Surviving and Thriving in a Dysfunctional Family

By Rose.TheCRSS 01/27/21
Photo by Лечение наркомании via Pixabay

Some people are toxic, irrational idiots. And sometimes these toxic, irrational idiots just happen to also be members of our family. Growing up and living with dysfunction makes it hard to know what is normal and what is not normal. And this, in turn, leads to difficult relationships, emotions, and situations that may last into adulthood. Often, the people we do not choose (family) can influence people we do choose (friends and partners). We have a right to be pissed about family chaos but understanding our situations may help us grow.

Examples of dysfunctional and toxic situations include every form of violence, abuse, and neglect. And while addiction and other mental illnesses are diseases and not biproducts of weak wills or personalities, we cannot ignore that there are many emotional and behavioral consequences for the whole family. Some of us learn to adapt by developing certain behaviors that helped us get through the pain in the past, but they may not be especially useful in the present day.

Often, when feelings about dysfunctional families are not properly dealt with, we start to see ourselves getting into relationships that mirror past family interactions. Tanya Lee Markul (2012) provides red flags we might look for to determine whether or not a relationship is becoming toxic: “rejection, abandonment, not taking the time to get to know you or to be in your life, making you feel unwelcome, someone being competitive or hypercritical of you, pressuring or forcing you to be someone you are not, blaming, ostracizing, manipulating, belittling, neglecting and abusing you.”

So, how do you save the drama for your mama, when your mama is the one causing the drama?  Do not worry, you are not alone- there are whole book genres, support groups, and therapy types designed just to address dysfunction in the family. There was even a large research study that yielded incredible results and consequently helped shape some therapies used today:

From the 1995 to 1997, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente conducted what is called the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study. They took data from over 17,000 people to investigate “childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and wellbeing.” What they found was there is a direct correlation between frequency and intensity of adverse experiences to poor health later in life. The study was able to identify many predictors of behavior related to poor physical health such as obesity and heart disease, behavioral issues including substance use, and life potential such as graduation rates and income. You can take the ACE test yourself here:

Scientists have since sought to find ways to intervene so they might be able to break the cycle and stop the progression.  Not everyone gets the right help at the right time though, but there are options to consider. Below you will find a bit of a beginner’s guide to navigating your way towards less toxic relationships.


  1. As we grow and mature, we may need to establish not only physical boundaries, but emotional and mental boundaries with certain people. And we will have to be firm with those boundaries because of it is common to have habitual boundary crossers. It is going to be hard because this is a completely new situation but stay firm with your boundary. If things slip apart do not abandon your efforts, just try again later. In setting boundaries, we are teaching other people how to treat us by what we will and will not tolerate.

Additionally, there may come a time where it is necessary to completely cut off a relationship. Regardless of whether they are family or friends and how much we love them, we do not deserve abuse including physical, mental, verbal, and sexual violence. Do not hesitate to reach out to people in your support system when trying to set any types of boundary.


  1. Another factor to consider is assessing our communication skills. We cannot assume that the other person knows what we are thinking; they cannot read minds. When interacting with someone try not to interrupt and give them time to express themselves and get their point across. We should ask ourselves, am I listening to understand this person’s position or am I just waiting to respond?

If we want to discuss something serious, such as establishing a boundary, we can consider setting up a time and a day to talk with the person. This gives the meeting structure and will give us time to collect our thoughts. We need to be as honest as we can and try not to use sarcasm, which can be hurtful. If things get too heated in a meeting like this, take a break and come back later or next week or next year.

We should also consider using “I” statements. For example, “I get scared and concerned when you don’t call me back” vs “You never call me back, and you are always scaring me. You could be dead in a ditch somewhere for all I know.” Using “I” statements takes the heat off them, but also gets the point across. The person will also be less likely to feel like they are being attacked and going on the defensive.

  1. And as always, do not hesitate to get help from a mental health professional. Mental health professionals have spent years training to help others. These people pick this field because they have the desire to help individuals who may be stuck at a certain point (or points) in life. And, if we are having trouble navigating your new way of living, especially when it comes to boundaries and communication skill, a therapist’s office could provide a setting to practice establishing boundaries while using appropriate communication skills. And many therapists welcome family and friends coming into the office with clients. It is easier said than done, but do not be shy; therapists have heard some wild stuff.


Additional resources outside traditional therapy includes self-help groups. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are for family and friends of individuals whose lives have be impacted by alcohol and other drugs. And Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families helps us recognize and change behaviors that may be self-sabotaging. These groups’ websites are:



Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families:

Living with toxic people in our lives, in the past or present, and beginning to address and recovery from it is not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. Learning more does not mean you approve of any given situation; it just means that you are not going to let the situation control your emotions and outlook. It will take a lot of courage to address and disrupt traumatic events and dysfunctional behavior so that it will not continue to be passed down generation after generation. Often, family members are doing the best they can with what they got- even if they suck at it. And if you get stuck find a therapist or support group to lean on.


Rosemary Callahan is a peer counselor, an artist, and an individual in long term recovery.

She works in collaboration with Sarah Lewis LCSW who is a therapist based in San Diego, CA and can be reached at


C. (1970, January 01). Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Leveraging the Best Available Evidence. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from

Markul, T. (2012). 12 Ways to Deal with A Toxic Family/Family Member. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from



Join the conversation, become a Fix blogger. Share your experience, strength, and hope, or sound off on the issues affecting the addiction/recovery community. Create your account and start writing: