Some lucky people are born into families they adore spending time with—their loving mutual bonds make holiday gatherings and multi-generational vacations a drama-free joy. But for others, simply seeing an incoming call from a parent can trigger an anxiety that dates back to childhood, and get-togethers leave them hurt, angry, or exhausted. What can you do when their behavior inspires an impulse to protect yourself? Here are signs of a toxic family member, and an expert’s advice on how to handle being around them—because “drink all of the wine” is not a sustainable plan.
They make cruelly critical remarks.
No one’s known you longer than your family members have, which means they’ve got a rich back catalog of job loss, personal failures, and exes to draw from when commenting on your life. Their blunt criticism can wound like a physical jab.
“Toxic parents exhibit a chronic lack of empathy towards their children,” says Shannon Thomas, trauma therapist and author of Healing from Hidden Abuse. “These behaviors can manifest through biting remarks about appearance, relationship status, mental or physical health, financial struggles, or career challenges.”
Even if they insist they’re just teasing, those comments may (even subconsciously) be decimating by design. “It’s hard to imagine a parent intentionally taking cheap shots at their children, but it happens when they’re toxic,” she adds.
They channel Jerry Springer at the dinner table.
Maybe they flat-out ask you why you can’t be more like the brother you’ve always felt competitive with, or they praise his successes in ways that emphasize where you fall short. They might share something another family member said about you, effectively sowing the seeds of conflict. “Unhealthy parents will pit their children against one another, or against other members of the family,” Thomas explains. “They set up scenarios where jealousy and resentment can flourish.”
They give you the silent treatment.
Yes, words can hurt—but so can their absence. Whether it’s refusing to speak to you for hours (or even days) following an argument, or they passive-aggressively express displeasure by shutting you out as you wonder what went wrong, it’s a form of manipulation. And this is true regardless of the family member.
“Toxic family members are notorious for using silence as a form of punishment and emotional control,” says Thomas. “They find power in being pursued for a relationship.”
Your business becomes your great-aunt Lydia’s business.
A blossoming relationship just ended, and though you had no reason to feel embarrassed, you didn’t want the whole world to know about your romantic disappointment. Enter your mother, who’s spilled your tale as a way to bond (or worse, share a laugh) with someone else. According to Thomas, it’s not uncommon for a toxic family member to breach your confidence. “They’ll often share personal information or life struggles with whoever they deem worthy of knowing, with little-to-no regard for how these breaches of trust impact their children’s emotional well-being.”
A toxic sibling may “side with” your parent.
In a well-adjusted family dynamic, there’s usually no such thing as “taking sides.” But when someone learns poor relationship patterns from a parent or parents, they may try to earn that parent’s affection by replicating those patterns and thus normalizing harmful behavior. “Toxic siblings often become a supporter of an equally toxic parent,” Thomas says. “They’ll use similar critical language as the parent, and shame the targeted sibling regarding areas of life they might be feeling vulnerable about.”
Fostering or playing into a competitive dynamic that’s meant to make you feel bad is another type of toxic sibling behavior, as is conveniently forgetting your invite to family get-togethers. “Their goal is to send the clear message that you’re not included on purpose, and they’ll often gloat about what a wonderful event it was,” Thomas explains,
Beware of repeating toxic patterns with new people.
You never chose the family you were raised in, but you can make sure you don’t invite new toxic influences into your life through assuming the poor ways they treat you are acceptable. “If one or both parents who raised you exhibited significantly unhealthy traits, your ability to assess red flags in the people you meet will be negatively impacted,” says Thomas.
“Without true insight on how our family environment created relational blind spots, we run a high risk of repeating toxic patterns from childhood,” she continues. “These could include people-pleasing tendencies, difficulty controlling your anger, or being emotionally unavailable in adult relationships.” Auditing your relationships’ health through self-examination and the assistance of a professional can help you avoid recreating the toxicity.
Before telling a toxic family member how they make you feel, try this.
If you’re not ready to cut family out of your life—or you don’t think their behavior is extreme enough to warrant it—you may be tempted to call them out on what they’re doing in an effort to break the cycle. Just be sure to manage your expectations of the conversation: Definitely don’t assume you’ll get an outright apology or some sudden improvement in your dynamic. In fact, they may wind up pushing your buttons harder than ever.
“The toxic individual will often attempt to bring a heightened level of emotions to the conversation,” Thomas says. “On the other side of the spectrum, they might refuse to discuss your concerns.” To help keep your conversation even-keeled and on track, Thomas suggests making a list of the person’s most hurtful offenses and sticking to your talking points.
Detachment is crucial.
You have no control over someone else’s behavior, but you can work on your own reaction to it. When going no-contact isn’t an option that you’re willing or able to choose, Thomas recommends forging an emotional boundary with what she calls “detached contact.”
“Detached contact centers on our ability to be physically present, but not emotionally wounded by the actions of a family member,” Thomas explains. “We consciously recognize the psychological games they’re playing to get a reaction out of us, but we refuse to engage in the toxicity.” Instead, she says, invest your energy in healthier family members who treat you with respect, and “deflect all attempts by the toxic person to engage in an argument or drama.” Placing distance between your emotions and their chaos-sowing tactics isn’t simple, but it does get easier with practice.
When should you cut them out?
Deciding to enforce a no-contact rule is a big move that may test your resolve, call for new family holiday traditions, and spur other family members to try and intervene. But as Thomas points out, certain situations require it—particularly when previous attempts to improve relations are unsuccessful. No-contact particularly becomes an option to consider if the situation is significantly impacting your mental health. “An increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic disorder, addictions, and mood instability are all signs of necessary distance from a toxic family member,” Thomas says.
“It’s an intensely painful experience to face the necessity of cutting a family member out of our lives,” she continues. “It’s a figurative death with complex grief, because the family member is still living but emotionally unsafe.”
Another reason people may choose to protect themselves with a no-contact rule is to protect their own family, out of fear that their children will be exposed to the same unacceptable behaviors. As Thomas says, “Toxic parents frequently become toxic grandparents.”