Every family has the occasional argument. But if you’ve always felt like you become your worst self when you’re back at home, your family could be treading on toxic territory. “Toxic people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return." Sound familiar? Here are seven ways to find out if your family is toxic and how to deal.
Your mom dreamed of being a dancer, but she became a travel agent. Then when you were cast as Clara in The Nutcracker at age 12, your mom spent hours showing you videos of her old ballet performances and ended up getting a headache on the night of your big debut. While it might seem ridiculous that a grown adult would be jealous of a 12-year-old, it’s a dynamic that people in toxic families know all too well.
2. They overreact.
OK, your dad was justifiably mad when you were running around the house at age nine and broke an heirloom vase. But if he is still regularly flying off the handle for completely reasonable things you do as an adult (like getting stuck in traffic and arriving 15 minutes late to his barbecue), this relationship has “toxic” written all over it.
3. They compare you.
You and your older sister are two completely different people. But because she’s a doctor with three kids and you’re a single receptionist at a doctor’s office, your brother loves to try to pit the two of you against each other. Your sister takes the high road, but your brother’s constant teasing still makes you feel insecure and attacked.
4. They act like victims.
Sometimes, parents can’t help but guilt trip their kids. (“What do you mean, you aren’t coming home for Thanksgiving?”) But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment and creating a toxic environment by blaming everyone else for their feelings. If your mom refuses to talk to you for a week because you decided to spend Thanksgiving with friends this year, you could be in toxic territory.
5. They don’t respect your boundaries.
You love your sister, but she’s always been impulsive. She’s made a habit of showing up at your family’s house, unannounced, expecting to be able to crash on the couch for a couple of days. Because you love her, you give in, but even after asking her to stop popping in without calling, she continues to do it.
6. They’re always right.
Your parents have hated every person you’ve ever dated, and it’s starting to feel like no one is going to be good enough. They have similar opinions about your career goals and friends. If you’ve articulated that you’re happy with your life and the people in it and they still won’t stay out of your business, your relationship with your parents could be verging on toxic.
7. They give ultimatums.
A parent’s love is supposed to be unconditional, right? But your mother is constantly setting conditions that feel suspiciously like threats. In fact, you’ve heard the words, “if you don’t *fill-in-the-blank,* you’re not my daughter anymore,” more than once. Toxic behavior? Yep.
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How to Move on from a Toxic Childhood
1. Detach. Give yourself some space—but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write off or avoid your family. “Detaching is an emotional concept and has nothing to do with physical proximity,” says Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT. “It means not reacting, not taking things personally, and not feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings, wants, and needs.” Now that you’re an adult, you’re not obligated to hang out with your family constantly…or even at all. Set the boundary that works for you—say, lunch with your dad every two weeks—and remind yourself that it’s OK to keep as much emotional distance as you need to.
2. Avoid triggers. If you’re constantly getting flak from your parents about deciding to be a musician, stop talking about it around them. If they bring it up, cut down the conversation as soon as possible and change the subject. Here’s how the conversation could go:
Mom: I never understood why you couldn’t get a stable, well-paying job like your sister. Did you know that an entry-level job in the tech world starts at six figures? How much has your music made you this year? You: You’ve already told me your opinions about my music, and I’d appreciate if we talked about something else. Did you find that dresser you were looking for? Mom: No, I haven’t found it yet, but I’m going to Ikea on Thursday.
3. Try the Grey Rock Method. We first discovered this handy trick on psychologist Nadene van der Linden’s blog, Unshakeable Calm. In a nutshell, it’s a tool to prevent toxic people from escalating a situation. Act as boring, uninteresting and disengaged as possible and toxic people will find it less exciting to try to manipulate you and choose another target. It takes some acting chops, but you don’t have to be Meryl Streep to master it. Find out more about the Grey Rock Method here.
Genetics play a big part in health conditions, so looking at your mom’s health can give you a clue what’s to come. This is especially true of complications that affect women more than men, like osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones. According to the CDC, osteoporosis affects 25 percent of women over 65, but only six percent of men—and recent research has found genetic variants predisposing some people to the disease. “There is strong evidence for an increased risk of osteoporosis if your mother had it,” says Todd Sontag, DO, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates. “Many times this has to do with an inherited body structure of having lower body weight—less than 58kg [128 pounds] in adults or a BMI of less than 22.” Another risk factor is simply having a parental history (mom or dad) of hip fracture, he says. To mitigate these affects, make sure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D, and are living a healthy lifestyle. Here are the signs you’re not as healthy as you think.
Wonder if you’re going to get wrinkles or skin damage? Take a look at your mom’s face. Research has shown that male and female skin ages differently due to different hormones. “Your mother’s ability to break down collagen and the age when it started breaking down—the age when she got wrinkles—are passed down to you, as well as the pattern of collagen breakdown: Did she get wrinkles around her eyes first, or deeper lines around her mouth?” says dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD, creator of Visha Skin Care. “Looking at pictures of her as she ages helps you understand how to combat your aging process.” Daily sunscreen and an anti-aging serum with retinol, vitamin C, ferulic acid, and vitamin E work to fight these genetic effects, she says. In addition, your skin type, passed down from your mother and your father, can affect your chances of sun damage and skin cancer. Those with fairer skin are most at risk. This is what dermatologists wish you knew about preventing wrinkles.
If you’re aware of what psychologists wish you knew about depression, you might already know that depression is diagnosed twice as often in women as in men, possibly as a result of hormonal fluctuations and women’s response to trauma and stress. “Another important aspect in gender studies shows that women have a more chronic course of depression than do men,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Living With Depression. “This means that females experience depression more often and for a longer duration of time than males.” Plus, it’s genetically linked, with Harvard Medical School experts noting that certain genetic mutations associated with depression occur only in women. So if your mother had depression, you should be on the lookout for symptoms, and get treatment if needed. “This is why knowing your family medical history is so important to become proactive about your own personal health,” Dr. Serani says. Here are the signs you’re healthy from every type of doctor.
Women are more likely to have the eye condition glaucoma, and are also more likely to be visually impaired or blind from it, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Thanks to menopause, women are also more likely to have dry eye syndrome, which frequently occurs with glaucoma. Plus, glaucoma runs in families—so if your mom (or dad) has it, be sure to let your eye doctor know, and get screened for it regularly. “You are at higher risk for developing glaucoma and [another eye condition] macular degeneration if your mother had it,” says Dr. Sontag. “Just like everything else, there are other lifestyle factors that contribute as well.” The AAO says to also avoid smoking to reduce your risk. Here’s how to improve your eyesight—without eating carrots!
There are multiple reasons you might have a migraine, and your mother is just one of them. According to the Mayo Clinic, women are three times more likely than men to have migraines, likely because of hormonal fluctuations. The National Headache Foundation notes that 70 to 80 percent of migraine sufferers have a relative who gets the debilitating attacks as well. “One of the main risk factors for migraines is family history of migraines,” Dr. Sontag says. “So yes, if your mother has migraines, you are more likely to develop them as well.” Emerging research is identifying how and why genetics play a role, with one large international study suggesting it may have to do with how the blood vessels function in the brain. But until we know more, if your mother suffers from migraines, you can try to reduce your risk by limiting other risk factors, like getting regular exercise and sleep, managing stress, and avoiding caffeine and any individual food triggers.
Nearly two-thirds of those with Alzheimer’s are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The exact reasons why are yet unknown, but seem to go beyond the simple fact that women live longer than men. Researchers have also found genetic links for Alzheimer’s. “There are genetic alleles that have been identified that increase risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Sontag says. “A maternal history does increase the risk.” The National Institute on Aging reports that if your mother or father has a genetic mutation for early-onset Alzheimer’s (which appears from your thirties to mid-sixties), there’s a 50/50 chance you will inherit it—and if you do, there is a strong possibility of developing the disease. If your mother had Alzheimer’s or other dementia, you can reduce your risk by exercising, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining social ties, and staying mentally active. These are the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease every adult should know.
Weight, body shape and fitness level
As with many other aspects of health, the condition of your body is partly genetic, partly environmental. So if your mother has a certain body type or weight, you may be more likely to have the same one—but that could be the result of learned behaviors, too. “While there is some solid research to support a maternal’s body shape and weight and its influence on her children, this is definitely not the only contributing factor,” Dr. Sontag says. “Many times, the lifestyle of the mother is what is learned and passed down to her kids, which includes the way she eats and exercises.” So if you grow up eating the same way as you mother, it’s not surprising if you develop a similar body. Likewise, the fitness level you can achieve is part hereditary, part lifestyle. “Genetics do play a strong role in our muscle make-up,” Dr. Sontag says. “No matter how much certain people train, they will never be as fast as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps.” Still, if your mom is overweight, you can help avoid the same fate by eating healthy and exercising, with the goal of being the healthiest you can for your individual body.
Heart disease and diabetes
Women may believe they don’t have to worry about heart disease, but just like men they need to understand their genetic heart disease factors. Given genetic similarities in weight and body shape, you and your mother might also have a similar risk of heart disease, the number one killer of women, as well as type-2 diabetes. A recent study presented at the American Society of Human Genetics found that maternally inherited gene variants of how women store fat can affect their risk of type-2 diabetes. “There is strong evidence that if your mother has heart disease, type-2 diabetes, or strokes, that you are at a higher risk to develop them,” Dr. Sontag says. “The younger the age that the mother developed it tends to correlate with a higher risk in the children.” But again, there are lifestyle factors to consider. “If your mother had a heart attack at 50, but weighed 300 pounds, never exercised, and smoked, the risk may be completely related to her lifestyle,” he says. “You can’t have soda every day and ice cream every night and then use your family history as an excuse when you develop diabetes.” Still, if your mother (or father) had early heart disease, Dr. Sontag recommends a checkup with a cardiologist. These are the physical and emotional ways heart disease is different for women.
Pregnancy and fertility
If you’re looking to see what your pregnancy experience will be like, ask your mother about carrying you. “Gestational diabetes is more common in women who are risk for adult onset diabetes, which does run in families, so if you have a strong family history of diabetes, you are at increased risk for gestational diabetes,” says Pamela Berens, MD, an OBGYN with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. In addition, “preeclampsia is more common in women who have had high blood pressure, and high blood pressure may be inherited.” A Norwegian study showed severe morning sickness, or hyperemesis gravidarum, may be inherited as well. As for issues getting pregnant, most causes of infertility and miscarriage are not genetic—but some may be. “There appears to be an increased risk of endometriosis in first-degree relatives of women with endometriosis,” Dr. Berens says. “Rarely, some women with recurrent miscarriages can have an inherited chromosome issue that makes miscarriage more common, and genetic testing can be done.” For some other infertility conditions, such as PCOS, it’s not clear yet whether genetics are at play.
You should also ask your mom if she suffered from postpartum depression after pregnancy. Like other aspects of mental health, it may be passed from mother to daughter. “Studiesshow that postpartum depression is genetically linked,” Dr. Serani says. “Your risk for PPD increases if your mother, or another family member—sister, aunt—has experienced it.” One small study from Johns Hopkins found specific chemical alterations in two genes that, when they occur during pregnancy, can predict whether a woman will develop postpartum depression with 85 percent accuracy. The researchers hope this will eventually lead to a blood test that can give pregnant women a better indication of their risk—but for now, knowing your family history is important. “Ask your mother about her postpartum experiences,” Dr. Serani says. “This can informally clue you in to whether or not depression is a risk factor for you.” Here are seven dangerous postpartum depression myths.
Breast and ovarian cancers
Awareness on the genetic link of breast and ovarian cancers may be due in part to Angelina Jolie, whose mother died from breast cancer. After discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene, the actress underwent a preventive mastectomy, reducing her breast cancer risk from 87 percent to under 5. “The gene mutations that are most commonly associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are the BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations,” Dr. Berens says. “If you have a suspicious family history—for example, if you have multiple family members with breast or ovarian cancer, if the breast cancer happened at an early age, or if the same family member had both cancers—it is more suspicious that you could have a genetic tendency.” Talk to your doctor about your individual risk if you mom or other female relatives had one of these cancers, and consider seeing a genetic counselor for genetic testing.
Studies have shown that the age at which your mother went through menopause will be partly responsible for when you do. In addition, if your mother went through menopause early, you should let your doctor know. “Premature ovarian insufficiency, before 40, can be caused by a number of conditions, and some of these conditions can be inherited—for instance women who are fragile X carriers,” Dr. Berens says. Fragile X is a gene mutation linked to the X chromosome, and it can trigger anxiety, hyperactivity, and intellectual disability. As for menopause symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, Dr. Berens says scientists are trying to clarify if there’s a genetic link. The first study of its kind in humans, from UCLA, might have found a related gene variant, but more research is needed. Next, check out what your sweat says about your health.