How to navigate toxic family relationships

Humans are fundamentally social beings; we seek connections through our relationships with others. Our familial relationships are hugely significant to us as individuals – they promote our sense of belonging, security, well-being, and self-esteem, and help us build a healthy sense of self.


Family relationships are supposed to be anchoring, a source of nurturance, care, love, and support, where there is respect and acceptance of each other as unique individuals. Healthy familial relationships are made up of individuals who can communicate openly with each other, respect each other’s opinions, and have boundaries that are mutually respected.

Sadly, some people do not have the blessing of healthy family relationships, and they go through life dealing with toxic relationships with family members. The contradiction is that the relationships which bring them the most pain are the ones that should bring them joy. This is indeed a painful place to be, one that also leads many people into therapy, to address and work through.

There is a need to manage the relationships in a tactful and consistent manner to minimise the distress that is created. Some family dysfunctions run through generations, which is a result of unresolved relational traumas from the previous generations. Therapy is a way of addressing, and healing from that generational trauma.

It is very easy for one to feel isolated and question their reality, due to the constant gaslighting when dealing with family members who are toxic and where there is dysfunction. By 'toxic', l mean people who violate other’s personal boundaries whether it’s by disrespectful behaviours, controlling behaviours, gossip, lies, manipulation, blaming, envy, and jealousy

The conflict, toxicity, discord, dysfunction, and negativity, whether it’s a single event or ongoing, can lead to some family members distancing themselves, and estrangement. Often there is stigma and negative stereotypical attitudes towards the individual who is estranged, and a failure to understand their position and the underlying dynamics at play.

Distancing oneself from negative family relationships and dynamics is indeed a form of self-care and a way of creating boundaries and safety for oneself. Many people hold on to toxic family relationships that cause them pain because of poor self-esteem and an inability to self-validate – the lack of conviction that they can survive in life without these negative relationships.

Group mentality (basic assumptions) and family dynamics

A family is made up of a group of people, albeit a complex one. Familial relationships are shaped by unconscious dynamics, just like any other group where people are brought together for a common purpose.

Sibling rivalry is one of the common features in families where there is underlying dysfunction. There are often two siblings, at times more, who get into conflict and play this out within the family. While the "drama" is acted out by the siblings, the dysfunction often lies in the parents or the family as a whole.

Wilfred Bion’s study of groups during World War Two can shed some light on some of the unconscious processes at play in the family as a group. Bion (1962) defines this pairing of individuals in any group that is gripped by unconscious anxieties as a basic assumption pairing (BAP), where these two individuals are unconsciously acting out the underlying conflicts on behalf of the group. The source of rivalry is not always to do with whatever issue that is consciously fought over, but rather the underlying issues that are avoided and denied by the family and therefore acted out by the pair. 

In some families, the dysfunction manifests in one individual who is the "outcast" or the "scapegoat".  This induvial becomes the one who holds all the badness on behalf of the family. This is all a function of projections of unwanted aspects of a family member, or the family as an entity onto and into the individual.

Under the sway of these powerful projections, it’s very easy for that individual, who is a recipient of these projections, to act out these projections.

Melanie Klein (1946) would call this 'projective identification'. It’s also easy to internalise these notions leading to limiting/negative core beliefs about oneself – "I am a terrible person", "No one likes me, even my own family", etc. Having these family fights leading to an individual family member, or an individual family within a wider family, being ostracised would fit what Bion (1962) considers a basic assumption fight-flight (BAFF) where there is a turning away from the issue at hand, increased hostility, rage and aggression directed at the enemy, and fighting between group members. This perpetuates the issue as alienating and vilifying the individual, leaving the underlying issues unresolved. 

In other families, there is an individual, typically an elder, who is seen as a source of wisdom and cannot be challenged, no matter how wrong they are. This person is seen as omnipotent and the person who is meant to resolve all the issues for the family. This can be very harmful as this member is unchallenged, regardless of how unsound their opinion is; they are protected at all costs. This way of functioning is what Bion (1962) considers a basic assumption dependency (BAD), where there is a dependency on an individual; the phantasy is for that individual to save the family.

This powerful basic assumption often leads to despair and, as that individual is unconsciously seen as the problem solver, however, they do not have the ability to save the family. The underlying issues in the family which can be solved by open and honest communication are avoided which perpetuates conflict and toxicity.

Narcissistic parenting 

In most families, the dysfunction and sibling rivalry lies in the parents and their relationship with their children and how they raised them. "Narcissistic" parents are parents who are unable to accept responsibility for their own failures, shortfalls, feelings, or insecurities. To deflect their own feelings – a sense of shame, guilt, or failure – the individuals who are unconsciously picked in any of the BAP, BAP, or BAD, are simply acting out a family drama.

If the underlying issue is not addressed and communicated openly, thoughtfully, and responsibly, the drama only perpetuates. This hurts everyone else but the people who are responsible which is either one or both parents. Narcissistic parents typically don't take responsibility for their own failures. Instead, they unconsciously project it onto their children, leading to a lot of conflict and rivalry in the family and between siblings or family members. The sad part is that the people who are in conflict are acting on behalf of everyone else and the root cause is often the family and their lack of dealing with acknowledging their own dysfunction. 

How do you move on from an unhealthy family dysfunction?

Open, honest, mature, and respectful communication about family issues that are deemed difficult or risky is central to families moving from unhealthy dysfunction into healthy, nurturing relationships, and cohesiveness. It may mean confronting each other; however, if this is done respectfully, it is likely to lead to growth and meaningful relationships. Avoidance and denial of the issues only perpetuate the dysfunction.

If you are estranged from your family, here are some tips to manage this situation:

  1. Create healthy and meaningful relationships with friends and loved ones (not parents or siblings) who you can have mutually nurturing relationships with. This helps you replenish and foster a sense of community and security.
  2. Create firm boundaries with family members and be consistent – how far one can go with contact and how they communicate and treat you?
  3. Limit contact if it causes you distress – consider blocking on apps if necessary. Protect your peace, you owe yourself that.
  4. Remind yourself that you are not responsible for other peoples’ feelings, behaviours and what they think of you. People will always judge no matter what. They have never walked in your shoes.
  5. Self-validate – remember you are enough without the family. The toxicity will only weigh you down. You are not responsible for the dysfunction. Your family dysfunction doesn’t define you.
  6. Create a routine and find new hobbies where you can expand your social circle. This will make you feel less isolated and foster a sense of belonging and community.
  7. Find ways to self-soothe – yoga, mindfulness, sport, and other self-care routines. Do things that enable you to regulate yourself emotionally whenever you are overwhelmed, instead of lashing out at the toxic individuals or others around you. You simply perpetuate the dysfunction of if you lash out.
  8. Do things that you enjoy, and that mastery, that gives you a sense of purpose. Meaning is derived from how much we feel integrated, take part, and value in life.
  9. Be kind to yourself – therapy helps you heal from this trauma. Remember it's a family trauma and you just happen to be the victim.
  10. If you are that elder who is there to solve everyone’s problems, step back and relinquish that role. Other people have minds of their own and their opinions matter. 


  • Bion, W. R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann. 
  • Klein, M. (1946). Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 99-110.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & Milton Keynes MK15
Written by Dr Joyline Gozho, Adult Psychotherapist (Individual & Couples) UKCP, NCPS
London SE1 & Milton Keynes MK15

Dr Joyline Gozho is an Adult Psychotherapist, Relationship Therapist, and Lecturer on a Psychotherapy course. She works with both individual and couples in private practice. She also runs relationship enrichment workshops with a particular focus on communication and emotional literacy.

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