The mental health of difficult families

Miles Etherton

What’s more important — their narcissism or your mental health?

Ask yourself this question. What is the lesser of these two evils?

  1. The damaging behaviour of toxic narcissistic family members?
  2. The pain of estranging yourself from such a family?

Not a brilliant choice, is it? The classic “no-win” or “lose-lose” situation.

Now consider this. How many of you have either faced this choice before or have this decision to make in your lives now? Maybe you can see it on the horizon at some point too?

There are many reasons it can occur and the impact can be devastating. But if you are facing narcissistic or toxic behaviours that are damaging your mental health, how can you spot this?

Let’s consider some signs you are in this type of environment now or could get dragged into in the future.

More common than you think

It is my sincere hope you never have to worry about estrangement, and despite the odd inevitable row about which in-laws you’re going to on Christmas Day, you have a happy and harmonious family relationship. This is not my reality or that of many others.

An analysis in the US found that:

About 17 percent [of young adults] experienced estrangement from an immediate family member, most commonly from the father. Surveying older adults found that about 12 percent were estranged from a child or children.

Within these findings, 95% of the time, the person who ended all ties is the adult child. This tallies with my personal experience and the choice I had to make.

A similar 2014 survey by the UK charity StandAlone found that out of over 2,000 people surveyed, 8% of people had ended contact with a family member. Of those making the choice to estrange themselves, or where their family had shunned them, there was no apparent difference between income levels. This can happen within any family environment.

Accepting these are only two surveys, and that there will be different cultural variations, it is not an unreasonable estimate to say that 1 in 10 people are estranged from a family member(s) or could be during their lifetime.

My story — but it could well be yours too

There is no shortage of reasons estrangement can occur within families. These can include:

  • Abuse — substance, physical, child, or mental
  • A breakdown or betrayal of trust
  • Divorce
  • Mental illness
  • Personality disorders
  • The life choices a family member makes

In my case, it was a 10-year slow burn from the point I first brought home the woman I would marry and have children with. My mother did not like my choice of partner, and my brother did not want us in the room next to him through some newfound sense of puritanism which you don’t need me to explain. We were confined to an airbed in a cold room at the back of the house!

With the benefit of 16-years of estrangement under my belt, there are a few things I can say with confidence. No woman was likely to have been good enough for my mother’s “firstborn”. I don’t share this view — I have plenty of flaws as my wife knows all too well!

It took me a full 10-years from the point my wife and I first got together before I both accepted my family’s toxic behaviours and that they had been harming our relationship since day one. After attempts to ruin our wedding, I knew I was at the point where “enough was enough”.

Or, to put it another way, as a colleague once told me with a meme of a cuddly toy to describe me:

“You’re a teddy bear until someone pisses you off.”

This teddy bear had long since left the building!

Spotting the behaviours — the making of toxic parents and narcissists

There is an ocean of research on narcissistic personality disorder and other unpalatable character traits. I am not a psychologist or an expert in these areas, but I can draw from personal experience and recognise many of these behaviours.

For a “toxic parent”, research suggests some of these factors:

  • Self-centred behaviours
  • Physical and verbal abuse
  • Controlling behaviours
  • Manipulative behaviours
  • Lack of boundaries

Let’s add a little more reality to a few of these.

Self-centred behaviours — this might take the form of trying to dictate and control who you invite to your own wedding. In my case, my maternal grandmother died when I was young and my grandfather found a companion some years later. My mother did not want her at our wedding. We refused, and all hell broke out during the preparations for our big day, culminating in my mother wearing all black to our evening reception. In her head, it was a funeral — the “death of her family” no doubt.

Physical and verbal abuse the term gaslighting is much more prominent than in previous years, but refers to:

The act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them.

How many times do you recall a row or conversation with a family member where their responses were: “I didn’t say that at all, you must be remembering wrong,” or “Well, I certainly didn’t mean that and I’m not sure why you’d think I did.”

Sound familiar? It does to me too and contributes to the gradual and ongoing undermining of a person or relationship. These were the sort of conversations I would have with my family if I ever questioned their behaviour towards my wife.

Manipulative behaviours — I’ve mentioned the exerting of psychological pressure to do certain things or attend particular events, for example. Can you think of when a toxic parent manipulated you to do something you didn’t want to? Maybe even ending a relationship that wasn’t approved of?

The most painful example I can draw upon relates to my late grandfather, and I have read comparable experiences of manipulation and spite. I broke all contact with my family in 2005 but was always close to my maternal grandfather. In 2009, he died unexpectedly. There was no long illness. He just collapsed one morning after getting out of bed. I only found out about this through an unsigned letter (but sent from my mother) telling me of his death and where his cremation plot was. The letter was only sent the day after the funeral, ensuring I could not attend to pay my last respects.

Just let that sink in. Not because I’m looking for your sympathy, but this is the sort of manipulative behaviour a toxic parent can dish out.

I’ve only touched on three of the criteria above, but you get the idea of what this looks like. Maybe when you started reading this article, you didn’t think this applied to you. I hope it still doesn’t. But I imagine if the 10% estimate of estrangement is anywhere near accurate, many of you will have similar painful tales to tell.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Many of us, as we strive to understand why our parents behave in such ways towards us and our choices, are likely to reach another question.

Is my toxic parent a narcissist?

I’ll be upfront, I’m not an expert, so you must make your own judgement and do your own reading on this. There are an array of personality disorders that may account for certain behaviours, and are not just linked to “toxic parents”.

But if we take Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I can see some overlapping traits from my own experiences.

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Lives in a fantasy world that supports their delusions of grandeur
  • Needs constant praise and admiration
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Exploits others without guilt or shame
  • Frequently demeans, intimidates, bullies, or belittles others

Do any of these strike a chord too in relation to either a toxic parent or estranged family member?

  • The “sense of entitlement“ — how our wedding had to be a certain way
  • The “grandiose sense of self-importance” — telling me my wife couldn’t share birthday celebrations with my father and our family (they have the same birthday) because “she’d already had a birthday with her family” and the focus could only be on what she wanted — my father’s day
  • The “exploiting others without guilt or shame” — denying me the opportunity to go to my grandfather’s funeral

They all tick the boxes for me. What would be on your list?

But I did nothing wrong

The chances are if you’ve read this far you might view this from the other side of the street, so to speak. Maybe your child or a family member has estranged themselves from your family, accusing you of the behaviours above. You may believe you acted in the interests of your family and they are to blame.

Maybe they were. I can’t judge your circumstances. In my case, I am well aware one side is rarely the only party to blame. I know I could have handled situations in different ways. If I’d been braver and tackled problems sooner, rather than burying my head in the sand, maybe estrangement wouldn’t have been the eventual destination. Perhaps there were better choices on occasions I could have made.

But — and this is a big but — I would not have tried to undermine and ruin someone’s wedding day or deny them access to a funeral, no matter how angry I may have been. That I can say with certainty. I’m aware of my flaws, but these are not amongst them.

If you contemplate your own family issues, can recognise the behaviours above, and look yourself in the mirror with the same conviction that you are not behaving in the same way, the chances are there’s a choice to be made.

What’s more important — their toxicity and narcissism or your mental health?

With narcissistic behaviour, and in my experience of a “toxic parent”, you can’t overlook one recognised truth about someone like this.

Your needs won’t be fulfilled (or even recognized). It’s important to remember that narcissists aren’t looking for partners; they’re looking for obedient admirers. Your sole value to the narcissist is as someone who can tell them how great they are to prop up their insatiable ego. Your desires and feelings don’t count.

Making the break

It took me 10-years of persistent issues before I got to the “enough is enough” stage. The proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” when I threw my parents out of my house after yet another “performance” from my mother.

Everyone has that point within them. You may be close to it now, it may be some way off. But when you recognise it’s there, I offer one piece of advice. Breaking contact will hurt and will be difficult. It will take a long time to get over and you will question whether it was the right choice.

But your mental health and wellbeing are always more important than fuelling the needs of a toxic or narcissistic family member. Always.

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Author/activist — articles on politics, social justice, equality, writing, mental health, marketing, sports and much more. Find me at and across social media.

New York State

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