gaps like hugs, acceptance and wanting me around.
    You have a gift for writing your heart and so thank you❣️

    • I’m so sorry that happened! What a traumatic experience for you. I can definitely relate to the in -laws filling in the gaps, because my in-laws do the same thing. Thank you for taking the time to share some of your story. If you ever need to chat, I am here!!! XOXO

Jen Woolwine       Author

Jen is a combat veteran and wife who is passionate about animal rescue, homesteading, and mental health advocacy. Jen's amazing journey of transitioning from military service to homesteading can be followed on her blog and social media platforms @baghdadtobarnyard.

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