Dysfunctional parents are pretty common, but sometimes the dysfunction can go beyond an occasional blow-up or a misunderstanding into complicated and damaging patterns that take more than a cup of tea and a chat to resolve.
The phrase “toxic parenting” was first popularized by psychologist Dr. Susan Forward in her book Toxic Parents, but the concept has been around for as long as parenting has existed.
The Dynamics of toxic parenting can be difficult to recognize, particularly for those children who still encounter their parents’ hurtful behavior regularly.
Some toxic parent situations are fairly obvious, but others are less evident.
Toxic parents can be intentionally malevolent, but more often, they’re just self-centered and don’t understand that their children have their own conflicting emotional needs and desires.
Here are seven signs that experts say are a guide to recognizing toxic parenting:
1) They Need Their Children To Take Care Of Them
The parent asking the child to be their parent, and to fix and support them. The technical term for this is having an emotionally immature parent.
It doesn’t refer to helping a parent if they’re disabled, or things like getting them food when they’re sick. Instead, it makes demands on the child’s emotional and physical energy to make the parent feel safe and loved — which is meant to be the parent’s job, or a two-way relationship between adult children and their parents.
2) Their Feelings Always Come Before Their Children’s
In a non-toxic situation, the feelings of all parties are rated and taken care of equally. One kind of toxicity, however, means that the feelings of the toxic person always dominate any situation — possibly because they’re the loudest and most volatile. “Their kids’ wants and needs are ignored or not thought to be important or are minimized.”
3) They’re Secretly Abusive
Toxicity may happen behind closed doors.
“Toxic parents may also be physically or emotionally abusive.” Abuse of any kind is often concealed, making it difficult for children to confide or reach out for support. Making a child complicit in the concealment of this abuse, while also subjecting them to its effects — embarrassment, isolation, the inability to trust a parent, a chaotic childhood environment — is a sign of toxicity.
4) They Create Unsafe Spaces
Toxic parents can put their children, adult or otherwise, in uncomfortable or even dangerous situations without any respect for their feelings or safety. “They may not keep their kids safe, or may make poor choices that put their kids in danger.”
This is a form of neglect that makes it clear that their child’s environment isn’t on the top of their priority list, if it’s present at all.
5) They Refuse To Let Their Children Grow Up
Toxic parents can resist the idea of children gaining autonomy. “They may struggle with kids leaving the home and living their own lives, like an extension of them is out in the world.”
People with these kinds of toxic parents are not allowed to grow up, and can see their adult decisions undermined and their lives controlled as they were when they were younger.
6) They Don’t Recognize Boundaries
Boundaries are important in every relationship, including between family members. Toxic parents, however, can often ignore them.
This means that even if there’s a clear stated no-go zone, the parent keeps crossing it, intentionally or without thinking about it. Assertion of the word ‘no’ — and knowing that it will be respected — can’t happen in this toxic family dynamic without a lot of push back.
7) They Scare Their Children
Adults who find that, despite their secure jobs, friendship groups, outside support and other trappings of independence, they still feel fear when their parents call may have experienced a toxic childhood.
They don’t really believe that their parents can’t hurt them, and retain the feelings and emotions of their childhood whenever a raised voice or potential argument threatens.
It’s one thing to be dipped in venom by those you don’t really care about, but when it’s by the person who is meant to love you, hold you, and take the sharp edges off the world, while teaching you with love, wisdom and warmth how to do it for yourself, it changes you.
There is a different kind of hurt that can only come from a toxic parent – someone who is meant to love you. Kind of like being broken from the inside out.
The scarring and hurt that comes from a toxic parent probably isn’t something we talk about enough.
Nothing is ever good enough. You get an A, they’ll want an A+. You get an A+, they’ll wonder why you aren’t a school captain. You make school captain, your sister would have been a better one. And you’ll never be pretty like her. They’ll push you down just to criticise you for the way you fall. That, or they’ll shove you off a cliff to show the world how well they catch you.
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well yeah, my parent/s did that, but only because it was true – I’m pretty useless at life,’ then chances are that parent was a toxic one.
I was recently having a conversation with my friend Jeremy, she told me that how she has faced this discrimination in her own life and family where her parents didn’t want to hurt her intentionally. But somehow used to always say something harsh that used to make her cry for days; she was constantly compared with her elder sister who was good in studies and co curricular activities.
They afterall wanted good for Jeremy but the way this message was delivered and nagging comparison used to destroy Jeremy’s faith in goodness. She used to hate her parents’ taunts and bizarre behaviour. A long pattern of this and continued progress in such behaviour can also put a person in trauma. Parents don’t even realise that!
It is possible to heal from toxic parenting. It begins with the decision that the legacy of shame and hurt left behind by a toxic parent won’t be the way your story will end.
How to heal?
The first and most important factor for adult children of toxic parents to realize is that they can only control their behaviors, they do not have the ability to change or control the behaviors their parents or parents choose to use.
Recognizing and accepting that the parent is toxic and is not willing to change allows you to have the freedom to consider your own needs. You have the ability to define the relationship to meet your emotional needs and to avoid subjecting yourself to negative, hostility, and toxicity in the attempt to “fix” the problem.
Boundaries. Setting boundaries or limits and clearly defining what you will accept and what you will not accept is crucial. Be clear in defining these boundaries, and limit contact with your parents to keep your time together positive and healthy.
Control the location. Setting the location for your interactions with the toxic parent is also a way to limit problem behaviors. Meeting in a public space allows you to leave if they do not respect your boundaries, and it also creates a neutral place where you are less likely to fall into old patterns of behavior, a common issue if you meet in the family home.
Self-care. Be kind to yourself. You do not need to spend every holiday or special event with your parents. Instead, spend time with people that are positive, make you feel great about yourself, and that encourage you to continue to be the wonderful person you are.
Talking to a therapist or counselor can also be instrumental in helping understand the impact toxic parents have had on your life and developing effective management strategies for the relationship going forward.
You have to go deep to see families’ hidden rules and emotional drivers. The deeper you go, the more you discover.
Hidden rules and underlying beliefs are the ones that drive attitudes, judgments and perceptions. These hidden rules and beliefs are often expressed in terms of “shoulds”, “oughts” and “supposed to’s”.
On the final level of communication, these beliefs can also be expressed as direct rules of what to do and what not to do.
In reasonably mature and caring families, the underlying beliefs and rules are formed in a direction where the feelings and needs of all family members are taken into consideration. The rules are reasonable and provide ethical and moral structure to a child’s development.
On the other hand, in toxic families the underlying beliefs and unwritten rules are almost always self-centered and self-serving in big favor of toxic parents.
Toxic parents make rules, judgments and inflict pain. That’s a hard truth to embrace.
Some people are in such utter darkness that they will burn you just to see a light. Try not to take it personally.
A toxic parent or caregiver may be willing to build a healthy relationship with an adult child — one in which their own problems don’t dominate the landscape.
Relationships can be rebuilt provided that everybody is willing to do the work to move forward.
A child, without toxic interference, will naturally become the person they are meant to be.
Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash