There are people in your life who will lift you up and give you support whenever you need it. And there may be others who delight in tearing you down or causing you pain.
It can be particularly disheartening and challenging when a toxic person like this also happens to be your parent or someone you’re tasked to co-parent with.
Whatever the case, there are things you can do to mitigate the effects of toxic parents. Here’s more about what exactly a toxic parent is and how you can make strides toward healing emotional wounds from a traumatic childhood.
To be clear, “toxic parent” isn’t a medical term or a clearly defined concept. When people discuss toxic parents they are typically describing parents who consistently behave in ways that cause guilt, fear, or obligation in their children. Their actions aren’t isolated events, but patterns of behavior that negatively shape their child’s life.
The thing is, parents are human beings. And that means that they may make mistakes, yell too much, or do potentially damaging things to their kids — even unintentionally. But their impulse is to do better and make things right.
A toxic parent, however, is more concerned with their own needs than whether what they’re doing is harmful or damaging. They likely won’t apologize or even admit that what they are doing is wrong. And the abuse or neglect tends to be ongoing or progressive.
“Toxic parent” is an umbrella term for parents who display some or all of the following characteristics:
- Self-centered behaviors. Your parent may be emotionally unavailable, narcissistic, or perhaps uncaring when it comes to things that you need. It may feel like all situations return to the same question: “What about ME?”
- Physical and verbal abuse. Abuse may not always be hitting, yelling, threats, or something totally obvious either. You may encounter more subtle abuse like name-calling, shifting of blame, silent treatment, or gaslighting.
- Controlling behaviors. Toxic parents may invade your privacy or not allow you to make your own decisions. Or maybe they’re overly critical and controlling of your decisions, even as an adult.
- Manipulative behaviors. Your parent may try to control you by using guilt or shame to play with your emotions. Toxic parents may even hold time, money, or other items as pawns in their manipulation game.
- Lack of boundaries. Toxic parents tend to push and push and push to get their way. As you tire from their tactics, you may simply give in to ideas or situations out of exhaustion or frustration.
Outbursts and bad days are perfectly normal for anyone to have, including parents. But if the behaviors you remember from your childhood are constant or have some type of pattern, you may want to take a second look at how they impacted the person you have become.
Think back to your childhood and ask yourself:
- Did my parents emotionally abuse me? Did they tell me I was worthless or just plain bad?
- Did they physically abuse me under the guise of discipline?
- Was I forced to care for my parents at a young age?
- Was I scared of my parents or their actions? Was I afraid to show my anger or frustration to them?
- Did they make me keep secrets from family or friends about things they did to me, like physical or sexual abuse?
Or maybe you’re still dealing with this type of relationship:
- Do my parents treat me like I am still a child?
- Do they guilt me to get what they want? Or do they use threats or other manipulation strategies, like giving/withholding money?
- Do I feel ill or have other overwhelming physical or emotional feelings after seeing my parents?
- Do I just feel like I will never live up to my parents’ expectations?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you may have a toxic parent in your life. Take a moment to let that sink in.
Then consider this: You may blame yourself for their behaviors or how you react to them. You may feel guilty or inadequate, which makes it hard to thrive in your life as an adult. Growing up with such tremendous stress and confusion can also make it very hard to form healthy self-esteem, so you may be carrying some heavy baggage around with you.
But you can also make changes to your relationship and your life to address and heal from the damage done.
Family — no matter what form it takes — has a significant impact on an individual’s feelings of self-worth, perception of and trust in others, and general world view. Basically, it’s the foundation for how you see and interact with the people, places, and things around you.
Once you realize that you have been exposed to toxicity, it may be helpful or even liberating to recognize that many behaviors you learned are toxic. You may have viewed damaging experiences you had growing up as, well, normal.
For example, you may have been beaten or abused but pushed it off as being merely spanked. You may have been severely neglected but framed it as your parents being too busy.
If you are a parent who grew up with a toxic parent as a model, you may feel doomed. How can you overcome history repeating itself?
There’s good news here. With a little work, learned behaviors can be unlearned and modified. This isn’t an easy task, but the first step is recognizing that you were shaped by your environment. You cannot change until you understand and accept the things that have influenced your behaviors.
While you cannot change someone else’s behavior, setting boundaries can limit the interactions you have with toxic parents. It can also help you take control in the situation and feel some power where you may have felt powerless before.
As an adult, you may still be influenced or overwhelmed by your parents. You may even feel like you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to escape from that influence.
Here’s the thing: You are that person who can grant yourself permission. You are that person who can decide to change and take back your life. And you can start as early as today by making a plan.
One of the best places to start is with setting clear boundaries. A boundary is simply an invisible line that you set for yourself and that you do not allow someone to cross. This may be physical or emotional. And exactly where that boundary is drawn is completely up to you.
California-based psychotherapist Sharon Martin shares three tips for setting boundaries with toxic people.
- Be straightforward with the boundaries you define — and don’t leave them up for interpretation. While your toxic parent may not be happy being told what to do (in fact, pushing beyond your limits is likely one of the ways they are toxic!), they will lose the ability to push you past your breaking zone.
- Make communication about boundaries clear and consistent. Stick to your guns. It’s OK to say NO to your parents if they have gone too far. At the same time, stay calm and resist blaming and getting overly defensive (some parents feed on this energy).
- Continually check in with yourself. Are your parents respecting your boundaries? If not, you may need to come up with a plan B, even if it means cutting contact for some time.
It’s important to take the time to think about your childhood experiences and how they shaped you. Sit with them. Think about how they make you feel. Think about how they make you act. You might find it helpful to write your feelings down or to talk with a trusted family member or friend.
For some, this process may be overwhelming. You don’t have to embark on the path of healing alone. Consider making an appointment with a licensed mental health professional to get some ideas for how to start.
And if you do see certain behaviors coming out in your own parenting, try these tips from the experts at Brown University:
- Make a list of the things you want to change.
- Write next to each behavior the way you would like to behave/feel instead.
- Prioritize the list if you want, and then choosing a behavior to start with.
- Practice your desired behavior in place of the one you want to change.
Once you feel you’ve mastered one behavior, you can move your way down the list and attack others.
So, maybe you didn’t grow up with a toxic parent, but you have to work with one to bring up your children. Impossible, right?
In this situation, there are unique challenges for both you and your children. Expect things to be difficult. Expect there to be some heartache. But also remember that you make up half of the equation and you have power over how things progress as time goes on.
You must come up with ways to advocate for your children and set boundaries, all while having to maintain a working relationship with your toxic ex.
Try your best to breathe. Remind yourself that you are your own person. You have power over your actions and thoughts. You can change how you behave and react. And you can set limits for your children and their interactions with your ex.
Some strategies that might help include:
- Setting up a legal parenting plan. That way, you’ll have things in writing that you both must follow. No guilting or manipulating can change what’s written by the courts.
- Working through court-appointed mediators. If you’re running into issues time and time again, take the fight out of your hands and get help from higher authorities. Plus, this way, you have clear documentation of exactly what is done and said.
- Showing your kids some extra empathy. Your children are likely taking the brunt of the toxicity. Try the best you can to assure them they are in a safe space with you. And give them the tools they need to find this safety when they aren’t.
No matter what, be sure to give yourself some grace. Recognizing difficult things about your childhood can be painful and bring up a host of emotions you might not expect.
And if you feel you have slipped into toxic patterns yourself, just know that changing can take time. The important thing is that you are committed to changing and that you recognize the need to change for your own mental health and for the health of those around you.
You’ll get there. You will! Reach out for help when you need it and understand that you are not alone in this journey.