toxic family

4 Behaviors That Will Make Your Family Relationships Toxic

A half an hour drive northwest of Boston is a small town called Woburn. In the 1960s, water began to grow scarce so city officials decided to drill two new wells in the east side of town, which was predominantly industrial. They did so despite warnings that the water would be poor quality. Almost immediately, the residents of East Woburn complained that the water not only tasted bad but smelled bad as well. Tragically, the water was toxic resulting in a number of residents, mostly children, being diagnosed with leukemia. The issue led to multi-million dollar lawsuits by the families against the companies: W.R. Grace, Beatrice Foods, and Unifirst Corp. The suits gained national attention. Eventually, a bestselling book called A Civil Action was written and a movie was made with the same title.

The sad reality is that these families thought they were getting nourishment and instead were ingesting something toxic. When it comes to our families, particularly children, we are in a position of strong influence. Our loved ones look to us to provide a nurturing, healthy, and life-giving environment. We have the opportunity to be like fresh water or something harmful. Knowing the unhealthy behaviors and attitudes that make relationships toxic is the first step to cleaning things up. Here are 4 behaviors that lead to a toxic family.

1. Stick with the status quo even if it’s bad.

One of my favorite movies is Pay It Forward. In it the main character, a middle school boy named Trevor says these words. “I think people are too scared or something to think things can be different. I guess it’s hard for people that get so used to things the way they are, even if they’re bad, to change – and they kind of give up. And when they do – everyone – they kind of lose.”

If things are consistently bad then something is wrong with the cycle and it has to be changed. Too many families fall back into the same dysfunction because it has become comfortable. You can’t change other people, but you can change how you respond to them. Be prepared though. When you respond in a way that is outside of the norm, they will try hard to get you to fall back in line. If they get under your skin and you respond unfazed, they will get more extreme. Stay focused and continue to break the cycle.

You can't change other people, but you can change how you respond to them. Click To Tweet

2. Blame as much as possible.

The people that have the healthiest relationships, deepest maturity, and are the most self-assured tend to be quick in accepting responsibility. Even when they are one percent wrong and the other person is ninety nine percent, they will take responsibility for their one percent first. Then they address the wrongness of the other person. At the same time, people that blame often experience stagnated growth and a graveyard of former relationships. Take the lead by modeling what it looks like to be a person that accepts responsibility for wrongdoing – no matter what percentage is yours to own.

3. Hold grudges and don’t forgive or, at least, be slow to it.

It may feel good, even right, sometimes; but, in the end, it’s relational poison. Holding onto grudges and anger is like inviting a couple wild animals to live in your house. They are just there waiting to cause you to overreact to something minimal creating lasting strife and damage. The reward is a lower quality of life and a lot of energy spent. Forgive and let it go.

4. Stay away from direct communication as much as possible.

This includes triangulating, being passive-aggressive, and being silent on a problem that needs confronting. Triangulating is when person A has a problem with person B. However, instead of talking to person B directly about it, person A just goes to person C and bad mouths person B. It’s a good way to promote dissension and bitterness. Being passive-aggressive is a tactic of undermining while posturing a position of understanding. All it produces is frustration, distrust, and isolation. Finally, when there are relational problems that go uncontested, it causes the rift to become wider. Bad feelings get deeper. Good communication solves a world of problems.

Sound Off

What are some other behaviors and attitudes that lead to toxic family relationships?

BJ Foster

BJ Foster is the Director of Content Creation for All Pro Dad and a married father of two.

  • John

    Pet Peeve: Texting or being on your phone when you are with
    me – I’m a real person already committed to spending my time with you. This
    upsets me to no end. It makes me feel as though I am not entertaining enough or
    important enough for you to focus on me. It makes you look selfish and that you
    will ignore the people that are there for you just to be entertained at the
    moment. It shows you have no patience. It shoes that you have nothing to offer the
    real life person or can’t bring anything to the table and expect that person to
    do all the entertaining.

    Short burst texts are okay, I can understand not wanting
    others to feel completely ignored. That balance is important too. But, dissolving into your phone for minutes
    and longer at a time makes me feel very useless and unimportant.

    Alternatively, if the person would check their phone and put
    it back down/or away; or send a quick reply like: “I’m with someone at the
    moment, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” and then put the phone
    away and try to carry on a conversation with me… that would make me feel more
    valued in that situation and that I don’t have the total responsibility to entertain
    and maintain the relationship by myself.

    • Eric J. Martindale

      Yeah, I’ll absolutely agree with that. If it were added to the above list, which is a good list, it might be “Phone/Device Addiction”. You’re with me, or you’re on your phone, not both.

  • Love the title and each point is spot-on 🙂

  • Mr. Camp

    Im dealing with a really tough time with one of our teens. He’s so disrespectful and mean. But, I fall into the trap of blaming his behavior for my poor responses and I can see that I hold on to anger way too long after a blow up. Im not sure how to resolve this yet. Im praying a lot. But, I feel almost hopeless about change – which I know is not a good thing. Thanks for this article. Its a good mirror for me to look into.

    • Eric J. Martindale

      My kids aren’t teens yet, but I have to admit that I was that horrible teen. As I look back, I was deeply unhappy, and I was under constant strain that was not typical, even for a teen. I am no psychologist, but I really think that “meanness” is a symptom of a deeper pain. I hope that, if this is the case, you are able to figure out what that is, and then take the hard steps toward helping to solve that problem. I don’t envy you, because these rutter changes are so unbelievably hard to make. (I’ll reference BJ’s Behavior #1 above.)
      Best of luck, my friend. Don’t quit!

    • BJ_Foster

      Mr. Camp – Sorry to hear you are having a rough time with your son. Eric says it really well. As someone who worked with teens for over a decade I would highly recommend Chap Clark’s book Hurt 2.0. Great book – it takes you into the world of teenagers. It has been eye opening for me and changed the way I engaged with teens. The following few actions always won a friendship with teens: Pray, be present, be consistent, listen with empathy. Teens are in a precarious place in life, are largely discarded in society, and need their parents to be a safe place. The fact that you just took responsibility for blaming him for your unhealthy responses tells me that you are probably doing a better job than you might think. Keep up the good work!

      • Mr. Camp

        Thanks Bj_Foster – I just ordered that book you recommended. I appreciate the feedback.

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