11 Ways Growing Up In A Toxic Family Affects You

Therapists weigh in.

Originally Published: 
Problems people who grow up in a toxic family deal with.
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Whether you've stopped talking to your parents, have built some sturdy emotional boundaries to protect yourself from siblings, or are just in the early stages of recognizing that you grew up in a toxic family, congratulations! You've already taken the extremely difficult yet important step towards a happier, healthier life.

That said, the hard work is likely just starting. If you grew up in a toxic family, there’s often a ripple of side effects that can follow you long after you’ve moved away, cut back on communication, or even gone no contact. While it isn’t a rule that all children of dysfunctional families grow up to have mental health concerns and other issues, you may indeed find certain things more difficult.

That’s because your earliest experiences, in many ways, become a blueprint for your life, says Dr. Elisabeth Crain, a marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, familial, and relational problems. “If [you] grew up in a toxic family with trauma-bonded relationships with [your] parents, stress in the household, and other unpleasant factors [...] those early experiences can shape how [you] relate to others down the road, whether that’s in future friendships or romantic relationships,” she tells Bustle.

It’s common to gravitate towards what feels familiar as you navigate dating, work, and more, but coming from a toxic family can also impact how you feel about yourself on the inside. That’s why going into therapy is often a good option.

It’ll give you a place to vent, suss out your problems, and better understand how your family has impacted your life. The self-help section of a bookstore is also a good starting point, says Crain, as well as articles like this one. It’s all about recognizing that something’s not right, and doing what you can to address it.

Here, experts share the many ways growing up in a toxic family can affect you later on.

1. You Might Have Anxiety

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Many mental health professionals agree that there will be some level of 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. A 2024 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that having a parent with a mental illness often sets you up to have anxiety and depression in adulthood.

When you're dealing with anxiety, no matter the cause, getting professional help is essential. If you suspect your anxiety was triggered or exacerbated by a toxic home situation, cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on unlearning negative thought patterns and replacing them with better coping mechanisms, can really help.

2. You Repeat Toxic Patterns

Life can be so much easier when you grow up with positive role models and healthy examples of how to navigate the world.

When that isn’t the case, you may repeat many of the same trials and tribulations that your parents went through. Think fraught relationships, job losses, financial mishaps, and so on. It’ll feel like you’re unlucky all the time and you’re never quite sure how to set things right.

“When it goes wrong in a toxic family, it's likely to go wrong later on in life,” says Crain. “And so it's important for individuals to get therapy or otherwise get help and support around these issues. Otherwise, they go into a Freudian repetition where they are going to repeat what's familiar to them.”

3. You Don’t Know Who You Are

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According to Jeff Yoo, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center, many children of dysfunctional families grow up taking care of their siblings, and sometimes even their parents.

Maybe you were the babysitter when your parents were drinking or fighting, or you were the shoulder to cry on as they went through a bitter divorce.

“This is called parentified children,” he tells Bustle, and it often results in not knowing how to take care of your own needs, much less identifying who you are.

As you get older, you may not know what type of job you’re drawn to, if you want to get married, what to do in your spare time, and so on. It creates a sense of emptiness inside like you don’t truly know yourself.

4. You Have Trouble Interacting With Others

As a child of a toxic family, you may also have trouble letting others get close to you, even when you’d really like to develop deeper relationships.

According to Yoo, this is called emotional distancing. “The goal is to avoid feelings of fear and vulnerability,” he says, and it goes back to not being able to trust or feel close to your own parents or caretakers.

You may notice that you have difficulty opening up to friends, partners, or even your children, if you end up starting your own family.

Those who have layers and layers of trauma from a toxic childhood often feel disassociated and disconnected, he says, and it may even be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

5. You Fall In Love With Toxic People

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On the flip side, you may find that you fall quickly for people, even when they’re full of waving red flags.

According to Yoo, you may be attracted to dysfunctional or emotionally avoidant partners, or friends who don’t have your best interests at heart. While you may spot their negative traits, you may also feel powerless to break up with them.

If you grew up without the approval of a parent or caretaker, you may attempt to seek that attention from the same type of people as an adult. It may also be that you’re mirroring or copying what you grew up with, says Yoo, and thus feel inexplicably drawn to alcoholics, abusers, toxic people, etc.

As Crain says, “Individuals who come from toxic families may struggle with attracting healthy relationships because they're not familiar with what is healthy or they are not able to recognize that they have been in trauma-bonded relationships.”

6. You Have 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 — almost as i 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."

This behavior is sometimes called "gaslighting" or "reality shifting" — a practice of either consciously trying to confuse someone about facts and reality to control them or being so confused about what is going on that you're a bad judge of reality.

If you dealt with this a lot as a kid, it can disrupt your intuition or ability to trust yourself, making it tough to know what’s what.

7. You Walk On Eggshells

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Toxic family members are often unpredictable and easily angered. Maybe your dad threw a fit whenever you made noise, or your mom screamed and had a bad temper the moment she got home from work.

According to Yoo, many toxic parents also make a habit of changing the rules in their household, which means you maybe didn’t know how to act or what was right or wrong — and that can instill a deep fear and sense of uneasiness that follows you into adulthood.

Cut to today and you may find yourself walking on eggshells wherever you go. You might die a little inside when a partner seems angry, or fail to share your boundaries with friends, and you might even be fearful around authority figures at work. It’s all because you’re afraid they’ll blow up, blame you, or abandon you.

8. You Have A Fear Of Abandonment

Speaking of, you may walk on eggshells due to a fear that others will leave you, abandon you, or take away your sense of security — something that happens quite a lot in toxic homes.

“The feeling of real or imagined abandonment is caused by living in an inconsistent or unreliable family dynamics,” says Yoo, and it can make it tough for you to truly connect with or feel safe with others.

According to Yoo, it may also confuse your decision-making skills, since you’re constantly navigating life from a place of fear. Instead of leaving a bad relationship, for instance, you may stick around and try to fix it.

9. You Feel Like You Aren’t Thriving

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“Although no family environment is perfect, those who grow up in a family where toxic behaviors are the norm tend to suffer tremendously,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear. And it may mean you now lead a sheltered life.

“Unfortunately, individuals who are exposed to toxic family patterns on a regular basis often leave fear-based lives that keep them stuck in negative cycles,” says Manly, including self-sabotaging and people-pleasing behaviors.

This goes back to the anxiety, depression, and PTSD prevalent among people from toxic families, but it could also be that you are in a state of shock, almost as if your nervous system is fried from all the ongoing stress.

10. You Can’t Regulate Your Emotions

If you grew up around chaos and drama, you probably developed coping mechanisms to see you through, ranging from shutting down to yelling back.

According to Manly, this might have worked well as a kid, but as an adult, it likely translates into unhealthy coping strategies. Adults who grew up in toxic environments tend to experience emotional dysregulation, and that can impact those around you, too.

Maybe you have difficulty managing conflict, you catch yourself becoming passive aggressive, or you get upset easily. That, in turn, can impact your relationships, and that’s why the legacy of toxicity often continues — until something is done to stop it, like therapy.

11. It Makes You More Resilient

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All of that said, growing up in a toxic family may have a silver lining, says Crain.

If you had to care for a parent or sibling, then you may now be extra resilient or aware of how to overcome diversity. If you witnessed a lot of toxicity, then you may have extra empathy for others, or a deeper desire to keep your life as peaceful as possible.

“I do believe there are those who are stronger and wiser despite the damage done from growing up in a toxic family,” adds Yoo, though extra support and therapy may still be a big help. “The beauty of all of it is when I am able to see a light come on [in someone’s eyes] and recovery taking place.”

Studies referenced:

Ben-Noun, L. (1998). Generalized anxiety disorder in dysfunctional families. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. doi: 10.1016/s0005-7916(98)00003-2.

Brummelhuis, IAM. (2024). Association of parental mental illness with anxiety and depression in adulthood: The role of potentially contributing factors. J Affect Disord. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2024.01.027.

Flores, S. (2014). Dysfunctional family environments and childhood psychopathology: the role of psychiatric comorbidity. Trends Psychiatry Psychotherapy. doi.org/10.1590/2237-6089-2014-0003.


Dr. Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, psychotherapist

Jeff Yoo, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist, author of Joy from Fear

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