For more information about toxic parents and your inner child, read: Discovering Your Inner Child: Transforming Toxic Patterns and Finding Your Joy, a book by Asha Hawkesworth. You can read part of the preface here.
This information reflects my own experience with toxic parents, and the experience of others I know with toxic parents. It is not meant to be comprehensive or all-inclusive, and I am not a psychologist or therapist. This information is meant to help other children of toxic parents.
What is a toxic parent?
A toxic parent fails to meet the physical, mental, or emotional needs of their children in some way. They also fail to provide a safe environment for their children. This can mean that the child is physically abused or neglected (basic needs are not met, they are not adequately supervised or disciplined; children who “run wild” are as neglected as those who are micro-managed). An unsafe environment, however, can also mean that the child is mentally or emotionally unsafe in the home.
If a child does not feel free to express themselves, if they must “hide” themselves, if they fear ridicule or humiliation, if they can never measure up or please the parent, then they are emotionally and mentally unsafe in their own home. This is a classic by-product of a toxic parent.
On the other hand, a “good” parent is one who may mistakes, but who looks after the physical, emotional, and mental needs of their children. A good parent praises a child and provides constructive feedback. A good parent does not attempt to “tear down” their child in order to make themselves feel better. A good parent understands the importance of structure and boundaries. A toxic parent is rarely capable of providing either of these.
Of course, a toxic parent can appear to be very loving—even downright needy. But in this relationship, the toxic parent assumes the role of the child and expects the child to fulfill all their needs. The child can’t accomplish this, so they feel like a failure. “Needy” parents who expect validation from their children, or who expect their children to “take care” of them in some way, are just as toxic as those who are more outwardly abusive.
Parents who are neglectful and overly passive are also toxic parents. An ignored child is an abused child. And the parent who stands by while another parent abuses the child is a partner in the abuse.
Types of toxic parents
There are all types of toxic parents, more than I could possibly include here, but in general they look like everybody else. From the outside, they may appear to be model parents. Inside the home, however, things are not “all right.”
A toxic parent was often abused themselves as children, and in some cases, the parent may actually be mentally ill, but undiagnosed. The toxic parent may suffer from:
- Alcoholism or drug addiction (illegal OR prescription)—Addictions become gods in themselves, and they become the primary goal and focus of the addict. Everything else is secondary—including children. An alcoholic’s toxic behavior (an easily triggered temper, low self-esteem, hurtful behavior, a need to be constantly validated), can occur with people who no longer drink or who drink very little or not at all, however. This is called dry drunk behavior, and it is a pattern of coping that is often learned by the child of an alcoholic parent. Toxic behavior from a drug addict is very similar to an alcoholic’s. It is also not unusual for an addicted parent to try to offload their guilt onto their children by encouraging them to become addicts as well. Children of addicts are at a high risk for becoming addicted themselves.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder—Also known as sociopaths or psychopaths, these people are extremely abusive and can be dangerous. On the outside, however, they often appear to be very charming, attractive, intelligent, and successful. They often rise to positions of power and prestige. And yet, they have no sense of compassion or caring for others and only seek to fulfill their own needs or wishes—even at the expense of others. If they feel that someone has “crossed” them or is interfering with their wants or needs, they may “go cold” and frighten the person they feel has crossed them. If you cross a person with this disorder, they typically seek retribution and will make you pay for it when they find the perfect opportunity.
- Bipolar Disorder—People with Bipolar Disorder suffer from extreme mood swings, and in the past this was called Manic-Depressive Disorder. Without treatment, a person who suffers from Bipolar Disorder may experience giddy highs when they are full of energy and ready to cheerfully take on the world. Yet, an ocean of anger may lie beneath this cheerful mask, and it can flare up instantly if the person feels crossed. After the “high” period comes a period of dark depression that is immobilizing. People with this disorder can display very erratic behaviors that can be damaging to a child. They are not in control of their reactions to the world, and even with the help of medication, they may still battle mood swings.
- Borderline Personality Disorder—People with BPD do not have a strong sense of self. As a result, they often take on the characteristics of the people they are around, sort of like “human chameleons”—they adapt themselves to mirror the personalities of the people in the room. People with BPD are frequently intelligent and distinguish themselves in their chosen careers, but in their interpersonal relationships, they experience extreme shifts in moods and have a hard time controlling the expression of their feelings. For example, they may express their anger in ways that most people would consider to be extreme: screaming, using foul language, saying hurtful things. And when they are happy, they are very, very happy. When the emotional weather changes from sunny high noon to darkest night at the drop of a hat, it’s very confusing and damaging to a young child. Children with a borderline parent may blame themselves for their parent’s unpredictable moods.
- Depression—Depression is crippling. A depressed person can barely hold it together to take care of themselves, much less a child. Depressed people have trouble meeting basic needs, sleep a lot, have suicidal thoughts, and are generally apathetic toward the world. Fortunately, treatment is available, but the burden typically falls to the depressed person to seek it out.
- Histrionic Personality Disorder—People with this disorder crave attention, and they bring it to themselves by being overly dramatic and “stirring the pot” to create conflict. A peaceful, loving environment is not their goal. At its worst, histrionics will manipulate the people they love to create problems where none existed before, allowing them to be “the hero” amid the chaos they have created.
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder—People with this disorder have strange, compulsive behaviors that they must do to perfection. For example, a person may have a need to straighten all the pictures in a room when they enter it. Howard Hughes famously suffered from this, and he washed his hands so frequently that they bled. These compulsions are a cover for extreme anxieties, and performing these actions soothes the person with the disorder and helps keep them sane. Medication may help this disorder.
- Obsessive-compulsive Personality Disorder—People with OCPD are perfectionists and workaholics who are often highly educated and have prestigious careers. The need to be perfect is a crippling disease. This issue inevitably makes its way into The Family Myth, in which the whole family is required to be seen as “perfect” and “keep up” with the person who has this disorder. No one can live up to such high expectations, so children of people with OCPD may feel like failures or refuse to try new things or take risks for fear of failing. Some children may come to believe wholeheartedly in The Family Myth and therefore have a hard time seeing and understanding their own or their family’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, this trait is all too easily passed from one generation to the next. Sometimes OCPD is a symptom of another disorder, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder—Narcissists lack compassion and empathy. They are critical and contemptuous of others, lack a sense of humor, cannot recognize their true feelings, have a poor memory, are competitive, and contradict themselves often. They live in a fantasy world in which they have absolute power, beauty, and genius, which they expect everyone to recognize. Your memory of events and the narcissist’s memory will seldom match, because the narcissist has already rewritten events in their head in order to see themselves in a better light. Narcissists will be your best friend if you agree with their fantasies about themselves, but failing to validate them (by disagreeing with them) brings swift retribution. They are very quick to stab you in the back. Children of narcissists grow up believing that everything that is wrong in the relationship is due to their own failure—never the narcissist’s. Often, children of narcissists either come to believe in the narcissist’s fantasy, or they see the truth and disagree, making them the target of the narcissist’s wrath. Narcissists are emotionally and verbally abusive, and sometimes resort to physical abuse as well.
- Rageaholism—Rage makes children (and adults) feel completely unsafe. When a parent’s rage is directed at you as a child, your whole world feels dangerous. And when you never know when the volcano will erupt, you are walking on eggshells all of your life. Children of rageaholics often learn to “fly under the radar” so that they don’t get noticed, which decreases their chances of being the target of a rage. Such “survival mode” skills see the child through to adulthood, but they can get in the way of goals and dreams later.
That being said, none of these labels may apply, and you may still have a toxic parent. Just having very low self-esteem is generally enough to create some toxic behavior.
Is my parent toxic?
This question has been answered in many places, but in general, if you answer “yes” to one or more of these, you may have toxic parents:
- Do you often feel frustrated after talking to your parents?
- Do you often feel angry with your parents, even if you’re not sure why?
- After interacting with your parents, do you often feel worse about yourself?
- Do you feel unheard by your parents?
- Do you feel like your parents don’t care about your feelings?
- Do you feel “punished” for having a different opinion than your parents do?
- Do your parents punish you by withdrawing their love?
- Do your parents frequently criticize you or make fun of you?
- Do your parents use derogatory language when they talk about you (i.e., call you stupid, dumb, ugly, etc.)?
- Do your parents often excuse their actions by blaming you for them, or by saying that they are only doing things for your own good?
- Do your parents try to control your life, even though you are an adult?
- Do you feel that your parents dislike you?
Becoming an adult in the relationship
If you’re like most people, you’re tired of feeling like a 6-year-old whenever you go home to visit your parents. How do you change that? The only person you have control of is you. To change your family dynamic, you must change yourself. This will take time, patience, and hard work on your part.
In order to be an adult, you must learn how to make your own decisions without caring about what your parents are going to say. If you decide that you want to quit your job and become an artist, then do it. If your parents complain, you will have to learn how to disengage before it becomes an argument. Just say, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but this is what I have to do.” End of discussion. If they attempt to pull you in to another argument (and they will), you must remain firm in your decision to end the discussion. Toxic parents are masters of trying to use “logic” to convince you why they are right, and you are wrong. The only way you can deal with this is to stop engaging in the argument. You don’t have to prove ANYTHING to your parents.
Basically, to be an adult, you must take responsibility for yourself. You must be ok with not having their approval, because you probably won’t get it. You may need to mourn the fact that you will never get this. What child doesn’t want their parents’ approval? But you’re NOT a 6-year-old any more, you’re a grown-up, so you can move through this.
It really helps to be able to take a few steps back from your parents. View them objectively, as your peers. View them as the fallible human beings they are. Why are they toxic? They probably endured toxic upbringings themselves. You can have compassion for that, but know this: their misery is not your responsibility. Their happiness is not your responsibility. They have every opportunity to heal from your past, as you have from yours.
As you are able to detach from your parents, to de-tangle yourself from the daily Family Drama, you will become the adult you want to be. But be aware that when you start this process, you will change the energy in your family. You are changing the family dynamic, and this will feel uncomfortable to everyone who is invested in it. Your family will work even harder to pull you back in to your old role, whether you were the peacemaker, the “good kid,” or the family dumping ground. Some family members may even turn on you. Be prepared to stand your ground. If you give in, nothing will change, and you will severely impair or halt your healing process. Healing requires courage. No matter what happens, you are never alone, and the people who matter the most in the long run may not be from your family of origin.
As you stand up for yourself, and disengage from the Family Drama, something remarkable will happen: you will begin to recover your long-lost self-esteem. You will be able to walk the road to your happiness.
Can I have a relationship with a toxic parent?
The real question here is probably, “Can I have a good relationship with a toxic parent?” And the answer, sadly, is probably not. If you have a toxic parent, they are not capable of having a good relationship. If they were, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. So you have to ask yourself: What am I willing to put up with to have a relationship with a toxic parent? Depending on the answer, you will know what to do.
You may be able to heal and have a relationship with your parents if they are willing to go to counseling with you. If they will meet you even partway, there is hope. It won’t work, however, if everything rests on your shoulders. That isn’t fair, and of course, it means nothing will change on their side. In that case, just know in yourself that your parents are the ones with the problem, not you. Learn how to stand up for yourself using non-combative language. “I” language is typically best: “I feel bad when you say things like that to me.” This works a lot better than saying, “You’re really hurtful.” It puts the burden on you instead of on them. “I feel…” Depending on the parent, this may help to defuse some of the drama. If they are willing to go to counseling with you, it may even help your parents to find a new way to communicate with you.
On the other hand, all of the self-esteem, sense of personal responsibility, and “I” language in the world may not help you deal with some parents. Some toxic parents will simply adjust to the changes in you to find new ways of putting you down and making you crazy. Those who are physically abusive or suffer from personality disorders, in particular, are tough cases, and you will probably just have to accept that they are mentally ill, and nothing you can do will help you to have a normal, loving relationship with them. In these cases, you may choose not to have a relationship with them at all. Cutting off the toxic parents becomes an act of self-preservation, and in some cases, it is the only solution.
Dealing with people who don’t understand
The lucky people who have loving, nurturing parents are unlikely to understand the pain that comes with having toxic parents. Your best friend in the world may look at you skeptically when you describe a “normal” interaction in your family. Likely, they will think you are exaggerating, and that you are simply at odds with your parents.
Worse still, if you find that you need to severely limit or cut off contact with your parents, your friends may look at you as if there is something wrong with you. “There must be something wrong with you to be so cruel to your poor mother/father,” they may think. And this would be understandable—if we were talking about normal parents.
Toxic parents are generally very skilled at keeping the family secrets. They put on a good front, as a normal, happy, upright family—perhaps even pillars in the community. Your toxic parent may charm the pants off of perfect strangers, your friends, and more distant relatives. All of which just appears to make you out to be the bad guy.
Again, though, you have no control over what the rest of the world does or thinks. You must look after yourself. No one else is going to do it for you. If you need to cut off your parents, then cut them off. Your real friends will not abandon you. The people who really care will support you. And other children of toxic parents will support you, too.
One of the best things you can do for yourself, to get validation for your feelings and to be able to heal, is to find a group of people who have been affected by toxic parents and share your story. Then listen to their stories. You will find more similarities than differences. This will truly help you to understand that it was never about you. Your parents’ rage, animosity, venom, whatever it was, was always about them. You are blameless. The only thing you are responsible for now is your own healing.
I list a few groups on The Inner Child page. This is a small starting place, and there are many other groups out there. If you know of a good one that has been helpful for you, by all means, send me the link.
Healing from a toxic parent
You can heal from a toxic background, but you must be willing to do the work. It is also advisable to find someone to help you, who can be objective and tell you the truth. You should feel safe with this person or person. Therapists and mental health professionals, energy healers, life coaches, and members of the clergy are all good starting places. You may need to try more than one to find the right person or methodology.
Be open to the process and allow yourself to be guided. If you start down this path and find that it is scaring you to death, then you are probably on the right road. Healing is scary, because it feels unfamiliar. Be brave. Be courageous. You can survive, and you can heal.
When God is a toxic parent