So you've finally put some distance between yourself and your toxic family. Good for you! Whether you've stopped talking to your toxic parents entirely or just built some very sturdy emotional boundaries to protect yourself, you've taken an amazingly hard and amazingly important step toward building a happier, healthier life.
I wish I could tell you that all the hard work is over. But as a fellow escapee from a dysfunctional family situation, I know that the legacy of your toxic family takes a little more time to shake — especially since you're probably dealing with some very real emotional or mental health challenges due to your upbringing.
Of course, it's not a rule that all children raised in dysfunctional environments grow up to have emotional or mental health problems. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as they say, and you're the best judge of your own experience. But mental health professionals are in agreement that there is often psychological fallout from a difficult childhood. In fact, a 2014 Brazilian study confirmed that there are higher incidences of mental health problems in children from dysfunctional families. Sometimes, we can be so busy trying to push away the memory of our childhoods that we forget to look out for our own mental health.
Going into therapy to cope with your problems is often the most important first step for the adult child of a toxic family to move on — and doing it doesn't make you "damaged goods" or someone who is "whining about your childhood." Check out the list below of three common problems that children from toxic households often have to deal with — and know that you're not alone if they sound familiar to you.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States, so it certainly impacts plenty of people who had thoroughly idyllic upbringings. But children who grow in toxic homes often have an extremely intimate relationship with anxiety disorders — one 1998 study drew a connection between parents with generalized anxiety disorder and a dysfunctional home, and many mental health researchers find anxiety to be an extremely common problem among the adult children of dysfunctional homes.
In your toxic family, your parents may have made you unhealthily aware of their own anxieties (by doing things like refusing to let you do normal childhood activities based on an overblown fear of the consequences), or they might have even punished you for displaying early signs of anxiety disorder, which they may have derided as "disobedience." As Susan Forward wrote in her classic book on the subject, Toxic Parents :
Children who are not encouraged to do, to try, to explore, to master, and to risk failure, often feel helpless and inadequate. Over-controlled by anxious, fearful parents, these children often become anxious and fearful themselves.
As a kid, I experienced it both ways — my mother's anxiety prevented her from permitting me to engage in normal childhood experiences like walking across my small suburban street by myself, and she mocked my own social anxiety was as something that made me pathetic.
What can you do? When you're dealing with anxiety, no matter what the cause, getting professional help is essential. But when you anxiety was triggered or exacerbated by a toxic home situation, talk therapy can really help, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help people unlearn negative thought patterns, and give them a greater sense of control in their lives.
2. Trouble Interacting With Others
No matter what their particular background, children from toxic families often have trouble letting other people get close to them, even after they've put space between themselves and their families. According to a 1989 psychological study of the adult children of alcoholics, "Adults raised in dysfunctional families frequently report difficulties forming and maintaining intimate relationships, maintaining positive self-esteem, and trusting others; they fear a loss of control, and deny their feelings and reality."
Maybe your parents raised you to believe that anyone outside the family was untrustworthy and looking for ways to hurt you. Maybe the way your parents hurt you made you have a hard time forging bonds with your peers. Maybe you kept friends at arms' length when you were growing up, because you were afraid of having them meet your parents or tell others about your dysfunctional home life — and now that you're an adult, you have no idea where to start when it comes to dating, making friends, or even just acting friendly at work.
Or maybe you're feeling the opposite — your parents' approval was so unpredictable that you look for love everywhere, getting too close too fast with friends and lovers alike, in relationships that eventually crash and burn (right here, dude).
Again, from Forward's Toxic Parents :
Most adult children of toxic parents grow up feeling tremendous confusion about what love means and how it’s supposed to feel. Their parents did extremely unloving things to them in the name of love. They came to understand love as something chaotic, dramatic, confusing, and often painful — something they had to give up their own dreams and desires for. Obviously, that’s not what love is all about. Loving behavior doesn’t grind you down, keep you off balance, or create feelings of self-hatred. ... Genuine love creates feelings of warmth, pleasure, safety, stability, and inner peace.
What can you do? Once again, therapy is always an amazing place to start. It can help you figure out what healthy boundaries are, and how to be less fearful of interacting with others.
There are also a lot of great self-help books out there dealing with these issues. Support groups for the children of dysfunctional adults, like Adult Children of Alcoholics, can also help people learn to connect with others in a controlled environment, where everyone understands what you've experienced. (If you're not able to go in person, online groups can help, too. Reddit's raisedbynarcissists is a great example of an online support group that can help you make sense of your experience and take tentative steps towards relating to others in an open way.)
3. Difficulty Trusting Reality
Children from dysfunctional homes often notice early on that their experience of reality and their parents' experience of reality are very different — like, they might as well be on two different planets.
Maybe your mother claimed your room was dirty when it clearly wasn't, and punished you for it anyway. Maybe your father remembers a birthday party that was marred by violent arguments as "a wonderful day for the whole family." Maybe your parents went off on you for "being promiscuous" when you'd never even held anyone's hand. No matter how it presented itself, your parents' warped reality — usually accompanied by a discounting of your own reality and experiences — encouraged you not to trust not your own emotions, and possibly even your own sensory input.
According to an informational report assembled by Texas Woman's University, "In most dysfunctional families children tend to learn to doubt their own intuition and emotional reactions." The behavior described above is sometimes called "gaslighting" or "reality shifting" — a practice of either consciously trying to confuse someone about facts and reality in order to control them, or being so confused yourself about what is going on that you're a bad judge of reality, and so fearful and aggressive that you punish your children for contradicting you.
My own childhood was lousy with this sort of thing. My mother constantly questioned every element of my reality, from whether my boyfriends loved me to whether there was a "regular" cycle on our washing machine. It left me so mixed up and confused that to this day, I often don't trust my ability to gauge the emotions of others or my own memory of anything I've done in my daily life.
What can you do? You guessed it! Therapy. As the same Texas Women's University report notes, "Often outside support provides an objective perspective and much-needed affirmation which will help you learn to trust your own reactions."
But your outside support doesn't have to be limited to professionals. You can also ask close friends and partners who understand your situation to help you by providing positive feedback about your correct recall or reading of situations, or providing support when you question your own sense of reality. (I often recruit my boyfriend to confirm for me that I just had had a perfectly pleasant exchange with our landlord where no one was mad at me, etc.)
I've also personally found journaling and list-making to provide a good anchor to reality. It helps me remember the things that have happened in any given day, and has strengthened by own ability to trust my own emotional responses, as well as my understanding of the emotional responses of others.
Things might never become perfect for any of us. But things can get so much better if we just recognize the ways that we are hurt, and begin to let ourselves heal.
Images: AMC; Giphy (3)