How To Explain Your Toxic Family To Other People

by JR Thorpe
Ekaterina Makovetskaya / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

One of the oddest parts of having a toxic family dynamic isn't accepting it yourself, or trying to fix it: it's explaining to other people why you don't talk to your parents, why your sibling is only allowed to see you for fixed appointments three times a year, or why you have caller ID on every phone. Making family drama of any kind explicable to others can be a minefield. They may feel as if they know too much, you may worry about giving them the wrong impression, and it may all end in weird silences and them sending you strange poems about motherhood at 3 a.m.. So how can you do it in a way that makes sense and keeps you emotionally stable?

Before we even get to that point, though: I am assuming that you have made the choice to explain you toxic family in the first place. If you decide you'd rather not to begin with, know that's perfectly acceptable as well. If, however, you want to be open about it and don't know how, there are ways to talk about your toxic family without offending everybody, making yourself into a target, or making yourself even more upset.

And no, you don't need to end every sentence with "They're lovely people, really!" I do this with my parents a lot. It is possible for people to be deeply flawed and also very loved, and it shouldn't need to be explained over and over. Here are nine tips for explaining your toxic family to others.

1. Try To Be Honest Without Being Inflammatory

Brutal shorthand, Avengers-style ("he's fast, she's weird") can be seriously tempting when it comes to your parents or toxic family members. "She's a f*cking bitch" can seem the most expressive explanation to hand. But this can be a tricky path to tread, particularly if the people who need explanations have met your family and know them as people, not just sketches. You may be very angry or very sad at how your toxic family dynamic is playing out currently, but sometimes it's clearer to explain things with the minimum amount of emotion. "We don't agree on aspects of my life" or "they've done things that hurt me" are clear but nuanced explanations.

It's also OK if you don't want to divulge certain things. But do remember that secrecy is often a problem in toxic dynamics, preventing serious issues from seeing the light because of a code of familial silence. It's fine to want to keep cards close to your chest, but do some intense thinking about what purpose this secrecy serves and where it comes from, hopefully with the help of supportive people and/or a therapist.

2. Protect Yourself From Familial Explosions

If you're explaining your relationship with a toxic family member to other members of your family, be very careful. Alliances and peculiar dynamics in families run deep, and often spread across several generations. If there's a chance that what you say will get back to your toxic family members, be very mindful of that, and what needs to be said to lead to the best result.

If you need to, say, let your cousin know that you'd rather not sit with your brother at her wedding, you'll need to negotiate their likely reactions and what will then get passed on. It's a balancing act (particularly if everything looks hunky-dory from the outside): sometimes it's best to be clear so everybody knows your side, and sometimes it's more self-protective to keep it vague or slightly fudged, so you don't get a screaming phone call from a parent or sibling an hour later. Neither is wrong. Weigh your options carefully and what will best serve what you need.

3. Turn Family-Is-Everything Criticism Into Positives

One unfortunate consequence of revealing that all is not golden in the land of Happy Families to people outside the situation is their knee-jerk reaction to try and mend things, to remind you that "family is everything," that blood is thicker than BBQ sauce, that your mother gave birth to you, that they're the only parents/siblings/whatever you've got. That's probably not going to be a helpful point of view, so turn it into a positive.

Saying things like, "Yes, I know! It's so important for a family to be honest about our flaws and our tricky dynamics, and try to work on our problems" may help the situation. Remember; admitting a toxicity problem with your family isn't the same as rejecting or betraying them. It's an act of extreme bravery and an attempt to forge a path that isn't toxic.

(Equally, people may get thoroughly indignant on your behalf and want to go beat your family up. Discourage that, too. Thank them for their support, though.)

4. Use Specific Instances If You Want To Provide Evidence

This is something I've found very useful when people get really confused about what having a toxic family means: have really specific bits of information that might help. So, say, "they did XYZ on this occasion" may lay out the pattern better than discussing vague ideas of toxicity, control issues, or boundaries. "My mom beat down doors to scream at me as a teenager" is more direct and explicable than "she has aggression issues".

Only talk about stuff you can discuss without feeling vulnerable or compromised. This is your chance to be understood, not a way to make you feel worse.

5. Accept Sympathy

This can be the hardest part of telling people that your family is deeply problematic: accepting their love and sympathy. Let them give you hugs, offer you tea, tell you they're sorry. It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that this is something to be sad about, or to accept wider support to help you cope with it. Support is very important, though, so do try to take it when it's offered.

6. Be Real About How You're Doing

You don't have to be the poster child for functional children of toxic families. You really don't. Even if you're OK talking about it, you may not be OK with your feelings, your anger, or your grief. If you've chosen to be honest about your family, you should also be honest about how it's affecting you, even if you just say it's been hard.

7. Tell Them It's OK To Talk About Their Own Families

I have friends who've read my columns and have found it increasingly tricky to complain about their parents forgetting socks or blundering about being aggravating at IKEA when mine are being Giant Toxic Problems. This discomfort is something you should address straight off: it's OK that other people have good families, and you should tell people if it's all right to talk about them in front of you. Personally, I like knowing there are healthy families in the world who have brilliant Christmases and yodeling competitions. (What? I dunno how they work.)

If all the talk about their awesome family is triggering for you, be upfront about that too, and not in a passive-aggressive way: "I love hearing about your mom and how close you are! It just makes me sad sometimes because my own relationship with my parents isn't so good, and that's not your fault, and not something to feel bad about."

8. Don't Feel Obligated To Provide Constant Updates

Just because you've opened up about this at one point doesn't mean you need to provide a constant update of the situation every time you meet up with this person. If you find it helpful and they respond in a supportive way, by all means keep them apprised, but equally, one bit of access into your toxic reality doesn't mean that they get VIP all-hours passes. You really are in control of the information flow on this one. If you get tired of the whole "how's your family?!" enquiry from concerned friends four weeks in a row, possibly turn it into a discussion of your own emotions: "I'm doing OK. I'm finding things stressful but it's all right. How are you?"

9. Remember That You're Not Obliged To Be A Teaching Moment

I educate people about toxicity; it's part of my job. But it's probably not yours, and frankly I don't really want to do a primer on what toxicity means down at the pub either. You can always direct them to other resources if they're really curious, but you are under no obligation to give them long lessons about precisely what various dynamics mean, or lay out your entire life story.

You also don't have to accept help, advice (particularly if it's wrong-headed), offers of books or talks or psychics, or anything if you don't want to. Opening up about your family reality to another person doesn't mean accepting whatever they give in return. Be polite, but resist what you don't need right now. You're letting them know so they can be in the loop, but that loop is entirely under your control. You've got this.

Images: Ekaterina Makovetskaya / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images, Giphy