Recognizing Toxic Family

by Laila Winters

When we love someone, especially a member of our family, we frequently turn a blind eye to their faults. We forgive them for their shortcomings and less than stellar behavior, though sometimes, we don’t always realize that we’re doing so at our own expense. 

In my previous article, Surviving Toxic Family, I discuss the meaning of ‘toxic family’ and how to survive living under the same roof as people harmful to your wellbeing. For those of you who may have missed my last visit to the Bee, exhibiting ‘toxic behavior’ is an alternative way to describe someone who’s abusive. This abuse can be physical, emotional, or psychological, and it can be defined in the following ways:

Physical: Non-accidental use of force that results in bodily injury, pain, or impairment. This includes, but is not limited to, being slapped, burned, cut, bruised or improperly physically restrained

Emotional / Psychological: Any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.

As a continuation of my dive into toxic familial relationships, here are seven red flags that a family member or loved one may be exhibiting toxic or abusive behavior. 

Note: before moving forward, please understand that these red flags have been drawn from personal experiences, and that they may differ from your situation or circumstances. If you or someone you know is in immediate or life threatening danger, please go through the proper channels to get help. Contact your local authorities, or reach out to one of these organizations

7. They refuse to respect boundaries. 

Refusal to respect boundaries can mean several things, from opening your bedroom door without knocking, to interfering with life choices and personal relationships outside of familial ties. If a family member continuously oversteps boundaries that you’ve previously asked them to acknowledge (“Please don’t enter my room without knocking” or “Please don’t speak to my significant other without asking me first”) they may be exhibiting toxic behavior. 

There is a fine line between, “I’m your mother, you’re not feeling well, and I wanted to check in on you,” and “I’m your mother, you’re my child, and your business is my business.”  

6. They refuse to apologize.

Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always easy, but it is the proper thing to do when one has found themselves in the wrong. But a toxic person often has trouble admitting fault, and they often won’t apologize for the things they’ve done to hurt you as a result of their abusive behavior. Apart from this, it’s also likely that they’ll paint themselves as the victim, expecting you to say sorry for what they’ve done. 

5.  They make you feel guilty by reminding you of all they’ve done for you.

Parents are supposed to provide for their children until at least the age of 18. For some, this responsibility is not taken lightly; for others, it’s seen as a hindrance, and a toxic person will remind you of everything they’ve done for you. By law, they’re required to, but they put a roof over your head, food on the table, and they’ve paid for the clothes on your back—how dare you do anything that forces them to remind you of such parental obligations? 

4. They give you the silent treatment.

If a child is upset that their parent(s) wouldn’t let them have ice cream for dinner, they may refuse to speak until the need to do so outweighs their desire to pout. This concept is similar for adults. When your abuser doesn’t receive a desired reaction from you, it’s possible that they’ll give you the cold shoulder. Often, they’ll wait until you reach out first; this gives them a sense of validity that you need them more than they need you. It’s also a way to guilt you into apologizing for whatever made them cut you off in the first place. 

3. They try to control you with money.

While the obvious “control” in this scenario may be to cut you off financially, this isn’t always the case. Controlling you with money may mean several things: interfering with your job to prevent you from making your own money, reminding you of the things they’ve bought for you and suddenly demanding payback, and, my personal favorite, trying to control how you spend the money that you’ve earned for yourself. 

2. They don’t listen to you.

This is the first red flag that I ever noticed for myself and my situation. My mother is very good at talking about herself and expecting me to listen, but she does not grant me that same courtesy. I’ve spent 25 years trying to tell her about my interests, my days at school or work, what’s going on with my non-existent book deal, etc. Usually, she stares at her phone and will occasionally make a sound of acknowledgement, but if I ask her to repeat back to me what I said, she’ll say, “Sorry, I wasn’t actually listening.” 

But if she’s really not interested, she’ll cut me off and change the conversation entirely, or she’ll simply get up and leave. Some physical part of her suddenly hurts, so she needs to go lay down. She worked longer hours today than I did, so my day couldn’t have been that bad and I don’t have as much to complain about. “Hey, did you see this post on Facebook?” 

1. They’re overly critical.

Criticism is to be expected from any parent. “You failed your math exam? I’m disappointed.” But when it veers from constructive (“Math isn’t your strongest subject—let’s hire a tutor who can help you prepare for next time!) and dives right in to being hurtful (“You failed your exam? How stupid are you?”), it’s abusive behavior beginning to rear its ugly head. 

But toxic people are trained in the art of weaseling under the radar. Often, they disguise their hurtful criticism by following up a statement with a compliment. My personal favorite is as follows: 

“That shirt you’re wearing makes you look fat, but your hair looks so good when you wear it down like that.” 

Insult: that shirt you’re wearing makes you look fat.

Compliment: your hair looks so good when you wear it down like that.

Bonus insult: your hair looks so good when you wear it down like that.

“Like that” implies that the person speaking likely thinks your hair doesn’t look so great when you wear it other ways. It’s a silent second insult that often gets brushed aside in lieu of the compliment it’s paired with. 

People who are overly critical are often projecting their own insecurities onto their victim, and while it’s something to keep in mind when your abuser says something hurtful, it’s not an excuse. Cruel and unnecessary criticism from any one person is the biggest red flag that a family member or loved one is toxic. 

Laila Winters
Laila Winters (she/her) is an anxious, cosplaying YA author of science fiction and fantasy. Also an avid reader, she squeezed a small library into her 600sf apartment and continues to add to her collection, much to her fiancée’s dismay. Laila is part of the LGBTQ+ community and identifies as both a lesbian and asexual. When she’s not writing, Laila enjoys cosplaying, crocheting, and watching documentaries. She’s a shield maiden at heart, has a love for snarky pirates, and is distantly related to Blackbeard. She lives somewhere deep in the Midwest with her fiancée and bulldog, Moo.^