Toxic parents leave lasting scars on their children.
The scars from this toxicity can affect world view, personality, behavior, decision making, and perceptions.
It may also leave lasting harm through mental disorders like substance abuse, PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
These negative effects will follow the child through their life, affecting their relationships, friendships, and the way they interact with other people well into adulthood and the rest of their life – if they allow it.
The good news is that these issues can be overcome.
They don’t have to plague the child throughout their life and mess up their ability to pursue happiness.
Recovery is not an easy task, but it is worthwhile and something anyone can accomplish.
To reach that goal, we need to better understand what a “toxic parent” is, what effects they can have, and how to deal with them.
What Is A “Toxic Parent?”
The word toxic is a shorthand way to describe a category of unhealthy behaviors.
A toxic person may be abusive, always pessimistic, unhealthy emotionally, unsupportive, or otherwise harmful to the people around them.
There are different levels and types of people within the category of toxic.
The person may not be willfully toxic. Mental illness is a good example.
The person may generally be an otherwise lovely person except when they’re mentally unwell.
When they’re mentally unwell, they may be angry, abusive, or otherwise destructive to the people around them.
That may not necessarily be their fault, but it is still a type of toxicity because it does have a negative effect on others.
Addiction, or substance abuse disorder, is another example. Addicts sometimes do unpleasant things to themselves and the people around them because of how deeply rooted their addiction is.
Addiction writes itself into the reptilian part of the brain and can supersede eating, drinking, sleeping, and caring for oneself and others at all.
An addict may be craving a fix and do whatever is necessary to get it, no matter how unpleasant.
The world is a rough place. There are many people who are carrying heavy traumas on their shoulders.
Many of those people are parents themselves. Their unaddressed trauma can fuel negative habits, substance abuse, and all manner of bad behavior as they struggle to find relief from their own demons.
Then you have toxic mothers and fathers who aren’t sympathetic at all. They may just be genuinely bad people who enjoy hurting or using other people for their own gain.
That crosses into personality disorder territory – like narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.
Regardless of the reason for the toxicity, it is imperative to have solid boundaries and an understanding of how to navigate these people when you must.
How Can I Tell If I Have A Toxic Parent?
There are common traits of toxic behavior that can help you identify whether or not you have a toxic parent.
It would be impossible to list off every toxic behavior, so we are going to focus on common, easy to identify traits.
1. They refuse to accept responsibility for their negative actions.
The person may shift blame, refuse to accept any blame, or refuse to acknowledge that they are responsible for the harm they caused.
They will do everything in their power to avoid accepting any responsibility for their negative behavior.
They may argue that the other person is ungrateful, misinterpreting their actions, or too sensitive.
2. They try to control you, invade your privacy, and do not respect boundaries.
Boundaries are a normal and healthy part of any relationship. There are just some lines you shouldn’t want to cross.
A toxic parent will often seek to cross these boundaries because, “I am the parent, therefore I know best.”
They may snoop around, try to track your electronics, ask intrusive questions, or even open your mail.
They may also demean your parenting and try to undermine your authority with your children.
3. They regularly lie and manipulate.
Most toxic people will seek to cover their own tracks so that other people cannot figure out exactly what they’re up to.
Deep inside, they understand what they are doing is not right or acceptable, even if they think it’s totally fine.
Lies, manipulation, and gaslighting are common tools in a toxic parent’s arsenal to keep other people from truly understanding what is going on.
These are tools they use to maintain control, to portray themselves as being a misunderstood good person, or to just flat out lie for personal gain.
4. They are self-centered, showing no concern for others.
They are often demanding, expecting you to drop what you’re doing and tend to their needs. They don’t see or treat you like an individual person with your own schedule and needs.
A toxic parent may also view their child as a workhorse to alleviate their own responsibilities, such as making their child do long or difficult labor that may not be appropriate for their age.
They do not consider or care about your emotions, other than to use them as a weapon against you when they need something for themselves.
5. They are emotionally volatile and reactive.
The person may have an extreme temper, or carry grudges to use as a tool of leverage and control for a long time.
You may hear about your wrongs for months or years after a reasonable person would have let it go.
A toxic person of any kind is not in an emotionally healthy place, so will often have unhealthy emotional reactions.
They often dole out extreme punishments no matter how inconsequential the mistake.
They may also be unpredictable because of the volatile nature of their emotional landscape. Drama and dramatic reactions are common.
6. They are disrespectful and may be cruel.
The words a toxic parent speaks to their child are rarely loving or supportive.
If they are loving or supportive, they are usually being used as a means to an end to get the child to comply with their wishes.
They may be mean and cruel for the sake of just being mean and cruel. They demonstrate little to no respect for their child.
7. They may have an unhealthy emotional reliance on you.
A toxic parent may not have other healthy emotional relationships where they can process and handle their own life.
This often goes along with the issue of proper boundaries. They may share personal or intimate details that should not be shared between a parent and child.
The toxic parent may also try to force you to be an emotional support pillar that they should be getting from a romantic partner, friend, or counselor.
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8. They may be running a one-sided competition with you.
The toxic parent might feel threatened by your success or accomplishments. The result is that they attack, demean, or just ignore those accomplishments.
A healthy parent will cheer on and be supportive of their child’s accomplishments instead of demeaning them.
A parent should not be in competition with their own child, building themselves up at their child’s expense.
9. They are neglectful or emotionally absent.
The parent simply may not be invested at all in their relationship with their child, treating them like a burden or a roommate more than their child.
This may be things like denying them their basic needs or just ignoring them altogether.
10. They are physically, mentally, or sexually abusive.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Any mother or father that is abusive to their child in any capacity is a toxic parent.
These 10 general things can point to a toxic parent, but one must keep in mind that parents are imperfect people too.
They will undoubtedly get angry, lose their temper, or not be the most supportive at times.
They are still people trying to work through their own emotional load as well as raise a child in an oftentimes difficult and confusing world.
Beyond all of the actions described here, it really comes down to a simple question of, “How does the parent’s behavior make me feel about myself?”
It’s likely that you have a toxic parent if you find yourself walking away from your interactions with them feeling bad about yourself, your life, or your accomplishments.
The Long-Term Toll Of A Toxic Parent
The damage of a toxic parent does not end when the child becomes an adult.
They carry that abuse with them where it affects the way they interact with other people, how they conduct their relationships, and impacts their personality.
Adults who have experienced childhood abuse are more prone to mental and physical health problems, addiction, smoking, and drinking.
Living in a constant stressful situation affects chemical production in the body, particularly that of cortisol, which is a stress hormone.
An excessive amount of cortisol in the body can predispose a person to Type 2 Diabetes, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, migraines and headaches, arthritis, and other diseases (source: APA – Stress effects on the body.)
The adult child may also experience mental health problems with personality disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD.
But the path is not hopeless.
Though survivors of toxic parents have a battle ahead of them, they can build a peaceful, happy, and healthy life for themselves.
But to do that they will need to know how to navigate and deal with their toxic parent.
How To Deal With A Toxic Parent
A child in the home of a toxic parent doesn’t have many choices. A toxic mother or father will try to strip their child of their self-confidence and make them believe that they cannot make a good decision on their own.
This is a falsehood that needs to be overcome. As an adult, you are more than capable of making good decisions for you and your life.
Yes, you will make mistakes, and those mistakes are ammunition for an abusive parent to use against you.
But here’s what they don’t want you to know: literally everyone makes mistakes in life.
That guy you passed on the street, your coworkers, the person you’re standing behind in the grocery checkout line, your parents… everyone.
Our ability to adapt, fix our mistakes, and roll with the punches determines our peace, happiness, and success in life.
You have many more choices on how you interact with your parents as an adult child. These are some of the strategies that are commonly used to keep toxic people from damaging your life and well-being.
1. Set and enforce boundaries.
Boundaries are an important part of any friendship or relationship. They are even more important when you are interacting with a toxic parent or person.
A boundary is an establishment of what behavior you are willing to accept from other people.
That isn’t usually a luxury that a child has with their parent, so it can feel really uncomfortable or wrong to try to establish a boundary with a parent to let them know how you want to be treated.
A person without boundaries is a tempting target for toxic people because their goal is to feed whatever negative thing they have going on.
The only way for them to do that is through the time, attention, and emotional energy of other people.
People with boundaries shut them down quickly.
Enforcing a boundary with a toxic parent is hard. It’s okay to set limits, though. They are not entitled to your time and emotional energy.
You should be able to tell your parent ‘no’ if that’s what you want to do. And sometimes you may need to go no contact with the parent if they refuse to accept or honor your boundaries.
2. Limit the information you share.
Toxic people and parents are constantly looking for information to use as leverage. They can manipulate or coerce you if they know which levers to pull and buttons to push.
Thus, you want to limit the amount of information you share with the person so that it can’t be used as a weapon against you later.
Don’t share personal information with people who are untrustworthy. Avoid those who gossip, unfairly criticize, or share things that they shouldn’t.
Trust your gut if you feel that it’s not safe to share something.
3. Don’t try to please them or earn their favor.
Manipulators and emotional abusers like to maneuver their victim into a submissive position.
They will often try to make the other person feel as though they need to earn their favor or please them by bending to their wishes and whims.
But no matter what you do or how hard you try, it’s never enough. They’re never happy with what you give, because if they were happy with it then you would stop trying.
Breaking that dynamic comes down to no longer playing their game. Don’t waste your time and emotional energy trying to please someone who is perpetually and decidedly unhappy.
4. Don’t try to change who they are.
The only person’s actions you can control are your own.
The decision to make a serious change in one’s life is a personal one that requires a lot of effort and work.
It is not something that can be undertaken lightly, nor is it something you can force on someone else.
The work is why it can’t be forced. A person who is forced to change will generally not be willing to do the work that is actually required to change.
All you end up doing is exhausting a lot of mental and emotional energy for no gain.
5. Don’t try to reason with the unreasonable.
A toxic person is often living life by their own narrative. They have an incorrect belief about the way life is, the way life should be, and the way they should be treated.
That incorrect belief often puts them at the center of attention where everyone else should be waiting and willing to bow to their demands.
From the outside, it may seem like they are just misinformed or may not have realized that their desires are not reasonable.
That’s generally not the case.
Don’t bother trying to explain yourself or reason with unreasonable people. All you’ll end up doing is wasting your own energy and potentially giving them more weapons to use against you.
6. Take good care of yourself.
Examine and understand your own limits. Dealing with a toxic parent is difficult. It will sap you of emotional energy, happiness, and cause you stress.
You need to make sure to take good care of yourself while trying to navigate this relationship.
Basic self-care – such as exercising, eating right, surrounding yourself with loving people, and sleeping appropriately – goes a long way to reinforcing your own peace of mind and well-being.
You need that mental and emotional energy when it’s time to interact with a toxic parent in case you need to enforce your boundaries.
Building A Healthier Life
Breaking free from the control of toxic parents is difficult.
A toxic father or mother will generally not like it when you try to establish boundaries. They may push up against them to see if they are weak or overrun them completely.
If that happens, you may need to go full no contact with a toxic parent so they can’t harm your life any more than they already have.
Taking these steps is an important part of cultivating a healthier mind and living a happier life. Boundaries are an essential step in reclaiming your freedom and peace of mind.
This is a difficult journey to go on alone. It will likely be a good idea to see a certified mental health counselor while you are working through this phase of your life.
They will be able to provide the emotional support and personal guidance that you will need to find peace with the situation and start to unmake whatever harm it is your toxic parent may have caused.