How to Deal with a Toxic Family

Do you have a dysfunctional or problematic family who brings you only suffering and stress? Do you struggle to live with these dynamics? If so, take note of the guidelines offered in this article.
How to Deal with a Toxic Family
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 07 June, 2023

Manipulation, lies, disrespect, and blackmail are all situations that can occur within toxic families. And, dealing with them isn’t easy. In fact, these families operate in a similar manner to that of a sect. Indeed, their toxic members know precisely what strategies to employ so that their relatives can’t escape their influence.

These destructive behavioral patterns take root in many families, affecting all their components and dynamics.

The biggest problem with dysfunctional family members is that they rarely take responsibility for their actions. They instrumentalize others to reinforce their needs. Therefore, if you have a toxic family, you must put certain actions into practice to protect your well-being and, above all, your mental health. Here, we’re going to talk about the most useful strategies in this regard.

Often, an “I love you” said by a toxic family member hides a manipulative intention.

How to deal with a toxic or dysfunctional family

The terms toxic person and toxic family aren’t backed by any scientific evidence and tend to be viewed as pop psychological terms. As such, their meanings are understood by everyone. But, behind them, what really exists is a bad family dynamic, and what emerges from it is psychological manipulation, emotional invalidation, and mistreatment. This can mentally scar the affected individual.

As a matter of fact, growing up in a toxic or dysfunctional environment is a risk factor, not only for our mental health but also for criminal behavior. In this respect, the University of Western Ontario (Canada) conducted a study that claimed four out of five incarcerated males in Ontario grew up in a family with these characteristics.

But, how can you deal with a toxic family? What mechanisms can you develop to protect yourself? We list them below.

1. Understand what lies behind your toxic family

The mere fact of having blood ties doesn’t make a family. Moreover, some family figures use these bonds to generate emotional pain from a really early age. There might be different motivations for this. As a matter of fact, some toxic family members may even suffer from mental disorders.

In consultation, therapists frequently identify personality disorders that explain these family dynamics. Research conducted by Dr. Liane J. Leedom, entitled The Impact of Psychopathy in the Family details this possibility.

Girl in yellow sweater is upset with an adult and symbolizes how to deal with a toxic family
The weight of dysfunctional family dynamics are wounds carried from childhood.

2. Limit contact

It’s best to limit your contact with them. However, this might be complicated. So, try and figure out in which situations your presence in the toxic environment is essential and in which it’s not. Prioritize yourself and avoid being the target of their dishonest strategies like resorting to victimhood, and criticizing you for distancing yourself.

Always bear in mind the manipulative traps of dysfunctional family members and make it clear when and in what specific contexts you’ll agree to see them.

3. The physical and emotional margins

In addition to restricting contact with a harmful family environment, you should establish physical and emotional boundaries. Make sure you affirm these with clarity and assertiveness. Here are some recommendations:

  • Request respectful communication from your toxic family members.
  • Make it clear to them what behaviors you won’t allow.
  • Inform them that you’re not willing to conform to their mandates and expectations.
  • Set emotional boundaries. For example, say “No” or “I don’t want you to do that” out loud without feeling guilty.
  • Remember that toxic people aim to invade and overcome other people’s boundaries. So, explain to them that this will have consequences (for example, permanent distancing).

The most important thing when dealing with dysfunctional families is to have a good external support network.

4. Don’t confront them. Use the gray rock technique

To deal with a toxic family member, you must understand that it’s useless to confront them. This is because they have really poor levels of self-awareness and emotional responsibility. Therefore, it’s useful to apply the gray rock technique:

  • Don’t participate in their provocations. Ignore them.
  • Make your interactions with them brief and assertive.
  • Show indifference to their demands and victimization.
  • Keep your interactions with them neutral.
  • Maintain a certain emotional distance. Also, be firm and stick to your decisions.

5. Have a close support network

Happy families are built by healthy, nutritious, and emotionally mature figures. But, if you have a toxic family, and can’t completely distance yourself from them, you must ensure you have a daily support network around you that understands you and reinforces your self-esteem.

Try not to isolate yourself or let your toxic family be your only socialization scenario. Meet and build happy bonds with worthwhile people who won’t hurt you.

6. Practice detachment

Detachment is the reverse process of bonding. It’s a technique for gradually releasing hurtful emotions. Here are some strategies for carrying it out:

  • Stop expecting validation or support from your family.
  • Understand that you’re responsible for yourself. Seek your own well-being.
  • Don’t give any value to what they express. Look for other sources to reinforce your self-esteem.
  • Rephrase all the hurtful messages you’ve internalized from them and heal them.

7. Think about tomorrow and the relationship you want to have with them

How do you see yourself tomorrow? What role/position do you want these figures to play in your life? To deal with a toxic family, you have to clarify what kind of relationship you want with them. This is something you should think about and decide on as soon as possible. There are only three options to decide between:

  • Disengage completely.
  • Continue in the same way.
  • Establish a specific kind of contact.

8. If you have to see them, plan the meeting

It may be really difficult to completely disassociate yourself from your close family because they’re dependent on you or they know how to get you not to distance yourself. If you have to meet at certain times with a toxic or dysfunctional family member, plan the following aspects:

  • Establish how long the meeting will last.
  • Make it clear how long you’ll be there.
  • Explain the kinds of dynamics you won’t tolerate. If they occur, you have a reason to suspend the meeting/visit.

9. Ask for psychological help: they won’t change

The effect of a bad family dynamic sustained over time can be quite erosive. It damages your self-esteem, weakens your identity, and might make you internalize harmful beliefs and thought patterns. These are situations that can lead to trauma.

Always consider the possibility of requesting specialized help. Bear in mind that these people rarely change and it’s you who must act. Psychological therapy will help you to heal your wounds and decide what strategies to use.

In the mind of a toxic or dysfunctional individual, there’s no self-awareness or emotional responsibility. They’re people who won’t change.

Wooden block house with a red triangle roof next to figures to symbolize how to deal with a toxic family
The wounds caused by bad family dynamics take the longest to heal.

You might be interested to read What Can You Do if You Have Toxic Siblings?

Breaking adversarial threads to deal with a toxic family

Due to the intensity of the connection, it’s difficult to possess foresight when trapped in the confines of a toxic family. You may want to walk away but, at the same time, there might be certain factors that hold you back. They could be circumstantial. On the other hand, they may be the product of an attempt at deliberate manipulation.

When this is the case, the aggressor usually knows you well and is skillful when it comes to pulling strings to control you. This is why it’s so important to have a good social support network outside of your family.

Finally, breaking with these adverse threads or managing them in another way will guarantee your mental well-being. Why not start practicing now?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.