How to deal with a dysfunctional family

It was 4 am. My client woke up as usual to check her phone. A chronic worrier, she was always on high alert, unable to relax for fear that something terrible might happen to someone in the family. This time she had reason to worry. She had missed a call from her mother. She left a voice message, crying down the phone and telling her daughter she needed to talk to her. My client rang back immediately, but the phone rang through. She didn’t sleep a wink after that. She received no call back. She rang again the next day, then the day after. No answer.

Christmas was slowly creeping up and she had made the decision she didn’t want to visit the family that year. It was a huge turning point for her, defying her parents and breaking free from the hold they had over her. After hearing nothing back and not sleeping for several days, she re-enforced the decision. She text her mother to say she wouldn’t be visiting this year, who then text back immediately, pretending that everything was ok and never mentioning the late night call. She knew then she was being manipulated.

This is the game dysfunctional people play to regain control of the family system and ensure everyone fulfils there designated roles. Emotional blackmail and passive aggressive attempts at worry are just some of the weapons of choice however knowing this intellectually rarely gives us comfort when we are emotionally enmeshed in such families.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one which takes more than it gives and when it does give, there is always an agenda. It tends to exist when one person in the relationship is only concerned with themselves and where there is past emotional baggage which is bleeding into the current relationship. Often in these types of relationships open communication is not welcome and keeping secrets is common practice.

Key Identifiers to being in such a relationship:

• You constantly worry about them, or their behavior.
• You are always apologizing to them.
• You suppress your anger despite how they treat you.
• You are always supporting them be it financially or emotionally.
• You doubt your ability to form solid and honest opinions of them and know the best course of action to take.

Typical behavior

Below I have outlined some of the typical behaviours seen in dysfunctional families:


• Pretending to not hear you and moving the conversation the direction that suits them.
• Completely ignoring you.
• Walking out of the room when you walk in.
• Creating allegiances and scapegoats.

Emotional blackmail

• Guilt-trips.
• Criticisms, blame.
• Resentment.
• Blocking opportunities to express emotion.

Verbal attacks

• Direct Accusations (aimed at you).
• Indirect Accusations (aimed at you via others).

Role shifting

• Forcing sons and daughters into surrogate parent or sibling roles, such as parents looking for approval off children or passing responsibility to children for their issues.
• Crossing boundaries such as making inappropriate requests, constantly asking for money or sacrificing personal time to fix their problems.
• Burdening with worries, especially around health.
• Sharing too much private information, such as confiding about their relationship with your mother or father.
• Interfering and trying to control situations for example forcing your hand in decisions surrounding career, relationships or life, etc.

Understanding the 4 communications styles

• Aggressive, e.g. shouting (Meaning: “I’m more important than you”).
• Passive aggressive, e.g. indirect underhanded remarks (Meaning: “I want you to worry”).
• Passive, e.g. pleading (Meaning: “I need you to stay calm”).
• Direct (Meaning: “We’re important as each other”).

Whose role is it anyway?

Here are some of the roles adopted in dysfunctional families. At any point, someone could jump from one role to the next, whenever a situation demands it.

The Victim: This is someone who likes to paint a picture of themselves as the innocent party, who is hard done by in a relationship, situation, health, etc. They can often be heard using the word bully liberally in an attempt to take the attention away from their own actions and behaviors.

In truth, this is someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for themselves or their life. They may feel inadequate or unable to fulfill the basic requirements of their parental or sibling role. Uninterested in finding solutions to their own problems they hope to provoke feelings of empathy or fear in others to assist them in meeting their needs.

The UN Ambassador: This someone who is constantly trying to keep the peace in a family system. They can often withhold information in an effort to avoid rows and anger. Chronic worriers, they constantly crave peace of mind and act as mediator in an effort to get this. They will continue to take on any family role as long as it keeps the emotional status quo.

They will sacrifice time, money and even self-esteem, i.e. apologizing for something which wasn’t your fault. They might be agreeable and will always have boundary issues (i.e. unable to say no).

The Delegator: This is someone who likes to boss everyone around, getting others to jump to their beat. Often stating they are too busy to fulfill their role, they will pass tasks to their children or siblings then disappear.

Control is key here; they like to feel useful and keep everyone busy as a way of avoiding the real issues. The truth is they are just stressing everyone else out.

The Judge: These people do very little with their lives and cover up their own inadequacies and poor self-esteem by putting others into a box. Quick to comment when others make mistakes, their only real contribution to life is their negative opinion.

The Bull: The angry parent or sibling who can often be seen shouting or barging through situations. These have an ability to make bad situations worse and destroy lines of communication. When dealing with these, family members avoid difficult conversations or pulling them up on behaviors as they only react with anger. This anger can be unconscious, i.e. just a reaction or unconscious response and in many cases, the bull is unaware or just doesn’t care of the impact it has on others.

How has the system impacted you?

• Fear: Do you find you are constantly worrying about the lives of the family?
• Guilt: Do you feel guilty for standing up for yourself or that you are saying no to a demand only to cave in later?
• Anger: Do you have a deep level of anger or rage which you have suppressed?
• Poor boundaries: Do you keep giving needlessly e.g. providing financial support and putting yourself out of pocket, falling out with partner as you are putting the needs of family members first?
• Self-doubt: Do you doubt your perception of the situation? Do you doubt your ability to deal with your family? Doubt is another weapon commonly used especially through passive aggressive remarks which cannot be challenged or confronted.

The Great Escape

Breaking free of unhealthy relations takes time and energy; only you can decide how important it is and how badly you want to be free:

Stage 1 – Physical Detachment

Get away from them. Don’t visit home. Don’t ring and avoid answering calls. Get a sense of your life away from them and you may come to the conclusion you no longer need them. Don’t feel like have to explain yourself in advance and don’t set a specific time frame, give yourself as much time as you need.

Physical detachment will provide the necessary head space to make sense of everything that has happened, however be conscious that distance can create a sense of abandonment and drive you to ring and explain yourself or to search peace of mind and make sure they are OK.

These impulsive reactions are part of the codependent behavior which they can use to control you and it’s essential you use your will power to fight these responses and work towards stage 2.

Stage 2 – Psychological Detachment

Detachment isn’t about not caring for others; it is about not needing others to be any other way then how they are now.

Detachment is about going inside and asking yourself what’s going on. What do you need from them? Is it support? Is it reassurance? Do you need them to be healthy and happy before you can get on with your life? How does the relationship affect you? You need to recognize how the dynamic of the relationship is having an unhealthy affect on you and deciding to take no part in it.

Reflect on the toxicity of the relationship. Do their words play on your mind? Does the situation run around your head like a train set? Do you feel anxious or fearful with thoughts of engaging with them? Do you feel a deep rooted anger, or rage towards them? This is the psychological enmeshment which is impacting your ability to objectively look at the situation. Even the most mature and emotionally stable person would do well to maintain control of their inner state whilst connected to a dysfunction family.

Make the decision to not let them affect you. Don’t reflect on their words or remarks. If emotions rise, such as anger or guilt see it as the by product of the toxicity and let it go. Don’t let your inner world be affected by your involvement with them.

Stage 3 – Laying new seeds

We are all children around our parents, it makes no difference if your 6 or 66.

As children we had needs. Most people know of the physical needs, such as heat, food, security, etc. but the psychological needs, such as love, joy, peace of mind, a sense of belonging are the essential elements needed to grow into a healthy human being.

Take an honest look at your childhood: what was the family home like? Was it warm place? Was there anger there? Were your parents close? Did they appear to struggle with life, their health or their relationship with each other? Did you spend a lot of time alone? Did you have siblings? Were you the youngest or oldest? How close were your siblings to your parents? Were your parents or siblings unnecessarily critical of you?

This will give you an indication of what you were psychologically deprived of then and how you keep chasing those needs now as an adult.

Meeting Developmental Needs

In my work as therapist, I try to introduce my clients to the child inside all of us, the unconscious emotions and thoughts which drive our behavior; the memories and experiences which define who we are and how we feel about our selves and life itself.

Start by visualizing your bedroom when you were 7 years old; what was it like? What wallpaper did you have? What toys did you play with it? Can you remember your pajamas? Did you have posters on the wall?

Now remember how you felt? Were you anxious? Did you worry a lot around then? Were you lonely?

If your adult self could speak to that 7 year old, what would you say to the child? What do they need to hear? Do they need reassurance? Do they need to be told that there is no need to worry? Would you tell them it’s ok to be angry? Would you tell them it’s OK to express their needs? Would you tell them you’ll never leave them? This begins the process of re-parenting. Providing the psychological nourishment required to reach our potential. It is important that this process is done on a daily basis, just for a few minutes. Just imagine the child you were and treat them the way you would treat a child now. Over time, the images become healthy experiences and positive memories.

The process of embracing the child inside can be a painful one as old hurts and traumatic memories may rise to the top. This can be a vulnerable time and it’s essential you find a good support network throughout the process. Working with a therapist is the ideal but even an understanding friend who has active listening skills can help to validate how you are feeling and move the process along.

Controlling worry

Worry is a cognitive behavior aimed at protecting you from possible threat. Primal in nature, it affects those with the most active imaginations but it’s a behavior which can be unlearned or directed towards functional thinking.

First recognize thoughts are not facts. This can be terrifying to some as they fear their own minds and doubt their ability to decide the best course of action however it is important to remember that worry affects EVERYONE and you are no different.

Secondly, write down everything you worried about in the last year. Now tick the worries which came through. Of these, tick the situations where worrying actually made any difference.

Thirdly, start the process of disciplining your mind by allowing 10 minutes of “thought time” where you only focus on the future as you would like it to happen. Over time extend this to 20 minutes a day. This is not easy work; your mind has been given free rein for a long time but change takes time; persevere and you will gain greater control over what you “choose” to think about.

Knowing your worth

Your parents are likes gods to you, both as a child and as an adult. They have the ability to pick you up when you are down and make you fee like you deserve the best in life.

They also have the ability to make you feel 3 foot small and weak as a kitten.

If your parents have next to no self-esteem, they will struggle to make you feel good about yourself. They might even use their control over you to boost their own confidence, which leaves a scar that runs throughout your entire life.

Building self-worth begins with silencing the critical voices in our head. Identify where they come from, is it your father, mother, step parents, brothers, sisters. Are these the voices of someone healthy and strong in themselves or does the voice belong to someone full of resentment, jealousy and fear. Acknowledge the thoughts and say a definitive NO to them. You can’t let them in, not even for a second. When thoughts pop into your head like: “I can’t do this”, “I don’t deserve this”, “bad things always happen to me”, say NO: “I CAN DO THIS”, “I DO DESERVE THIS”, “GOOD THINGS DO AND WILL HAPPEN TO ME”.

Love flows downwards; it’s a connection passed down from someone senior. I often encourage my clients to visualise their grandparents, what would they say now about the family situation, about how you have been mistreated. Unburdened with responsibly for the grandchildren, they are free to love a child without fear of damaging them. Their love can be more potent as it comes at no price and with no conditions. Visualise your grandparents, standing side by side, smiling and glad to be there with you in that moment. Hold this image for a long as possible, everyday until it becomes a default thought when you feel bad about yourself.

Strong connections can come from anywhere. Find strong male or female roles models that can see you for who you really are and are not projecting their insecurities or negative experiences onto you. This bond can help heal a parental wound and create a sense of belonging which has never existed before.

Learn to relax

Stress has always been known as the silent killer, but this is never more true than when dealing with unhealthy family members. This is particularly a problem when you have been exposed to deep emotions such as anger and fear at an early age. Your body adapts to the fight or flight response and it becomes your normal state.

Learning to relax is a skill and its takes practice. Here are some tips on how I relax:

1. Breathe.
Slow, deep belly breathing increases your oxygen intake and increases circulation which aids in stress reduction.
2. Up your magnesium intake.
Magnesium is an important mineral associated with muscle relaxation and recent studies have shown a high level of deficiency in people with a poor diet. My preference is an Epsom salt bath but a supplement can be bought in any health food store.
3. Reduce your intake of processed food.
Processed food will not only put undue pressure on your digestive system but it will also deny your body of the nutrients it needs to function correctly.
4. Conscious exercise.
I like lifting weights but any exercise which requires intense focus will help release healthy endorphin’s which can calm your brain.
5. Prioritize sleep.
Everyone knows the importance of sleep but it’s a tough nut to crack. I find making sure I get 2 early nights a week can make up for the other times where I might lose track of time. Performing belly breathing before bed can help focus the mind and prep it for shutting down for the night.

Stage 4 – Decision time

With time and dedicated work wounds can heal. You may start to get a better sense of yourself, independent of your family. You might start to realize how you don’t need them in your life and are free to do and say as you please. Not burdened with guilt or feelings of responsibility, you can decide what’s best for you: do you change the game or leave it?

Change the game

Do you decide to re-engage with your family on your own terms?
You might decide to write to them first to tell them the issues you have with their behavior and how you will not tolerate it again. This will still be a difficult time as you try to establish new boundaries and face resistance. It is essential to not apologize out of feelings of guilt. If you do feel this way, FIGHT the urge. Use this time to promote change within the family unit. If you experience passive aggressive communication respond with direct language, highlighting to them their unhealthy attitude. In some families, this is the first time toxic behavior is being addressed and can lead to change. In others, it’s a futile exercise; only you know your family and can decide how much energy you invest into changing the dynamic.

If you feel there is little chance of change but you don’t want to completely lose the connection then dictate the location and time of the relationship. Meeting in public places or include other people in your support network. This might help control the bad behavior of the family member and act as a buffer to conflict or attempts at manipulation.

Leave the game

After years of mistreatment and distrust, sometimes letting go is the only option. This is not the easy option (there is no easy option with family), but sometimes it is the best in the long term.

Grief is the unavoidable truth of letting go. What makes it complicated is when the source of grief is still alive. Unless you have experienced this first hand, it can be difficult for others to understand grieving this loss.

There are no shortcuts through grief. You have to walk the full path, hit the bumps in the road and push through the dark days. During this time you will not be yourself and will definitely be vulnerable but you must resist the urge to call the person to make the (non-existent) peace. Be conscious of your triggers, it could be watching your friends relationship with their family, it could a TV program or film, it could be a funeral or it could be visiting a sick friend. Recognize these triggers and maybe avoid these situations for a while as you process the emotions.

Bear in mind that everything passes. In the moments where the grief is less intense regain focus on your life, your plans for the future or any goals you have set.

Holding onto unhappy memories is also an unfortunate step in letting go. Nostalgia is a healthy process of reflecting on past memories, but sometimes it creates conflict in your head and you will find reasons to re-engage. Remembering bad times will remind why you ended up here in the first place and why you should stay away.

Staying grounded and honest is essential, accept your family may never change. As a therapist, I believe every person has the potential for profound change but generally don’t. The time and effort required to effect long lasting psychological change can be too great for some, especially for narcissistic family members who have yet to take responsibility for their actions and how it affects others.

Stage 5 – Creativity

Once the grief passes the energy used to contain the hurt and which binds you to an unhealthy family or person is now free to start something new.

For some, this can be a time of confusion as there are so many choices to take. I always encourage people to go in a new direction, don’t walk down the same path but invest in yourself by trying a new hobby or embracing a passion project which you haven’t had the chance to give it your full attention before now.

For me, I redirected my energy into writing and helping others break free from the cycle of unhealthy relationships.

Once you make the toxic escape there’s nothing holding you back but your own imagination.

Take care,

5 thoughts on “How to deal with a dysfunctional family

  1. Very well organized and comprehensive article regarding family enmeshment.

    Thank you–Christine

  2. This is what I needed at this point of my life. I found labels to situations, characters and feelings. For decades I distanced myself from my dysfunctional and toxic family. But when their life choices came to a critical head, it was like a vortex that sucked me back in. I accept they “don’t get it” and now toward the end of their lives never will. So glad I was able to escape the insanity of it all.

  3. The major problem with this is becoming isolated and detached from everyone – not being able to form close relationships or friendships. Not even being able to trust anyone to tell them about your day

    1. I’m there now. Some, I chose to distance myself from. Others turned their back on me quickly when I decided to stop being what they wanted me to be. 6 relationships just demolished in like a month!?! I’m reeling but have hope in God.

  4. This entire post just breathed life into me! So intimately stated, very well formatted. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that everyone that’s supposed to be for you, may just not be for you. It’s sad that these forms of manipulation and blackmail exist in our society…and when they come from all angles, well it’s complicated…but I serve a great big God, who has shielded, protected and defended me through a pretty rough last 4 years. I was isolating, I was self doubting, I was just loosing my mind it felt like. But God instructs us to let go and let Him! I have come a long way, and against all opposition no matter what form it may take…I know this weapons wont prosper! I still have hope, faith and joy! And God is my fortress! This article should be on a pamphlet, it was very insightful.
    Thanks ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.