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What defines a toxic parent?

Toxic relationships include relationships with toxic parents. Typically, they do not treat their children with respect as individuals. They won’t compromise, take responsibility for their behaviour, or apologize. Often these parents have a mental disorder or a serious addiction. We all live with the consequences of poor parenting. However, if our childhood was traumatic, we carry wounds from abusive or dysfunctional parenting. When they haven’t healed, toxic parents can re-injure us in ways that make growth and recovery difficult. When we grow up with dysfunctional parenting, we may not recognize it as such. It feels familiar and normal. We may be in denial and not realize that we’ve been abused emotionally, particularly if our material needs were met.

Most parents genuinely do their best to provide their children with a happy and healthy upbringing. Still, even these individuals can accidentally make mistakes that may result in future therapy appointments.

Unfortunately, some parents go beyond the occasional mistake and veer into the toxic category. Regardless of whether or not a parent is purposefully toxic, there are several behaviours that can cause so much emotional and mental damage to a child that it ends up greatly affecting them even after they have grown up.

If you experienced any of the following situations as a child, the odds are high that one or both of your parents were at least slightly toxic.

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What is a toxic parent?

The term “toxic parent” is a bit nebulous, and we probably all define it differently. Often, narcissistic or those with other personality disorders or mental illnesses, abusive, emotionally immature, and alcoholic or addicted parents are labelled as toxic.

Young children, even those with toxic parents, assume that their parents are typical. Without any basis for comparison, you think other families operate by the same dysfunctional rules and that everyone’s parents are cruel, unavailable, or controlling. Eventually, however, you realize that emotionally healthy parents show genuine concern for their children’s feelings, encourage them to follow their dreams, apologize when they screw up, and talk about problems in a respectful way. You realize that your parents are different.

Toxic parents cause a lot of pain and lasting psychological problems for their children. The good news is that it’s possible to overcome the effects of toxic parents. The first step is to be aware of what it means to have a toxic parent and recognize the particular ways that your parents are dysfunctional or emotionally unhealthy.

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Signs Of A Toxic Parent That Many People Don’t Realize

They Fail To Provide You With Affirmation And Security

Some people believe that showing tough love is an important way to ensure that their children are able to take care of themselves in the future. If you were the recipient of this approach regularly, you might even believe that this has had a positive impact on your life. However, if you practically fall apart now because of any perceived failure or rejection, then this most likely stems from a parent’s toxic refusal to provide you with the right amount of security and affirmation while you were young. Tough love might work sometimes, but it cannot be the only approach a parent takes if they want their child to become a well-rounded adult.

They Are Overly Critical

Everyone’s parents criticize from time to time. Without this component, we might never learn how to do numerous things properly, such as everyday chores like washing laundry. A toxic parent takes this to extremes by being overly critical about everything their child does. Parents can make the mistake of believing that they do this to make sure their children avoid making costly mistakes. Unfortunately, what this behaviour does is causing the child to develop a harsh inner critic that can be borderline crippling during adulthood.

They Demand Your Attention

Toxic parents often turn their children into their parental substitutes by demanding their attention at all times. This can be seen as bonding between the parent and child, but it is a parasitic relationship that requires too much of the child’s time and energy when they should be focused on learning other skills. Although it may be difficult at times, a well-rounded parent will allow their children enough space to grow and be kids without demanding constant interaction to suit their own needs.

They Make Toxic “Jokes” About You

All parents occasionally pick on their children, but when the so-called jokes become commonplace, this can be a huge problem. You do not need to accept this type of behaviour just because your parents have always joked about something, such as your height or weight. Ultimately, this is an undermining tactic that can make you feel very badly about yourself. If a parent has a legitimate concern to address with their child, they should be honest and non-critical, as opposed to making mean jokes.

They Cause You To Justify Terrible Behavior

Did you grow up believing that your parents were physically or emotionally abusive to you because you deserved it? If so, you may still be justifying the terrible behaviour of others at your own expense. Toxic parents can twist any situation to suit their needs, and this leaves children with two choices: accept that their parent is wrong or internalize all of the blame. In most cases, children, even those who are adults now, choose the latter option.

They Do Not Allow You To Express Negative Emotions

Parents who refuse to nurture their child’s emotional needs and make light of their negative emotions are setting up a future where the child will feel unable to express what they need. There is nothing wrong with helping children see the positive side of any situation. However, being completely dismissive of a child’s negative feelings and emotional needs can lead to depression and make it more difficult for them to handle negativity as adults appropriately.

They Scare Even Their Adult Children

Respect and fear do not need to go hand-in-hand. Children who feel loved, supported, and connected are much more likely to be happy as adults. Although the discipline of some sort will inevitably be necessary from time to time, non-toxic parents do not use highly fearful actions and words that are permanently damaging to the human psyche. Children should not need to be afraid to be respectful, and adults should not need to end up feeling anxious each time their parent calls or emails.

They Always Put Their Feelings First

Parents may believe that their feelings should come first during family matters, but this is an antiquated way of thinking that is not going to foster positive relationships. Even though parents do need to make the final decision about everything from dinner to vacation plans, it is necessary to consider the feelings of every family member — including the children. Toxic individuals constantly force children to suppress their feelings in order to appease their parents.

They Co-Opt Your Goals

Did one of your parents become interested in everything you were doing to the point where they took over or even duplicated you? This can seem like the actions of someone interested in their child’s life, but what it often does is making it harder for the child to meet their goals. For example, if you have to sell 50 boxes of cookies at the same time that your mother decides to make cookies and pass them out to the neighbours, it is going to be a lot harder to hit your sales goal. This behaviour can derail you throughout your entire life if you allow your parents to keep getting away with it.

They Use Guilt And Money To Control You

Every child has experienced a guilt trip from their parents, but toxic individuals resort to this tactic on a regular basis. Even as an adult, your parents might still be controlling you by giving you expensive gifts and then expecting something in return. If you fail to do as they want, they will then try to make you feel guilty about it because of “everything they have done for you.” Healthy parents know that children do not owe them a specific response in exchange for money or gifts, especially when these items were not asked for in the first place.

They Give You The Silent Treatment

It can be hard to talk to someone when you are angry, but shutting out a child with silent treatment is very damaging and immature. Dishing out this passive-aggressive treatment hurts any relationship and makes the recipient feel pressured into fixing the situation, even when they didn’t do anything wrong. If a parent is too mad to have a rational conversation, they should excuse themselves for a few minutes instead of blatantly ignoring their child.

They Ignore Healthy Boundaries

Parents can justify keeping a close eye on their children and, in certain situations, it may even be necessary to do a bit of snooping to keep them safe. However, everyone needs to be able to set boundaries for themselves, especially teenagers. Parents who are toxic override these boundaries at every turn and this causes numerous problems. For example, a toxic parent will open their child’s door without knocking first. This sets up a pattern that makes it hard for their children to recognize and understand boundaries later in life properly.

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They Make You Responsible For Their Happiness

If one of your parents spent a lot of time telling you how much they gave up for you in connection with their unhappiness, then they were placing unrealistic expectations on your role in their life. No child should be held accountable for their parent’s happiness. Also, parents should never demand that children give up things that make them happy in order to even out the score. Being forced into this situation will make it difficult for adult children to understand that we are all responsible for our happiness.

Removing toxic people from your life may seem impossible, especially if one of them is a parent. Unless you take action, though, it will be much harder to correct the emotional and psychological damage that was done to you during your childhood.

How to heal from a toxic parent

It’s okay to let go of a toxic parent.

This is such a difficult decision, but it could be one of the most important. We, humans, are wired to connect, even with people who don’t deserve to be connected to us. Sometimes though, the only way to stop the disease spreading is to amputate. It doesn’t matter how much you love some people, and they are broken to the point that they will only keep damaging you from the inside out. You’re not responsible for them or the state of your relationships with them, and you are under no obligation to keep lining yourself up to be abused, belittled, shamed or humiliated. Healing starts with expecting more for yourself, and you’re the only person who can make that decision. 

And it’s okay not to.

Don’t be harsh on yourself if you stay in the relationship. The act of returning to an abusive relationship can set trigger self-loathing. ‘Why aren’t I strong enough?’ Know that loyalty is such an admirable trait, even if it gets in the way of your capacity to protect yourself. Own where you are and give yourself full permission to be there. Accept that for now, this is where you’re at, and fully experience what that’s like for you. You’ll never love yourself enough to change your expectations if you’re flogging yourself for not being strong enough. It takes tremendous strength to keep walking into a relationship that you know is going to hurt you. When you’re ready, you’ll make a move to do something differently. For now, though, wherever you are is okay.

Be honest about the possibilities.

If you’re going to stay, know that it’s okay to put a boundary between yourself and your parent. You can act from love and kindness if you want to – but don’t stay in the relationship unless you can accept that the love you deserve will never come back to you. Ever. If it were going to, it would have reached you by now. See their behaviour for what it is – evidence of their breaks, not evidence of yours. Put a forcefield around yourself and let their abuse bounce off. Love yourself and respect yourself enough to fill the well that they bleed dry. They might not be capable of giving you the love and respect you deserve, but you are.

Be careful of repeating the patterns with other people

You might find yourself drawn to people who have similarities to your toxic parent. There’s a really good reason for this. All of us are driven to find an ending to things that remain unresolved. Because love, warmth and nurturing are such an important part of child development, yet so elusive for the child of a toxic parent, it’s very normal for those children to be driven to find a resolution to never feeling loved, secure or good enough. They will look to receive what they didn’t get from their parents in others and will often be drawn to people who have similarities to their toxic parent. With similar people, the patterns will be easier to replicate, and the hope of an ending closer to the desired one – parent love – will be easier to fulfil. That’s the theory. The pattern often does repeat, but because of the similarities to the parent, so does the unhappy ending.

Own your right to love and respect.

One of the greatest acts of self-love is owning your right to love and respect from the people you allow close to you. You’re completely entitled to set the conditions for your relationships, as other people are to set the conditions for theirs. We all have to treat those we love with kindness, generosity and respect if we want the same back. If those conditions aren’t met, you’re allowed to close the door. You’re allowed to slam it closed behind them if you want to.

Be careful of your toxic behaviour.

You’ve been there, so you know the behaviours, and you know what they do. We’re all human. We’re all going to get it wrong sometimes. Toxic behaviour though is habitual, and it will damage the members of your little tribe as surely as it damaged you. You don’t have to be a product of the inept, cruel parenting that was shown to you, and this starts with the brave decision that the cycle stops at you. People who do this, who refuse to continue a toxic legacy, are courageous, heroic, and they change the world. We’re here to build amazing humans, not to tear them down. How many lives could have been different if your parent was the one who decided that enough was enough?

You’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to do it on your own.

You may have been lead to believe that you’re not enough – not smart enough, beautiful enough, funny enough, strong enough capable enough. The truth is that you are so enough. It’s crazy how enough you are. Open yourself up to the possibility of this and see what happens. You don’t need to depend on anyone, and making mistakes doesn’t make you a loser. It never has. That’s something you’ve been lead to believe by a parent who never supported you or never gave you permission to make mistakes sometimes. Make them now. Make plenty. Heaps. Give yourself full permission to try and miss. There will be hits, and there will be misses. You don’t even know what you’re capable of because you’ve never been encouraged to find out. You’re stronger than you think you are, braver, better and smarter than you think you are, and now is your time to prove it to yourself.

Write a list. (And get yourself a rubber band.)

Write down the beliefs that hold you back. The ones that get in your way and stop you from doing what you want to do, saying what you want to say or being who you want to be. Were you brought up to believe your opinion doesn’t count? Are that parent always right? That you’re unlovable? Unimportant? Stupid? Annoying? Incapable? Worthless?

Now beside each belief, write what that belief is costing you. Has it cost you relationships? Happiness? Freedom to be? To experiment? To explore? Then, rewrite the script. Thoughts drive feelings, behaviour, what you expect for yourself and what you expect from relationships and world. How are you going to change those beliefs? Just choose one or two to start with and every time you catch yourself thinking the old thoughts, actively replace it with a new, more self-nurturing thought – then act as though that new thought is true. You don’t have to believe it – pretend it is. Your head will catch up when it’s ready.

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Build yourself up.

Toxic environments are toxic to the brain – we know that with absolute certainty. The human brain is incredibly adaptive, and in response to a toxic environment, it will shut down so as to protect itself as much as it can from the toxicity. When this happens, as it does during prolonged periods of emotional stress, the rate at which the brain produces new neurons (neurogenesis) slows right down, ultimately making people vulnerable to anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, reduced immunity, loss of vitality, reduced resilience to stress, and illness (research has shown that migraine and other pain conditions are more prevalent in people who were brought up in abusive environments, though the exact reason for the relationship is unclear).

I’m a firm believer in practising daily gratitude as a way to stay positive. A gratitude journal helps me to enjoy my kids more, especially on those daunting days. I’ve also noticed that I tend to be much more pleasant and accepting of all that’s going on in my life when I practise regular self-care like being mindful of engaging in positive self-talk.

Breaking free of a toxic parent is hard, but hard has never meant impossible. With the deliberate decision to move forward, there are endless turns your story can take. Brave, extraordinary, unexpected turns that will lead you to a happier, fuller life. It’s what you’ve always deserved. Be open to the possibilities of you. There are plenty.

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