Written by: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
It is a reality that we can choose our friends. If at times we find them annoying, we can always choose to make adjustments or even terminate the friendship if needed. But unfortunately, we cannot choose our family members. As such, it can be a challenging and sometimes very difficult situation when family members are emotionally unhealthy and they have not sought help to address their own difficulties.
Instead, by having to live with them as members of the same family, they become a regular source of mental distress. This can pose a particular burden for minors, or those still dependent on the difficult member as the financial source of living, or during the current coronavirus lock-down imposed by the government when family members are confined together. In some cases, especially when violence and harm is a possibility, these unhealthy members can become damaging or dangerous and more drastic action may need to be taken to promote safety.
For the child, this may be confusing if the source of difficulty from parents are due to attempts to parent or from inappropriate control. Or they may have siblings who like being bossy to their siblings. Here are some signs to consider in trying to differentiate healthy from unhealthy behaviours from difficult family members.
They are always blaming you while not accepting their own responsibilities.
Individuals who engage in unhealthy relational behaviours often have difficulty taking ownership for contributing to the problems that emerge between each other during disagreements or conflict. Their need to blame others is usually a defensive response against accepting their own guilt or responsibility for their fault or wrong in the situation.
They are always critical towards you.
Unhealthy family members also often present themselves as critical. This goes beyond a simple discussion to point out about errors if or when you or someone else has made them. But it appears more as a pattern or their habit in regarding you as a target of contempt. Words that undermine your character are often expressed. It is also often expressed regardless of the many accomplishments you may have achieved. It is often an expression of projection that reflects deep resentment or the unfulfilled wishes of the parent on a family member. Sometimes it is a resentment shared between both parents and projected on a child who they have identified as the “scapegoat”. The scapegoat in unhealthy families are usually children who are targeted for blame because the parents need to fault the child to avoid taking ownership of a problem.
They are dismissive of your feelings.
A healthier family is more prone to being encouraging or supportive especially in difficult times. But the unhealthy family member is often unconcerned of your feelings or even your opinion. The extent of their dismissal of you may show up as disagreement with you even if you are right. In severe cases, if you attempted to approach them to resolve a disagreement, they may even resort to convincing you as the problem. In this focus, they could convince you to see that you are the problem rather than to problem-solve in search of a solution that has mutual benefits.
They often make threats.
Physical altercations are not the only signs when the relationship or behaviour is unhealthy. Making threats especially when repeated is often employed as a means of control. This is going beyond anger which is a common feeling within long-term relationships. Anger is a sign when someone feels offended, frustrated or hurt. But the use of threats goes beyond anger to become an instrument of intimidation or domination, and a misuse of power. It is a common behaviour of abusive individuals.
They are controlling.
There is a difference between control from healthy parenting and unhealthy parenting. Healthy parenting is focused on what is in the child’s best interests. When discipline is exercised, it is done to facilitate learning for the child. In unhealthy parenting, control is displayed more because it is primarily attentive to the parents’ wishes and not in the best interests of the child. This is often expressed when the parent becomes forceful and induces fear on the child so that the parent can feel powerful or have his or her way. This control can also be applied between couples or siblings. The family member is expected to take the role of submission in their engagement for the controlling person to be pacified.
Additional signs for concern in this area is suggested by (a) prohibition of personal decision-making that is good for the family member, (b) issues of appropriate concern are denied from being raised for discussion, (c) material resources such as money or food are used to manipulate the family member towards submission, (d) there is direct restrictions into personal choices pertaining to clothes, appearances, spending, friendships, or even use of time, and (e) there is an opposition towards the family member becoming independent, to be separated from the unhealthy individual, or for the family member to be individuated (mature to become their own person) over time. Between couples, a controlling spouse is often violating the boundaries of his or her spouse. It is as if the controlled spouse is not allowed to be free to exercise his or her own choices.
They confuse punishment with discipline.
Discipline is the means to teach someone to abide by a code of conduct, or correction for a child to learn right from wrong. But for the unhealthy individual, punishment or discipline occurs when there is no lesson to be learned. It shows up usually because the person is unhappy for some reason. Their need to lash out is their attempt to vent out their anger or rage even if it becomes hurtful to others, and they feel justified conducting themselves this way. At other times, this punishment is expressed through passive aggressive behaviours when “silent treatment” is employed instead of yelling or shouting. Or the punishing behaviour is excessive and disproportionate to the action or event.
Unhealthy parents take sibling rivalries or ‘misbehaviour’ to the extreme.
This usually occurs when the unhealthy parent is resentful of all his or her children. They may feel that having children (or marriage) have become a personal cost to them because of the responsibilities required for the care of the children. They feel prevented or deprived of their freedom and so the children or family member are to blame. Or this could show up with a parent showing favourites to one child over the others. In the course of sibling rivalry, the unhealthy parents is revealed by (a) blaming one child more severely over the other and consistently, (b) humiliating the scapegoated child, or (c) the unhealthy parent experience the sibling rivalry or conflict as a personal or vindictive act against the parent.
Strategies for Coping with Unhealthy Parents or domineering spouses and/or siblings
It may be a sad reality that parents can consider themselves parents simply because the infant is born following his or her physical birth. But beyond the biology, the emotional maturity, readiness or mental health can often be found lacking in parents to create the healthy conditions for the infant to develop or thrive. Controlling family members who are narcissistic in nature are also more interested in their control than the well-being of others. When family members regularly display the above behaviours, there is a need for concern. Given the potential for mental distress, developmental disruption and suffering, the following strategies may be essential to assist in coping.
Know that you are your own person.
Although you may share some traits or the same family name with your parents, remember that you are not 100% of the same people who raised you. If you recognise that your parents are emotionally unhealthy, understand that you do not need to follow their same values or behavioural patterns. When you realise that you have been hurt by them repeatedly and their use of authority serves their own interests over your needs to develop in a healthy way, be ready to break away from their self-serving values to work towards a healthy development for yourself. Explore to find healthy models of functioning among others to seek their influence over your lives rather than what is practiced at home.
Create space for your own emotions to nurture your own sense of self.
The unhealthy parent, spouse or sibling often do not respect your personal boundaries. They may deny your personal space or your feelings because they are preoccupied with their own. They may not discuss matters out or they may attempt to deny an essential part of who you are. While they deny how you may feel in their relationship with you, this does not mean you cannot acknowledge or express your own feelings by blogging or journalling.
Find supportive relationships elsewhere.
When your family members have made themselves unapproachable, you can turn to others for support instead. Friends, teachers, counsellors, or colleagues are often available to relate to who engage with a healthier appreciation for you. You do not need to go through difficulties alone. So find a support system from those who appreciate you for who you are and who value you in the person you can become.
Understand that your parent, spouse or siblings may have narcissistic tendencies or a self-serving biases so set your expectations low in conversations with them.
Unhealthy parents, spouses or siblings highlight the need to understand mental illness. Having to engage family members who have already discounted you, or hold you in contempt is often more reflective of them than of you. For this reason, understanding if they have a narcissistic or anti-social personality or tendencies is useful to recognise their biases. You may wish to have deep, meaningful or respectful conversations with them. But since this is not possible for those who are narcissistic or anti-social in nature, keeping exchanges brief and light is best to minimise stress or conflict.
Be prepared to employ diversion tactics in conversation.
Being diversionary may not be appreciated in social circles. But if your family member is controlling or looking for conflict, having a mutually respectful conversation may not be possible. As such, their attempts to dominate or argue can be diverted. For example, if they choose to criticise your choice about what you bought, you can note their comment while affirming your choice. Then this can be followed up by you changing the topic. This may allow you to have some control while you may be under attacked.
Recognise the traits that make you an easy prey.
For some, the need to dominate can be influenced by their perception that you have difficulty standing up for yourself. Their view that you are unable to be firm in protecting yourself may appear as an invitation to them to bully or dominate. Learning to stand your ground will help to establish yourself as deserving of respect.
Expect their angry response but do not surrender to it.
Your attempts to hold your ground or establish personal boundaries may be seen as a threat to the controlling parent or spouse. They see it as a challenge to their need to dominate or control. As such, anger can be employed as their weapon. It is important to not be paralysed by the person and to remember that you still have power. This power may not be accepted by them but you have power nevertheless. You can continue to pursue what is clearly in your best interests despite the threats and anger they express. Choosing the right timing to pursue your interests with them may be required. Or being able to refer to the credibility of someone else with authority on the subject may be helpful to borrow these views to help you to hold your position.
Aim to be self-sufficient and independent.
The need to establish your healthy sense of self and personal integrity is important. Your own mental health depends on it. In the face of parents or family members who are clearly focused against your best interests in pursuit of their own interests, you can set goals to be financially independent in order to become autonomous with what is needed to establish your own integrity and identity. Unhealthy parents often employ money as a means of keeping the child dependent. As such, learning to budget and be self-financing will help to establish your independence from them.
Do not accept abusive behaviour and the effects of it.
Recognising the signs of mistreatment from abusive parents, spouses or siblings should allow you to feel the anger you have reason to feel. Often these people may also engage in seduction or manipulation to downplay their dysfunction and hide their mistreatment of you. Being able to recognise their self-serving bias and the potential damage that this can create is important to not allow them to justify it. If their mistreatment is justified, it is more likely that you could minimise the damage and practice it yourself.
If the abuse is persistent or violent, be prepared to get help and seek shelter and protection outside the family.
This is hard to do for children but the sad reality is that some parents are poorly prepared to parent or they are mentally ill when they decided to have children. It is a sad and tragic reality that children have died from neglect, abuse or mistreatment while in the hands of their parents or caregivers. Children have been starved, exploited, tortured in the hands of violent, mentally ill parents. This has also occurred between couples as indicated by one spouse being regularly abused by another. Abuse can be physical, emotional and/or sexual, and they can happen between couples and on children within a marital or family system. If only one parent is aggressive or violent, the other parent has to be prepared to seek shelter to protect themselves or their children. If in the case of one parent being violent and the other parent ignores the child being abused, the children need to be protected from both parents.
This article is a call to alert those who may be suffering within families. Tragically, there are hidden dangers that vulnerable family members may be exposed to. They may already be suffering in subtle or obvious ways at the hands of unhealthy, abusive or emotionally damaging family members. Our collective concern for the weak calls out for us to be sensitive to when this danger is present within our community to protect the vulnerable among us.
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Thorpe, J. (2015, Sep 18). 7 tips for dealing with toxic parents. Bustle.