Toxic family environments can range from mild neglect to extreme physical abuse. Whatever type of toxic family you grew up in, one thing is guaranteed: your needs were not met. So, what are the signs you grew up in a toxic family?
12 signs you grew up in a toxic family
1. You are a people pleaser
Toxic family environments are tense, stressful and frightening. Situations can erupt from normal to violence in seconds. As a result, growing up, you are always on edge. You do anything it takes to maintain a peaceful atmosphere. It could range from not voicing your opinion or to being the peacemaker.
As a child, you have had to live in difficult situations. As an adult, you will do anything to maintain the status quo. You put your needs last to ensure the situation remains under control. You have become a people pleaser.
2. You need constant validation
I always say to my friends and family that I need constant validation because my late mother ignored me. I might be in my late fifties, but, joking apart, I’m still pleasantly surprised when people like me or want to spend time with me.
Older readers may recall the Oscars ceremony when Sally Fields won and exclaimed to the world: “You like me! You really like me!” (Don’t worry, I have a good friend that reminds me how pathetic I am when I crave validation!)
3. You are suspicious of everyone
Watching manipulation in your family teaches you how people can be controlled or influenced. Seeing someone lie blatantly or subtly changes your view of the world. You become suspicious yourself. You begin to doubt what people tell you. You look for hidden agendas or secret meanings.
You read between the lines, taking nothing at face value. You don’t believe it when a partner says they love you. They must want something because that’s what your parents said when you were growing up. And you know they didn’t mean it.
4. You keep your feelings to yourself
Has anyone told you that you are a hard nut to crack? Or that you never let people in? Growing up with critical or unsupportive parents crushes your self-esteem. If a parent constantly puts down a child, eventually, that child will start to believe they are stupid or worthless.
They become silent and withdrawn because nothing they do is ever good enough. Children who grow up in this toxic family dynamic tend to be closed off from the rest of us. They find it difficult to let people in for fear of rejection or criticism.
5. You are afraid of confrontation
One of the signs you grew up in a toxic family is a fear of confrontation. Did you live in a tense environment where the slightest thing would set off one of your parents? Eventually, you learn to be quiet. You make yourself small and invisible. You don’t assert yourself.
Instead, so become so fearful of confrontational situations you avoid them altogether. However, in adult life, there are times when we have to confront people. But for you, at the moment of confrontation, you are thrust back in time and become that frightened little child again.
6. You have a hard time making decisions
Receiving harsh criticism as a child makes you feel inferior, even stupid at times. Having a parent that constantly belittles you lowers your self-belief. Nothing you do is right, so you must be doing something wrong. This affects your decision-making ability as an adult.
How do you decide the best course of action when your parents have drummed it into you that you are stupid? Now that you are older, you procrastinate and avoid making important decisions.
This can be toxic in itself. For example, you stay in an abusive relationship because you can’t decide whether to leave.
7. You are a narcissist
When we think about toxic families, our first thoughts turn to abuse or neglect.
But in my family, my brother was designated as the ‘special one’. Everyone else was ignored or abused, apart from my brother. He never had any chores to do, and he had to stay on at university (whereas I had to leave high school at 16 to get a job to fund his education).
Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother dearly, despite his childhood, he has grown into a lovely young man. I certainly don’t resent him; however, I now understand that his upbringing gave him a sense of entitlement.
I wouldn’t call him an outright narcissist, but, for example, if we are going out, he won’t expect or offer to pay.
8. You fall in and out of love quickly and frequently
Toxic families are not always physically abusive. If you have a narcissistic parent, you will never get the nurturing you need growing up. As your narcissistic parent demands attention, your needs are ignored. You certainly won’t be loved or shown love in this toxic family.
So how does this affect you as an adult? You are forever searching for a relationship that provides you with everything you didn’t get as a child.
You project your desires for an ideal relationship onto your current partner. When it becomes obvious, they cannot live up to your expectations, you move on.
9. You have a highly critical inner voice
We all have an inner voice, and surprisingly, research shows that we negatively speak to ourselves. But yours is exceptionally harsh.
Did you grow up in a family that criticized your every move? One that mocked your achievements or told you you’d never amount to anything? Then your inner voice will keep reminding you how worthless you are.
Children that grow up in a loving and nurturing family develop self-worth and a strong sense of identity. Their inner voice is like that positive life coach; encouraging you to believe in yourself.
Ethan Kross is an award-winning psychologist. In his book ‘Chatter’, he teaches you how to change your critical inner voice:
“When we talk to ourselves, we often hope to tap into our inner coach but find our inner critic instead. When we’re facing a tough task, our inner coach can buoy us up: Focus—you can do this. But, just as often, our inner critic sinks us entirely: I’m going to fail. They’ll all laugh at me. What’s the use?”
Synopsis from ‘Chatter’ by Ethan Kross
10. You have anxiety issues
Talking about my mother again (apologies, even I get bored with it!), but it’s a good example of how a toxic family leads to anxiety issues.
My mother was abusive to my sisters when we were growing up, so when she died young, I was conflicted. I knew I didn’t love her, but I also knew I was supposed to because she was my mother. She died before I got the answers I needed.
Research has shown that even children living within a disrupted family structure are more likely to have psychiatric problems later on in life.
11. You end up in abusive relationships
If you grew up in a toxic family where abuse is normal, you get sensitized to it. What might shock your friends does not affect you. You get used to watching your parents arguing, or worse, seeing physical abuse again and again.
It’s not surprising then that when you are older, you put up with the abuse that others would not. Or worse, become an abuser yourself.
12. You don’t like being single
Well-balanced people are happy to live on their own. They don’t need to be in a relationship, they get their confidence and sense of identity from the inside, not from other people.
One of the signs you grew up in a toxic family is suffering from low self-esteem. You need a significant other to make you feel significant, because growing up, you didn’t.
What to do if you grew up in a toxic family?
It is a well-researched fact that our childhoods affect us. You only have to read John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment to understand why our early interactions are so important.
It is also important to remember that whilst you can’t change your childhood, you can learn to understand it and change how you deal with it. My toxic mother is dead, so I don’t have to deal with her. But your family members may still be around.
1. Talk to your family
Sometimes issues can be resolved and family members can move on. If you feel your family are open to listening, perhaps it’s worth a shot. However, a word of caution; you might not be able to change family members. You can tell them how you feel, but it is better to have low expectations.
2. Talk to a professional
I’m a huge fan of professional help. I cannot count the number of psychologists I have seen in my past. Every one of them has helped me explore a different issue of my childhood.
There’s no shame or vanity about visiting a mental health professional. After all, you wouldn’t be ashamed of going to the hospital if you had hurt yourself? So, if talking to your family doesn’t work, try someone unbiased.
3. Decide to detach
Deciding to have no contact with certain family members is tough. I’ve had to do it myself recently and it wasn’t easy. I have found that by doing so, it is difficult talking to my other siblings.
I always think no law says we have to get on with or love our parents or our family. If you do, that’s great. But if you have a problem with someone, it is entirely within your rights to cut off contact.
We can’t choose our family, and we can’t change the past. But if you did grow up in a toxic family, you do have choices now you are an adult. You can try to understand your family, forgive them or move on. Now you do have autonomy. It’s your choice how you decide to go forward.
- Toxic Stress (harvard.edu)
- Parental Expressed Emotion and Youth Psychopathology: New Directions for an Old Construct | SpringerLink
- Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development: Working Paper No. 9 (harvard.edu)
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