Toxic Families

October 12, 2023

BY: Jacqueline Moen-Kadlec, CAPSW


The very notion of family, from the beginning of time, holds a “Norman Rockwell” type of picture: The loving and supportive parents, the smiling children, the happy extended family, all sitting around a table with plentiful food and good conversation. But for many people, the picture of an “ideal or normal family” is a foreign concept. Instead of loving and supportive parents, many people would see a mother who manipulates the child into coming to visit for the holiday or a father with an undiagnosed and/or untreated mental health diagnosis. And the children in that “ideal/normal family” picture? That child, or adult child, is smiling, but may feel as if they are constantly on edge, ready to be on the defense when the emotional, verbal or physical attack occurs or confused because they don’t understand why their family acts the way that they do.

Welcome to the dysfunctional and/or toxic family. It is important to note that ALL families have disagreements. No family is 100% happy with family members all of the time. However, if I described your family, know that you are absolutely not alone and there are ways to address being involved in a
toxic family.

First things first: Is there a difference between a dysfunctional and a toxic family? The short answer to that question is yes! A dysfunctional family is defined by McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine as, “a family  with multiple internal or external conflicts that affect the basic needs of the family unit.” A dysfunctional family environment may occur when a parent or caregiver displays a pattern of being so involved in their own needs that they neglect to provide necessary care or attention to other members of the family. This pattern of behavior may be minor in some families, but when this behavior is a daily, and sometimes constant, experience, the family dynamic can only be described as being a toxic family environment.

So what is a toxic family? Toxic family environments often resemble families who are impacted by substance abuse, with each family member playing a designated role or roles within the family unit. In families impacted by substance abuse, some of the prescribed roles are:

The Enabler: the person who keeps the family secrets, such as the addiction, and tries to make the family appear “as normal as possible,” even if this means  that the person abusing substances may continue to use by their behavior.

The Addict: the person who using the substances.

The Hero: the “responsible one” of the family, who has his or her life together. The Hero is the person that shows that the family is perfect and reinforces to parents that they “are doing a good job parenting.”

The Scapegoat: the “misfit” of the family who acts out in order to draw attention away from the addiction and if often rejected by his or her parents as being the main problem in the family.

The Clown: this is often the person in the family who makes everyone laugh in an effort to draw attention away from the main issues.

The Lost Child: this child flies under the radar and is largely overlooked by the family.

The Peacemaker or Counselor: this person is a “valued” member of the toxic family, as they try to maintain the peace or sense of calmness in a chaotic family environment. This is also a person who listens, often to the parents, speak of their issues regardless of age of the child.

These roles in toxic families are often prescribed at birth and are largely unable to be changed throughout the course of a lifespan without the person in that prescribed role making huge changes to their own behaviors. In order for that to happen, the person fulfilling that role has to first become AWARE that they are filling that role in the family unit. Toxic or dysfunctional family behavioral patterns may result in family members believing things like, “This is how a normal family functions” or on the other side of the continuum, “If other people knew how my family behaved, I would be shunned.” With awareness, however, people CAN make changes to their own behaviors and step outside of those prescribed family roles.

So, how do you step out of those prescribed family roles? After a person gains awareness of what their role in their family might be, they next need to think about what their current boundaries with their family members look like and what impact it has on their mental health and wellbeing when those boundaries are tested or crossed. For example, say one of your family members posts a scathing message about your alleged wrongdoings on your social media account for all to see. Are you comfortable in deleting the comment, which will only give the family member the opportunity to “put you  on blast” again? Or are you comfortable in deleting and blocking the family member so they are unable to post on your personal social media account?Or, are you decided that you are no longer interested in having a relationship with that family member because this has happened too many times in the past? Setting those boundaries is a hard choice for people who have become enmeshed in toxic family drama and KEEPING those firm boundaries is often even more difficult. In many family toxic systems, families will test that boundaries will stay intact, either through guilt or shaming methods (i.e. A father stating, “You know, your mother won’t be around forever and you aren’t coming to Christmas?” or by involving extended family members who say, “How could you do this to your parents, after all they did for you growing up?”). Toxic families often believe that the family environment that children grow up in “wasn’t that bad” and will sometimes do anything and everything into bringing a person back into the family environment in order to maintain the status quo.

The result of setting boundaries with toxic family members is often estrangement. And if you are experiencing an estrangement from your family, please know that you are not alone. Dr. Karl Pillemer, author of “Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” completed a study that showed that
27% of Americans, or 67 MILLION people, are currently estranged from at least one member of their family. While some estrangements may be temporary, it is up to you to decide if you want to reconcile with your family members. But you can’t be the one to put in all the work at reconciliation with toxic family members, either. Families can change, but it takes the whole family to want to make that change.

Working through family issues is truly hard work. But when you are ready to start healing, the staff at Arrow Behavioral Health Services are available to help.  Out staff is available to assist you with your family needs.