House, not a home: Navigating toxic families in Singapore

Celest Teo explores the struggles faced by youths when it comes to escaping toxic households, and how they can navigate their daily realities.

Image from iStock



Celest Teo

Hype Issue #56

Published on
December 2, 2022

Family. Many of us associate this term with comfort, safety, and love, but to some, the topic of family might be one that strikes a nerve. While issues of physical abuse and domestic  violence are often discussed in Singapore, how frequently do we take into consideration cases of verbal abuse and toxic parenting?

In a toxic household, family members do not necessarily have to inflict physical harm on one another. Rather, they may perform actions that hurt each other emotionally, dealing much harm to family harmony. These actions may include verbal abuse, gaslighting, and manipulation.

Evan (not his real name), 20, has lived in a toxic household for all his life. For as long as he can remember, he has been subjected to controlling and abusive behaviour from his mother. He recalls an instance in primary school in which his mother called him “blind” for being slow in catching up with certain topics, or referred to him as the “worst kid ever” for forgetting to help her with chores.

Even today, Evan still deals with controlling and toxic actions from his mother. He says: “I was under CCTV surveillance as a kid, and today, at 20 years old, I’m still having my locations tracked. Sometimes I would take a bus to a shopping mall and she would track me. When she does, she’ll get angry that I took a bus instead of walking. I’m a grown adult and can barely make my own decisions.”

I’m a grown adult and can barely make my own decisions.

- Evan, 20

Evan also laments that his mother is seemingly disinterested in his milestones and accomplishments as she has never attended a single graduation of his, yet is hyper critical of even the most trivial lapses in his attention to her well-being, such as when she lost her temper when she forgot to ask her how her day went.

This problem is especially pressing for youths who may be reliant on their families for housing and financial support. Additionally, in a country as expensive and conservative as Singapore, the idea of leaving the nest is frowned upon.

The impact on mental health

The constant exposure to toxic behaviour within the household can have serious impacts on the mental health of a youth. Image taken from Adobe Stock.

Being constantly surrounded by negativity at home could affect an individual’s mental health. With youths often having to spend time at home with family members that cause them distress, their mental health and well-being may be affected over time. A 2021 study by the Faculty of Health Studies at the University of Sarajevo concluded that the family environment in which an individual is raised has a significant impact on their mental health.

A separate study published in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine in 2021 found a link between family dysfunction and depression.

Evan’s experiences with his mother have impacted his social abilities and caused him to develop trust issues. He details how his mother has constantly told him how she “wants to kick him out of the house”, see him “die in a ditch”, and for him to “not be her child anymore”.

“I’m spiteful and easily [angered]. My mum gave me a lot of pent up aggression. I get scared easily with loud noises and touching or [just by] people standing next to me without me knowing.”  

Difficulties in housing

You may have seen American television dramas where the disgruntled teenager moves out of their family home and rents a shoddy apartment to get some personal space. Unfortunately in Singapore, leaving the nest is not an easy task to accomplish.

Singapore’s public housing scheme makes it such that individuals have to be either married or at least 35 years old in order to be eligible to apply for a new or resale flat. To a youth living in a toxic household, these conditions make it almost impossible for them to secure their own housing away from their families.

An alternative option for youths would be to rent a room leased by owners of HDB and condominium units, but even that comes with its own difficulties. Youths must be at least 18 years old to sign a Tenancy Agreement, which presents difficulty to those younger who are in toxic households nonetheless.

Even for those aged 18 and above, the monthly rent for a HDB room can cost anywhere between $500 to $1,000, which may not be feasible for youths facing financial difficulties.

The value of filial piety

Another issue that makes it harder for youths to escape their toxic families is the value of traditional family values and loyalty to blood in Singapore. With traditional beliefs being held to a high regard in many local households, the act of moving out or distancing oneself from their parents may be seen as ‘unfilial’. 

The concept of filial piety is one that is largely enforced in traditional Singapore culture, with an expectation being placed on youths to repay their parents in the future through different means, be it taking care of them in their old age or providing financial support, regardless of how they were brought up.

Evan speaks about his own experience with this, saying: ”My mum forcefully instilled [in me] the idea of having to be filial and take care of parents. She would regularly ask me, ‘When you grow up, will you take care of us? When you grow up, will you give us money? Remember if you don’t give us money, you’re ungrateful’.”

Youths distancing themselves and breaking away from their toxic households may be viewed as taboo in the eyes of traditionalist parents, making it all the more difficult for them to escape.

So how can youths help themselves?

Living in a toxic household may seem like a helpless situation to some youths, but measures can be taken for them to navigate these struggles. 

Firstly, youths living in toxic families can find a trusted adult figure in their social circle. For example, they may wish to approach their school teachers, relatives and friends to share their concerns. For professional advice, youths may seek assistance from Social Service Agencies (SSAs) such as YouthGo and New Life Community Services.

In regard to protecting their mental wellness, Goh Jian Yun, a Senior Social Worker from THK Family Service Centre @ Jurong, advises youths to find healthy activities that interest them or pick up new skills and hobbies in order for them to have an avenue to share their stressors and worries that they are currently facing.

Journaling is an activity that Jian Yun recommends. “It manages their mental well-being, especially for youths who do not have much social support,” he adds.

If a youth under the age of 18 is concerned about their safety within a household, they may opt to call the Child Protection Service Hotline at 1800-777-0000.

For youths under the age of 21 who may be facing neglect or abuse, they may also reach out to Children’s Homes for temporary shelter, such as Gracehaven, Melrose Home and Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home.

Meanwhile, peers of youths living in toxic households can help by lending a listening ear and being non-judgemental and empathetic. If the youth is at risk and is unwilling to seek help, peers can help by reporting the problem to a trusted adult like a teacher or a school counsellor.

While living in a toxic household may seem like a helpless situation given the struggles and limitations that youths have to endure and overcome, there are always avenues for them to seek help and relieve themselves from the stress caused by their family members. Though the days may be tough, things will get better.

If you or anyone you know are living in toxic households, here are a few hotlines to call for advice or support.

 ComCare Hotline (7am – 12am daily): 1800-222-0000

National CARE Hotline (8am-8pm daily): 1800-202-6868

Samaritans of Singapore Hotline (24hrs): 1-767