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Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships

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From the bestselling author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, a road map for understanding and moving past family struggles—and living your life, your way.

Every family has a story. For some of us, our family of origin is a solid foundation that feeds our confidence and helps us navigate life’s challenges. For others, it’s a source of pain, hurt, and conflict that can feel like a lifelong burden. In this empowering guide, licensed therapist and bestselling relationship expert Nedra Glover Tawwab offers clear advice for identifying dysfunctional family patterns and choosing the best path to breaking the cycle and moving forward.
Covering topics ranging from the trauma of emotional neglect, to the legacy of addicted or absent parents, to mental health struggles in siblings and other relatives, and more, this clear and compassionate guide will help you take control of your own life—and honor the person you truly are.

ISBN-13: 9780593539279

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-28-2023

Pages: 288

Product Dimensions: 8.10(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Nedra Glover Tawwab is the author of the New York Times bestseller Set Boundaries, Find Peace. A licensed therapist and sought-after relationship expert, she has practiced relationship therapy for more than fifteen years. Tawwab has appeared as an expert on The Red Table Talk, The Breakfast Club, Good Morning America, and CBS This Morning, to name a few. Her work has been highlighted in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Vice, and has appeared on numerous podcasts, including Good Life Project, Sofia with an F, and Therapy for Black Girls. Tawwab runs a popular Instagram account where she shares practices, tools, and reflections for mental health and hosts weekly Q&As about boundaries and relationships. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her family.


Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

What Dysfunction Looks Like

Carmen grew up in a two-parent home. It was customary for her father, Bruce, to work all day, come home, get drunk, and go into a rage. Carmen's mom, April, spent much of her time in her room disengaged from Carmen and her two siblings. April "drank too much," but she wasn't as bad as Bruce.

When April and Bruce would argue, Carmen and her siblings would tune them out by blasting the TV. Carmen spent a lot of time with her friends to avoid being at home. With her friends' families, she found that it wasn't the norm for parents to be drunk, argue all the time, or be emotionally neglectful.

As Carmen grew older, she learned to rely on her extended family for support. When she needed a ride to hang out with friends, she'd call her grandmother. She couldn't risk her parents picking her up while drunk. When she needed clothes for school, she called her aunt, who gladly took her shopping. What Carmen didn't have was someone to talk to about her homelife. Her friends didn't have these issues with their parents, and her extended family danced around her parents' issues by trying to pick up the slack.

Carmen was lonely and embarrassed. For many years, she thought she was the problem because no one else seemed concerned about her parents' actions. Her siblings accommodated their parents' behavior, and the rest of the family said things like, "That's just who your parents are. You have to love them anyway." She loved her parents, but she was tormented by how they behaved. Their issues even continued into her adulthood.

Most of the time, Carmen just sucked it up, and when she did put her foot down, her family guilt-tripped her, accusing her of acting funny and being mean. She wanted someone to see the issues, validate her experiences, and let her know that it was OK to want something different from her family.

What Does It Mean to Have a Dysfunctional Family?

For Carmen, it meant having parents who were addicts, emotionally neglectful, and at times verbally abusive. A dysfunctional family is one where abuse, chaos, and neglect are accepted norms. In dysfunctional families, unhealthy behaviors are overlooked, swept under the rug, or catered to. As in Carmen's case, it's hard to ascertain dysfunction until you're exposed to other, healthier situations. And even when exposed to better relationships, it can still be hard to break away from dysfunctional patterns.

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you probably thought this was normal:

Forgiving and forgetting (with no change in behavior)

Moving on as if nothing happened

Covering up problems for others

Denying that a problem exists

Keeping secrets that need to be shared

Pretending to be fine

Not expressing your emotions

Being around harmful people

Using aggression to get what you want

When People Tell You There's a Problem, Believe Them

Far too often, people become defensive and resistant to change instead of acknowledging the problem and working toward a resolution. In Carmen's case, whenever she tried to talk to her parents about some of their unhealthy behaviors, they became defensive or blamed her for wanting something different. No one within the family was willing to hear her concerns, likely because they weren't ready to work on the issues.

Carmen wasn't alone, yet no one was willing to stand with her. Her experience was the same as everyone else's, but she was the one who was brave enough to point out that there was a problem. She wanted to learn how to confront the issues that everyone seemed to easily accommodate or ignore.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Survey

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Survey is commonly used to measure the severity of childhood trauma. The survey takes into consideration areas such as these:

Witnessing violence

Sexual abuse

Exposure to substance abuse in the home

Physical abuse

Verbal abuse

Emotional abandonment

Parent who was mentally ill

Imprisonment of a parent

Childhood trauma impacts our ability to process and express emotions, and it increases the likelihood of maladaptive emotional-regulation strategies (e.g., suppression of emotions). In particular, children exposed to violence have challenges in distinguishing threat and safety cues.

It's widely known that things like abuse and neglect are dysfunctional aspects within a family dynamic. But family relationships are impacted by other factors as well. Trauma is assessed on a scale from 0 to 10, but childhood trauma can be impactful with a score as low as 2. ACE doesn't even consider financial instability, moving multiple times, or generational trauma, which we know impact mental health. I believe that your ACE score (mine is a 7) or childhood experience of trauma doesn't determine your future. We are powerful and can make choices that are hard in the moment but beneficial in the long term.

What we experience in childhood carries over to adulthood because once the trauma is activated, the cycle is often perpetuated. Children who experience homelessness tend to have higher ACE scores and a higher likelihood of homelessness issues in adulthood.

Other Factors That Contribute to Childhood Dysfunction

Self-absorbed parents

Emotionally immature parents

Domineering parents

Enmeshed family relationships

Competitive relationships within the family

Children parenting their parents

(In Chapters 2 and 3, we will dig deeper into these concepts.)

A compelling documentary, The Boys of Baraka is about a program with Black boys in Baltimore, Maryland. Twenty at-risk young men enrolled in a boarding school in Kenya to experience their cultural roots, community, academics, and structure. While away, many of the boys showed improvements academically, emotionally, and socially. The program then lost funding, and the boys returned home. Once they returned to their home environments, which hadn't changed, many of them suffered the consequences of growing up in these at-risk environments, including drug abuse, jail, and repeating unhealthy cycles. The atmosphere in which they lived limited their ability to thrive, and with little hope, they returned to familiar patterns.

Nevertheless, with the right tools, we can heal from childhood and family traumas.


Where you grow up, who you grow up with, and the things you experience in your home have lifelong implications for who you become. Trauma has long-term effects on your body, mind, relationships, financial health, and emotional and mental health. The first eighteen years of life profoundly impact your entire life. In the book What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., Oprah shares her story of childhood trauma and how those experiences shaped her. Her mother beat her for even the slightest offense, and this abuse turned her into a people-pleaser. It took years for her to realize that her behavior as an adult was rooted in her experiences as a child.

Things You May Inherit from Your Family

Money management skills

Communication skills

The way you attach to others


Patterns of substance use

How you treat your children

How you handle your mental health

There's so much from your childhood that gives therapists a picture of how you developed the problem you're working through in adulthood. One thing I ask is, "When is the first time you felt that way?" or "Who was the first person to make you feel that way?" Typically, the narrative floats back to childhood. We carry the weight of the years when we were most powerless, as if we have to continue that way, but adulthood gives us the opportunity to change our narrative.


Resilience is the ability to embrace what happened. We can overcome our environment when the right protective factors are in place. Protective factors include

Strong connections with safe adults

Positive parenting influences

Strong values or a sense of purpose

The ability to self-regulate, have a positive outlook, and be resourceful

Healthy social connections

Support from peers and mentors

Continual structured programs that increase exposure to healthy relationships

It's often said that we are a product of our environment, but we can also be a product of exposure to healthy relationships outside the home. Carmen's understanding of her home environment was shaped by what she saw as healthy alternatives outside her home.

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, and attending public schools, I recall being exposed to programs intended to help urban kids overcome issues they may have faced at home. I stopped littering in elementary school because a group taught us about how littering is harmful to our environment, and they helped us clean the neighborhood around my school. Although the cleaning efforts were short-lived, the piece about not littering stuck with me.

Strangers have assumed that I was raised in a two-parent home and that my childhood was free of trauma, but neither of those assumptions is true. I had exposure to different perspectives and healthy relationships, and I hoped that my life would be different when I became an adult.

Be Honest (at Least with Yourself) About Your Childhood

Honesty isn't betrayal; it's courage. Stop sugarcoating your experiences and allow the truth to free you. People often misrepresent their relationships and experiences because they're too afraid to admit what's true. But denial will keep you from breaking free from your past.

Hard Things to Accept About a Family Member

They are selfish and will do whatever it takes to get what they want

They aren't a good listener

They make changes, but only temporarily

They are mean, often without cause

They take more than they give

They aren't perfect

Reasons We Don't Talk About Family Problems

Thinking That Family Issues Are a Reflection of Who We Are

You aren't what happened to you. In childhood, you faced many things that were outside your control. Managing your environment wasn't on you. Therefore, you can't blame yourself for what happened in that environment. Your experiences shaped you-but as an adult, you have the power to choose whether you want to be a product of those experiences or move past them to create something different.

Feeling Embarrassment and Shame

One thing that helps with feeling embarrassed about your family story is hearing about people with similar experiences. The only way to connect with those who share your experiences, however, is honesty. You will have to be brave enough to tell the truth. Shame exists when you hide things from others, and releasing the secrets releases shame. Maintaining privacy is not secret-keeping; you can share as much or as little as you feel comfortable sharing. Privacy allows you to discern whom you prefer to disclose to. Sometimes you don't share as a protection to the people who harmed you. Therefore, you might be engaging in preventing embarrassment for others, not just for yourself.

Trying to Ignore the Issues

Ignoring major family issues postpones the healing of unhealthy patterns. You can't recover from things that "never happened." When you ignore them, the harmful behaviors continue because you and your family are unwilling to acknowledge the cycles that need to be recognized and broken.

Believing That No One Will Understand

Celebrities, teachers, friends, coworkers, and many others might have gone through similar issues with their families. Assuming you're alone isn't the best way to find people who can relate to you. Vulnerability builds community. You attract people who are like you by being authentic and open. Sometimes, you find "your people" after you are transparent about your story.

Fearing Judgment

Some people won't understand your story, and you won't always understand the stories of others. Practice feeling OK with the fact that some people won't "get" you. Accepting this will make your life much easier. It makes sense to be concerned about what others think. But caring too much can undermine your ability to create positive change.

Watching the Trauma Unfold

Married . . . with Children was one of my favorite TV sitcoms. In it, Al Bundy, the main character, is a disgruntled shoe salesman whose best years were in high school. He's married to Peg, and they have two kids, named Bud and Kelly. The kids watch as their parents criticize each other, and they are often left at home without food to eat. I recall one episode where the kids are hungry and searching the kitchen for food. They find an old piece of chocolate behind the refrigerator and rejoice. The show is a comedy, and I found many of the dynamics hilarious. But in hindsight, I realize the show highlights aspects of parental neglect, verbal abuse, and unhealthy parental relationships that I couldn't yet conceptualize.

When we don't understand what we see, we tend to stay in unhealthy situations. It can feel normal and inevitable that the people around us seem to suffer the same fate. To better understand your experience, it's vital to develop a different viewpoint.

What Happens When It Takes Years to Wake Up

As long as you are breathing, it isn't too late to change your perspective and behaviors. It's commonly believed that the older we become, the more challenging it might be to change. They say, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Not true! When you're willing to incorporate further information, you can change. Let's revise the saying to "You can't teach an unwilling dog new tricks." In reading this book, you've demonstrated that you're willing to seek out and incorporate new information.

Sometimes, the problems are blatantly obvious, but because of the indoctrination of family values and beliefs, it can take a while before you start to realize the nature of the dysfunction in your family. Like Carmen, however, you can begin to observe others and notice the differences in your home.

My own after-school routine included watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. As I've watched old episodes, I realize now that I wasn't ready for the topics, but I certainly needed to hear them. The Oprah show covered abuse, neglect, giveaways, celebrity interviews, and almost every other imaginable subject. Her show gave me the terminology to name things in my life and the lives of others. If you listen closely enough, many of the things you watch and read contain something about your experiences in life. Media is one way we learn to connect what we see with our own situations.

But it's never too late to start rewiring your brain. You're always learning new things, and choosing to incorporate new ideas is a choice you can make. Throughout this book, I will teach you how to change yourself in order to change your life and relationships. You are a huge part of all your relationships. Therefore, your perspective, behaviors, and expectations can often change how a relationship functions, even if the other person doesn't change.

You'll hear me repeat one concept in this book: You cannot change people. If I could have one superpower, it would be to change people. But none of us possess the power to change others. Nevertheless, it's the number one go-to solution when we have problems in relationships. After you read this book, I want you to walk away with the realization that changing you is enough.