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Taking the Toxic Family Test: Understand Dysfunctional Family Dynamics


toxic family test

Understanding the complexities of family dynamics has been an essential aspect of my work as a family systems therapist. I’ve encountered many individuals who experience an enlightening shift in recognizing the unhealthy patterns and toxic behaviors within their own families.


I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist with a decade of experience working with teens, tweens, and their parents, and I tend to come across five different dysfunctional family dynamics, which I will share in this post. I'll also give you specific questions in the toxic family quiz aimed at prompting reflection on the health and normalcy of your family environment.


As difficult as it may be to come to terms with a less-than-ideal upbringing or surviving childhood trauma, acknowledging these dynamics is a pivotal and healthy step toward healing and growth. The toxic family test is a series of questions to help you reflect on your childhood to see if you gain insight into your family of origin.


What Is The Toxic Family Test and Dynamic?

There's no single agreed-upon definition of a 'toxic family,' but it is generally considered to be a family environment where the interactions and dynamics between members are consistently harmful, negative, dysfunctional, and psychologically damaging, characterized by a lack of boundaries, empathy, and respect.


As a therapist, I am not sure if there is such a thing as toxic people or a toxic parent, there are people who are unhealthy, and who lack skills and self-awareness to provide a nurturing environment to raise healthy, happy kids. These people might be considered 'toxic parents' or as having 'toxic habits', but really we're just talking about a family function and how it impacts our childhood and upbringing.


In my professional experience, I frequently meet people who assume they grew up in a the best family or at least a happy family until we understand toxic behavior and distinguish it from healthy ones.


The Five Dysfunctional Family Dynamics


There are many different types of dysfunctional families, here are the five that I see most often and below is a description of the signs and symptoms.

  1. Enmeshed familes

  2. Disengaged families

  3. Families that Triangle

  4. Parentification and Adultification

  5. High-conflict families


The handout to the family quiz is located here.

types of toxic family - test yourself

1. The Family That Is Too Close: Enmeshed Families

First of all, there's nothing wrong with a tightly knit family - who doesn't want to feel loved and supported and have their own happy family?

Some families are considered 'too close', often to the point where independence is stifled, and individuality becomes obscured. This entanglement can be perplexing for a child, particularly as they reach adolescence and yearn to establish their own sense of self, separate from familial expectations.


What Is An Enmeshed Family?

In enmeshed families, boundaries between members are blurred, leading to over-dependency and a lack of personal space. On the outside, they might look like the all American family, and some people may genuinely believe there are no issues.


A telltale sign of this toxicity is the absence of personal space – metaphorically speaking – as family members exhibit extreme proximity in their activities and decision-making. It’s like walking in a cluster rather than as separate individuals.



Questions to Reflect on Enmeshed Family

  • Growing up, did our family have very little need for friends outside the family?

  • Did you feel guilty if you wanted to do things away from the family?

  • Did we rely on and depend on each other for everything?



2. The Distant or Disengaged Families

Conversely, some families are marked by a noticeable absence of closeness, creating an environment where emotional and, sometimes, physical distance is the norm. This disengagement is a disturbing family function. Toxic parents like this lack the ability, for whatever reason, to be close and emotionally vulnerable to others.


What Are Disengaged Families?

In the 1800s children had a terrible time, we literally thought that children were tiny adult barbarians who just needed to have morals and rules beaten into them, so family structures might have looked very distant back then, but since then, we've gained an understanding of the developmental needs that children have in order to become happy, healthy young adults. Unsurprisingly, warmth and connection are what they require most which you can't get in a disengaged or distant family. Children need to feel close and connected to their parents and we know this from attachment Theory and the experiments that psychologists did on maternal deprivation we've got Decades of research to know that a distant disengaged family does not create happy kid


Questions to Reflect on Disengaged

  • Did your parents often seem emotionally distant or unavailable?

  • Were there few to no expressions of love or affection in your household?

  • Did you feel unsupported or unnoticed by your parents?


3 Triangulation in Family Relationships

In my practice, I see triangulation regularly, and it's not always unhealthy. If there's conflicts between siblings, for example, it would be appropriate for a parent to step in and help. It might be considered a bad behavior when toxic parents are continuously bringing a third person or element into that dyadic relationship.


It may serve to mitigate conflict transiently, but when relied upon consistently, it undermines direct communication and problem-solving.


Triangulation involves a third party to mediate or exacerbate conflicts within the family, which can distort natural relationship dynamics.


Questions to Reflect on Triangulation

  • Were there certain family members who tended to take sides or form alliances?

  • Did individuals in your system ever involve you in their conflicts or ask you to take sides?

  • Did one parent overshare issues in their marital relationship or seek comfort from you?


4. Parentification and Adultification

Parentification refers to when a child is expected to fulfill a role that is more parental or more of a caregiving role. Children are deprived of their childhood when they are obliged to take care of their parent's needs rather than the other way around.physical This can occur due to phyiscal or emotional reasons- if a parent is sick, this occurs out of necessity. It can also occur when a caregiver is mentally unwell or struggling with substance use.


Questions to Reflect on Parentification

  • Were you expected to take care of your parents' emotional needs from a young age?

  • Did you feel responsible for the well-being of your parents or siblings?

  • Were there times when you had to act as a mediator or peacemaker within the family?


5. High Conflict or Angry Family 5. Emotional Abuse and Manipulation

Conflict is just a part of being in a relationship with another person. We all have disagreements. We all get emotional, but ideally, we can disagree and get frustrated but then repair and work through it and become an even closer relationship. If a family tells me they never get into any conflict, I am often worried because I just don't see how that is possible, and it's a red flag around communication.


When conflict becomes too frequent or escalates to the point of violence that is acting out on the feelings of anger and it becomes dysfunctional, emotionally mature adults do not hit things, definitely don't hit other people they don't slam doors or give family members the silent treatment that's also a very aggressive act in my books. Abusive people lack good skills to manage impulses and regulate emotions and take their feelings out on others.


Emotional abuse is a form of psychological violence that can have serious long-term effects on individuals; kids of high-conflict parents have a terrible time in family life understanding what's going on and often blame themselves. This leads to significant physical and mental health issues in adulthood.

When they are the target of anger, it looks like consistently belittling, insulting, or degrading someone, as well as manipulating their emotions to control or dominate them. Abusive people lack good skills to manage impulses and regulate emotions and take their feelings out on others.


Questions to Reflect on ANGER

  • Were you often criticized, mocked, or made to feel inadequate by our family members?

  • Did your parents use guilt-tripping or manipulation tactics to get what they wanted?

  • Did you find that your emotions were constantly invalidated or dismissed?


If you are concerned about your family dynamics presently, or are looking to heal from unhealthy family of origin, schedule a free consultation call with me here.

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