Parents aren’t perfect, and making a bad decision every now and again is an unfortunate but normal part of raising children. However, if a parent is consistently negative in their behaviour and these mistakes become routine, this crosses the line into toxic parenting.
Many of us have a few painful memories from childhood, but what about if childhood was a constant stream of hurt feelings and negativity? The term “toxic” has become widely used in discussions about mental health to describe problematic, psychologically damaging behaviour. In toxic parenting, one or both parents engage in consistent behaviours that result in long-term negative impacts for their children, often persisting into adulthood.
Typically rooted in mental health issues and/or generational patterns of learned behaviour, toxic parenting is typically a symptom of a deeper issue, and an indicator that the adult needs to seek professional help. Similarly, for children of toxic parents, the psychological damage wreaked by this type of parenting often necessitates therapeutic support. Understanding what toxic parenting looks like and identifying its effects can start a process of recognition and redressing these behaviours.
Types of Toxic Parenting Behaviour
While it is normal to make some mistakes as a parent, a line is crossed when these mistakes become consistent patterns of negative behaviour. Over time, these behaviours can leave deep emotional scars on children, and lower their potential to have healthy, mutually beneficial relationships in the future.
Shaming and Sarcasm
Shame has profound effects on our sense of self-worth, and even isolated incidents of shame can live long in our memories. In toxic parenting, shame is used repeatedly by a parent to discipline or demoralise a child in both home-based and public settings. This is often devastating to a child’s self-esteem, and the effects of this can persist well into adulthood.
Sarcasm in parenting can also be part of shaming. It is humour with a bite, and in toxic parenting, it is the child that gets bitten. Consistent patterns of sarcastic behaviour often leave children feeling hurt, ashamed, and like their feelings or frustrations don’t matter.
Another pattern of toxic parenting behaviour is a regular lack of acceptance of personal responsibility. This can include refusals to own up to mistakes, take part in normal parenting activities, or acknowledge poor reactions or behaviour. With this type of toxic parenting, blame for such bad behaviour is usually shifted onto the child. Some examples of this are:
- “The whole reason we got lost is because you wouldn’t be quiet while I was driving. It’s your fault.”
- “Why should I help you with your homework? That’s your business, I have nothing to do with that.”
- “If you hadn’t made me so mad, I wouldn’t have smacked you. It’s you who needs to change!”
Hashing out differences with a spouse is a normal part of a relationship, and when done in the right way, can set up a strong example for children on how to handle conflict and disagreement. Unfortunately, in toxic parenting, parents tend to have bitter, nasty, destructive arguments that often occur right in front of the kids. Whether it’s an unbridled screaming match or a hostile round of the silent treatment, the result is not only a persistent high-stress environment that draws children into unproductive arguments as well, but a terrible model for communicating differences.
Abuse and dysfunction thrive in secrecy and denial, and so it’s little surprise that this behaviour is a hallmark of toxic parenting. Children may be told to keep secrets about something abusive that was done to them, or about something they have seen or heard that was problematic. For example, children may be told not to tell another person that they saw their parents drinking or using drugs, or that they saw a parent engaged in an affair. In a situation where a child was abused, they may be told not to tell anyone else and “just forget about it.” Secrets such as these force children to go along with things that they can often sense are wrong and destructive, and exposes them to further harm.
Treating Kids Like Adults
In this type of toxic parenting, the boundaries that ensure positive expressions of individuality and a feeling of security in families are gone, leaving kids to support their parents emotionally. Also known as enmeshment or “covert incest,” parents task their children with making decisions or weighing in on adult issues, discuss inappropriate topics, and fail to recognise a child’s need for space and independence within the family unit. In cases where parents are mentally ill or have substance abuse disorder, children may also be responsible for ensuring a parent eats, showers, or goes to work. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on the child and can hamper their own personal development, and can lead to dysfunctional and codependent relationships with others as adults.
Forbidding Kids to Have Their Own Feelings
Not allowing children to express their feelings, or belittling their feelings, is another seriously damaging form of toxic parenting. This type of toxic parenting can come out in statements like:
- You’re not really upset over not going to your friend’s house, you are just trying to make me feel bad.
- No one cares that you are sad, so stop crying.
- I wasn’t asking for your opinion. We are doing things my way.
- What’s your problem? There’s nothing for you to get mad about, get over it.
Teaching kids that their emotions are unimportant or that they don’t know their own feelings sets the stage for serious challenges with self-esteem and self-understanding as adults.
What to Do When You Are a Toxic Parent
If you are seeing yourself in any of the descriptions of toxic behaviour, this is an uncomfortable but important moment where growth and healing can occur. Here are a few key things you can do immediately to start to constructively reflect on your behaviour and begin to change it:
- Make a list of things that you can see are problematic about your behaviour or reactions, and how you’d like to behave instead.
- Prioritise what you want to start with.
- When faced with that situation, focus on disarming your habitual reaction and practising a new response.
- Afterwards, ask yourself was this effective? Did you feel better about how you responded? Remember that it can take time to adjust patterns of behaviour, and your child’s response also may take some time to shift as well, as they have been conditioned by you to expect a certain type of toxic behaviour or reaction.
Many parents aren’t behaving in a toxic way because they want to, but because there are significant and painful unresolved issues of their own that are driving their actions and reactions. These issues must be professionally addressed not only to protect the mental health and wellbeing of your children, but also to improve these things for yourself.
What to Do When You Are the Child of a Toxic Parent
For adult children of toxic parents, it’s important to lay down clear boundaries that can help you take back some control and limit the interactions you have with them. Boundaries can be drawn around any number of situations or topics, but need to be communicated clearly, firmly, and enforced consistently. This can include, for example:
- Setting aside a weekly time for phone calls, instead of fielding calls all day long
- Immediately ending an interaction if your parent uses insults or begins blaming you for things
- Not attending certain family events
In childhood, your boundaries were likely continuously violated by a toxic parent, and so it may feel challenging or strange to set boundaries as an adult. Professional support can be very helpful in identifying areas where boundaries are needed, reflecting on and processing the impacts of toxic parenting, and creating new patterns and ways to move forward.
Breaking the Cycle at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab offers highly customised residential treatment programmes in Thailand for people looking to understand and overcome their challenges, heal past traumas, and discover new peace and personal growth. Our compassionate, internationally-trained team of professionals works with you to create a treatment plan based on your unique needs and goals for yourself, and incorporates both psychotherapeutic components as well as proven wellness practices for holistic, lasting results.
Call us today to learn more about how we can help you break free from the cycle of toxic parenting.