In a collectivist culture like Singapore, we were taught at a very young age on the importance of family and the expectation on one’s loyalty to family members (Cherry, 2020). But the hard truth is love and loyalty do not always belong together because when loyalty comes with a diminishing of the self, it is not loyalty but a form of submission instead.
When we have friends who are toxic, we can easily end the friendship and make new friends. But what happens when the toxic person in our life is our own family member(s)?
The word “family” is revered as something too sacred to separate from, regardless of its toxicity. We feel an obligation to stay connected even when it goes against our best interest because that was what we were taught (Campbell, 2017). But just as much as they are a part of our lives, they too can hurt us.
What is a toxic family?
It is normal to have arguments between family members because no matter how much we love each other, we have our differences.
A healthy and loving family knows how to handle these conflicts and differences with trust, respect, and open-mindedness. They would also allow and encourage you to have your own thoughts, to speak up, and to live your own life according to your own terms. A toxic family on the other hand is the opposite of that. They are rifle with patterns of discrimination, manipulation, verbal violence and even patterns of abuse (Navilon, 2020).
The first step in untangling yourself from your toxic family is to be aware of what it really means to have a family that is toxic and to recognize the particular ways that families could be dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy.
So, here are 4 different signs to look out for
A toxic family member that exert their control would often say that “it’s for your own good” despite you knowing that it is probably not true. It is no doubt that our family want what is best for us and sometimes they may think that we do not know what is best for ourselves and so they try to step in. And that is normal. What is not normal, however, is when they relentlessly try to control every single thing that you do (Navilon, 2020).
One example of controlling would be in the form of guilt-tripping. They control you by making you feel guilty any time you do something that he or she does not like (Cory, 2012). For instance, if you say “no” to doing something for them, they will make you feel guilty by saying things like, “After everything that I have done for you, this is the least that you should do for me”. Comments like these are meant to make you feel bad about yourself and they will find a way to make you feel ashamed, and hurt (Mercury, 2015).
This form of toxic trait in a family member will make you feel as though your sole purpose in life is to take care of them. You feel as though they only show affection or value you as long as you can serve their financial or emotional needs. It is important to note that even though they are your family it is not your responsibility to take care of their every need (Navilon, 2020). A healthy family is a unit of support and love, but it is not a constant source of obligation.
The definition of infantilization is “the act of prolonging an infantile state in a person by treating them as an infant.” (Navilon, 2020). In simpler terms, it is deliberately treating or making you like you are still a child.
This type of toxic family member would infantilize you and will emphasize your incompetence in doing independent activities and thus deliberately undermining your own abilities to do things on your own if you do not have them by your side (Navilon, 2020). In our culture we often hear are comments such as, “you think you know everything just because you’re working now,” “you have “wings” now and you can fly just because you’re older,” “you don’t know anything, just leave it to us (mum and dad).”
Parents in particular often view their kids as an extension of themselves which makes them afraid by the thought of their children leaving them and thus, would use this as a way to keep you close to them by ultimately undermining your growing independence.
Harsh judgement and criticism
It is normal for families to be a little critical because they only want what they think is best for you. But a toxic family will take this criticism to another level. They create an environment where you feel that you can never get anything right. And even when you do succeed, they will find ways to put you down (Navilon, 2020).
It is important to note that criticism given by anyone in the family should be constructive and should focus on the behavior and not on the person themself. They should not make you feel inferior, unwanted, or even unloved.
How to deal with toxic family members
- Set and enforce boundaries
By setting clear boundaries it would help to create emotional and physical space between you and them.
You have to first decide where your limits are and then inform them where those limits are. For instance, if you do not want your mum to criticise you, then you have to let her know how her words affect you and to not say such remarks to you again. Be clear that you will not allow yourself to be treated like that and if they want to continue to have a relationship with you, they will have to respect your boundaries and not go over the line (Mercury, 2015).
You can ask yourself, what boundaries do you need with the people in your family? And what is one step you can take towards setting those boundaries? (Martin, 2018).
- Be mindful of what you share with them
Trust is an important element of a healthy relationship and we often choose to share personal information with those that show themselves as trustworthy. Unfortunately, your family may not fall into this category. The good news is, you do not actually have to share everything with your family and you might even find it helpful to keep significant details private from them who you know have a history of using them to gossip about you or use what you tell them against you. or even share things about you to other people without your permission.
You can ask yourself, what are the things that you feel are safe to share with your family? And what are the things that do not feel safe to share?
- Stop trying to please them
It is perfectly normal for us to want our family’s approval. But it is important to note that toxic family members are nearly impossible to please and if you try to live your life according to their values and goals it will not only leave you feeling unhappy and unfulfilled all the time, but you are actually allowing your family to determine your own self-worth.
If, however, you have set boundaries and they do not seem to respect them, then perhaps, cutting them off would be the next best thing. It can be hard to end a relationship with a family. So, it would be best to first get a clear vision of why you are doing it.
You can start off by asking yourself these following questions:
- How are their toxic behaviors affecting you and your mental health?
- How do you feel around them?
- What are the problems that might arise (financially etc.) if you were to cut them off?
- How are you going to deal with these said problems?
Do not feel bad to end a relationship with a toxic family if needed as it is a way to take care of yourself and your health when someone else is not willing to treat you with the love and respect that you deserve.
Camellia Wong, MA, Demi Ng
Campbell, S. (2017, 16 May). 9 Ways to Untangle Yourself From a Toxic Family. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/9-way-to-untangled-yourself-from-a-toxic-family_b_591744c5e4b00ccaae9ea36d
Cherry, K. (2020, March 24). Understanding Collectivist Cultures. Retrieved from
Cory, L, T. (2012, January 9). Toxic Relationships: What They Are and 8 Types of Toxic Individuals. Retrieved from https://www.healthscopemag.com/health-scope/toxic-relationships/
Martin, S. (2018, 23 November). 10 Tips for Dealing with your Toxic Parents. Retrieved from
Mercury. (2015, 2 December). 10 Signs You Have A Toxic Family Member and 3 Things You Can Do About It. Retrieved from http://www.ilanelanzen.com/familyandparenting/10-signs-you-have-toxic-family-members-and-3-things-you-can-do-about-it/
Navilon, G. (2020, 10 August). Toxic family: 11 signs of family dysfunction and what to do next. Retrieved from
Raypole, C. (2019, 25 October). When Family Becomes Toxic. Retrieved from