Can Parents Be Toxic?

What's Covered

Most parents get a divorce if they have fallen out of love or their relationship gets too toxic to handle. Children on the other hand cannot divorce their parents if they are being too toxic and controlling.[1]

Parents genuinely want and do their best to provide their children with a healthy, safe and, happy life. But sometimes, this genuinely positive dream may also bring a negative result. Parents tend to be overly protective and aggressive which leads to creating a toxic environment for their children.

Unfortunately, this behavior is often cloth and hidden by the word “love” and “denial”. Before we realized the mistake, we have already caused emotional and mental damage to our children. This damage if not resolved at an early stage will have a great effect on the child in later years.

What are the Signs of a Toxic Parent?

Parents are not perfect. We make mistakes. However, if these mistakes become repetitive, the promise of love went to extremes and we have become too controlling and overprotecting, I think it’s high time we have to step back as a parent and ask ourselves “Are we being a toxic parent now?”

Apart from that question, below are some of the behaviors we need to check and see if we are becoming toxic with our children

1.      Toxic Parents are Overly Critical    

Criticizing your kids on how to sweep the floor well, do the laundry and other chores is a good thing. This will help kids on how to do the chores properly the next time. However, this can be toxic to the child if you are only pointing out the negative things. Words like “You never learn” I shouldn’t have trusted you to do the chores”, “You never do things right” “How can I trust you to do big things if you cannot do a simple thing like this?”- are just some of the overly critical words that toxic parents are using knowingly or unknowingly. Parents believe that they need to use these words to instill discipline so that their children won’t do silly mistakes in the future.[2]

Also, overly critical parents cannot or will not see the achievements of their children. There will always be dissatisfaction with their tone. Instead of celebrating the achievement of being top 2 in the class, toxic parents will say how come you are not top 1? Overly critical parents always put down their kids’ achievements because they believe that if they are in their kid’s shoes, they can do better.

2.      They are too controlling

I find this the most disturbing and destructive behavior of a toxic parent. An extremely controlling parent does not let their kid decide what they want. They tend to make the decision themselves for they always say that they just want what is the best for their kids. Extremely controlling behavior oversteps boundaries. In some cultures, parents even control their kids’ future by choosing their bride/groom. Other parents control their kids by always playing the victim. They do this may making remarks that will make their children feel guilty which eventually leads to the parents getting the upper hand of the situation.

I find this the most destructive because it has a great impact and effect on the child’s confidence. Kids who have an extremely controlling mother will have a difficult time trusting their own decision and standing up for themself. As a result, their self-esteem will be too low, and might not have the confidence to speak up. Disturbing in a way that the child might acquire the behavior and apply it to others because he/she thinks that this is the correct way on how to get things done.

3.      They don’t acknowledge Boundaries/kids personal space

Parents can be too nosy at times. This is normal especially if the parents have a growing/teenage kid. Parents would always want to be certain that their kids are always safe. However, this can be toxic if taken to extremes. A parent who overrides the personal space and boundaries all the time can be frustrating to the kids. For example, parents who just barge into the room without knocking first, or reading your diary without getting permission. To the parent, this is not a big thing because they just wanted to know what their kids are doing. To the kid, this is a big deal for their privacy is not being respected. Also, kids might think that this behavior is normal and might have difficulty understanding and recognizing that this is a bad behavior later in life.[3]

4.      They don’t allow Freedom of Expression for their children in the House                          

Parents tend to be too demanding and bossy most of the time. As a result, they tend to overlook the notion that children can also express their thoughts and emotions in the family. Parents usually take this negatively and tell their kids not to meddle when adults are talking. I often hear my mom say “You are already talking back to me?” “You don’t respect your parents anymore” “Is that how your friends influence you?” or “We didn’t raise you and put you to a good school just to talk back to us!”

Hearing these words will automatically shut anyone’s mouth and will get scared to talk and give their ideas and opinion to an adult later in life. Up until now, I am still struggling to open up to my parents and tell them things for I always have this kind of fear that I am not supposed to do that because they are my parents and I am just their daughter. I also have challenges expressing my ideas during work meetings especially if I am meeting with my bosses. I always contemplate and think things through and through before saying something. Because of this constant fear, I sometimes let bright ideas go to waste or oftentimes bottled up my emotions. That is how destructive this behavior is to a child.

5.      They treat you as an extension of their dream

Toxic parents will go to lengths just to make their dreams turn into a reality. It means reinforcing their dreams to their children. This might not be observed and experienced by all but believe there will always be a parent who would want their children to be a “Doctor” a “Lawyer” an “Engineer” because they dreamt of being one before but since it didn’t happen, they want their child to be one now. [4]

This toxic behavior takes out the decision making capability of their children. Planning and giving a ready-made future to your children does not mean that you are helping them to be successful and stable in life. Instead, you are setting your children to failure and the possibility of having an unfulfilled life full of regrets and what-ifs.

6.      They make you Believe that they are not toxic and everything they do is fair and just

Parents are great manipulators.  They can twist situations and make it favorable to their side. They can create great stories that make their children believe that everything they do is for the betterment of the family.

This in turn makes it challenging to identify that children have a toxic relationship with their parents. Children might not recognize that they are living in a toxic environment. Instead, they will come up with a lot of reasons (mostly instilled by parents during childhood days) as to why the behavior of their parents is not bad and how it greatly helps them to become a better person. Twisted it may seem, but realization might only hit the children hard once they become parents themselves.   

It’s difficult to raise a child but it is so much more difficult to raise a parent. We all know how difficult it is to convince our parents and change them. How much more if we are to do that to a toxic parent? The good news is you do not need to change them. You only need to reclaim yourself from them and overcome the hurtful experience. By doing this, you are cutting that invisible thread of passing down their toxic trait to you.

Reclaiming yourself from toxic parents is hard. But it is also fulfilling. You cannot do this on your own. You might need a support group to overcome the trauma and some great books to read that will motivate you and make you understand that you are not alone in this journey. Whether you are a product of toxic parenting or you just want to understand and create an awareness to your friends, family or your group on what it is and its impact to the parent and child relationship, these two books are highly recommended for reading.

Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and reclaiming your life

I highly recommend this book because it doesn’t just dwell on the topic of having a toxic parent. It made me accept that I have toxic parents. It made me realize that there are a lot of ways in how parents can be toxic to their children. From being verbally and physically abusive to just keeping mum of the situation. This book does not just offer ways on how to heal yourself but gives you a better understanding of why toxic parents exist. The word “Healing” now has a different and deeper meaning to me because of this book.

Toxic Parents
a perfect book to read if you want to have a deeper understanding of what toxic parents are and how to overcome and reclaim your life from toxic parents

Will I ever be good enough? – Karyl McBride P.H.D

This book focuses on the toxic relationship of a mother to her daughter. If you are a daughter who has an abusive and self-involved mother, then this book is perfect for you. I have unknowingly defended as to why I always feel I am not good enough, and why do I always downplay and not recognized my achievements. If you feel the same way, this book will guide you and give you insights on how to heal yourself and escape from that feeling.

Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
a great book to read for daughters with toxic mothers and ways on how to cope and heal yourself from the trauma

As one who also has toxic parents, books served as a scapegoat for me. It taught me and made me understand a lot of things but it has taken me a lifetime to stand up for myself and admit that I do have a toxic parent. I am still a work in progress I can say. I still got wounds and scars. Every time I stumble and on the verge of going back to the traumatic feeling, these methods help me pick up the pieces back together.

9 Methods on how not to be a Toxic Parent

1.      Always remember you are not your parents

It is traumatizing to be having toxic parents. You can either be a monster or a puppet when you have your own family. Or worse, you will have this fear that you are not capable of having your own family.  I have gone through this trauma. I become a solo parent for I fear that I am not capable of handling long-term commitments and I always think that the only relationship I can handle and bear is with my parents, siblings, and my kid.

So how am I coping? Having a child gives me the strength to stand up with my parents. I have accepted that I cannot change the past but that does not mean that my kid will also suffer. Every day, I always tell myself, I am not my parents; I will be a better parent to my daughter. I have my own choice and I can make my own decision and no amount of traumatic and depressing experience can cloud my pursuit to be a better parent to my daughter. Having this mindset all the time helps me in building my relationship with my kid. Yes, there are those moments when I feel that I am becoming a toxic parent, but in those situations I would completely stop whatever it is I am doing, close my eyes, breath and tell myself “I am better than this, I am stronger and far stronger than the monsters in my head” This usually works with me. So you might want to give it a try.

2.      Forgive when you are ready

Forgiveness is a process. Saying you forgive someone just because someone says sorry or it is necessary to forgive them is cruel to both you and to the one who is saying sorry. Granting your forgiveness should be done as a conclusion and not as the beginning of your healing or moving on process. They are your parents. And you know that in spite and despite, you will forgive them.

But how can we forgive and forget? Like I said, forgiveness should be done as a conclusion. You should acknowledge first all the emotions that the relationship has brought upon you. Despair, depression, anger, and revenge whatever it is you should accept and you should acknowledge that these emotions are valid. Then you should allow yourself to grieve. Grieve over the fact that your parents treated you as an extension of their career or ambition or the fact that you will not receive the comfort and love that you have always been longing for from them. Whatever the reason is, allow yourself to grieve.

Forgive when you are ready. Parents no matter how toxic they can be will always be your parents. And you know for a fact that you will always forgive them blindly or sincerely. It is a good thing if your parents realize that they are toxic and ask for your forgiveness and take responsibility for their wrongdoings. But we all know that most often than not, this doesn’t usually happen.

At the end of the day, we are all accountable for our emotional and mental peace. If you are not ready to forgive because you are still in the process of recovering from the trauma, do not force yourself. Remember forgiveness is sweet when given with sincerity. Forgive when you are ready.  And forgive when you are ready to let go and forget.

3.      Acknowledge that you are Angry and Learn to Express it

I have been oppressed by my emotions for I am always told that it is not respectful to express your emotions with your parents. Anger, discontentment, reasoning out is not something that I can do in my family. I have learned to bottle those things up until now.

I have learned that bottling up emotions is not something that a parent should encourage to their children.  As a child of a toxic parent, I always bury my anger not only to my parents but to other people as well. I always have this fear that I am being disrespectful if I show any negative emotions towards them. This has caused my anxiety and depression all through these years. Until now, this side of me is still a work in progress. I always have second thoughts about whether to express my anger towards the person or not. This frustrates me more.

If you are also in the same dilemma as I am, we both know that this will take a lot of time to overcome. Good thing is that some different programs and outlets help people like us to release and express our anger.

  1. Inflatable Punching Bag

This will help you release all of the emotions that you have been bottling up for the longest time. To some, this might be a toy, but for children who have toxic parents, this is an instrument of healing.  I usually find myself getting calmed and can think straight and logically after a few minutes of punching and kicking.

Inflatable Punching Bag
a great tool for releasing and relieving anger and stress
  • Stress Balls

Most children with toxic parents have fears of being aggressive. Stress balls are a great way of releasing anger. If you are still dealing with the thought of how you can release your emotions and anger but do not want any physical activity, then you can start with a stress ball. Squishing stress balls is found to have a calming effect on a person. Apart from squishing it, you can throw it or even stomp on it if you find this more satisfying. It comes with different colors and it really won’t hurt your pocket if you want to have it in multiple colors.

Motivational Stress Balls for Kids and Adults
a great tool for releasing and relieving anger and stress
  • Talk about it      

There are support groups that you can join and talk about your anger without getting judge. Apart from support groups, technology is also stepping up and assisting to help a person who needs emotional support. There are phone numbers available to call and all calls will be treated with confidentiality.

4.      Be Aware of your Toxic Beliefs and Negative feelings towards your Parents

We all tend to be in denial when it comes to how our parents treat us. There is always this wanting to protect them for we believe that in this way we can gain their love and acknowledgment. One way of healing and for you not to be a toxic parent as well as to be aware that your parent’s instilled toxic beliefs in you and that this bore negative feelings towards your parents.

“Whatever I do will always not be enough for them.” This is one toxic belief that most children with toxic parents can relate to. I always believe that my efforts will not always be enough for them that is why I feel sad and blame myself for everything. I always act fine and tell them everything is okay even if it is not. I feel guilty if I can’t give them things and provide for the family. I feel guilty for I know that I have failed them as their child. That I was not the engineer child they always wanted. I feel that I failed them as their child.

These are heartbreaking facts that a kid with a toxic parent feels every day. If you do not want your child to feel this way, start acknowledging and supporting their dreams. No matter how small, weird, petty it is for you, it is a big thing for your child. Always make them aware that they have full control of their life and that your job is to just guide them. Do not make them as an extension of your life. You have your dream and so is your child. Honor their dream and support it.  Always check yourself and see if you are becoming a controlling parent. And if you are, you should know how to step back and lie low.

5.      Do not be so hard on yourself

Parenting is tough. As much as you want to be a perfect role model to your child, you will commit mistakes. Remember mistakes do not mean that you are a toxic parent. There will be times where you will lose your cool. It is normal. But how you handle these things is what will make you a toxic or a nontoxic parent. If you always blame yourself for everything and always think that you are not good enough nor fit to be a parent. Trust me you are on your way to becoming a toxic parent.

Your kid will look up to you whoever you are. Mistakes and all, your kid will still love you and will still see you as their role model. If you make mistakes, fine. Forgive yourself and don’t beat yourself too much. You can always reflect on why it happened and learn from it so you can be better tomorrow. Wallowing too much on what happened will only lead to frustration and depression and this will have a great impact on you and your kid too. You might not know it but kids are sensitive and can detect emotions. Accept that not everything will go as planned and move on.

6.      Disagreements are Normal

You will definitely get into an argument with your child. Regardless as to how big or small it is. Always remember that when this happens you have to be the bigger person. Do not let your emotions and ego get in the way of your disagreement. Shutting your kid by telling them that they are your kid is a toxic parenting behavior.[5]

Your child will tend to forget who won or lost during the fight. But they will not forget your actions during the fight and how you made them feel at that moment. Learn to control your emotions. Kids will always be kids. You have to be more mature. If at some point you feel that you are already losing it and you do not know how to end the fight, stay calm. Tell your kid that you need some time alone. Once you are calm, talk to them. Explain the situation. If you are wrong learn to say sorry. If they are at fault, make them understand why they are wrong. Do not blame them. And next time disagreement between you and your kid happen again, make it a point not to bring up past disagreements.

7.      Do not be a burden to your Kids

In some countries and cultures, children are expected to take care of their parents when they grow old. Sometimes it is not just the parents but the whole family. You will be considered an ingrate and disrespectful if you do not take this responsibility.

As a parent, you have a responsibility to take care of your kid, raise them well, feed them, cloth them and provide them with education and things till such time that they can stand on their own. It is never your child’s responsibility to do the same thing to you once you get old. Remember that your child will have their own family and kids too. Be thankful if they will take care of you when you get old but do not make them feel guilty and shame them if their way of taking care of you is to send you to a home for the elderly.

8.      Listen to your Child

Most of the time, we parents tend to set aside that our children also have a voice in the family. Your child is also a human being capable of thinking. Your child is capable of getting hurt. We tend to overlook this fact because we always think that they are just kids and that they will forget things easily. Again, your child might forget the situation but they will not forget how you made them feel.

Listen to your child when they are talking. When they are telling you about their day at school, at the playground, who their friends are, their favorite toys, and others. And remember just listen to them. Don’t listen to find fault or don’t tell them things that will make them stop talking. Make them feel that their thoughts and opinions are being valued. By doing this you are not only avoiding being a toxic parent but you are also uplifting your child’s self-esteem in the process.

9.      Get Help

If you feel that you are becoming a toxic parent to your child, do not justify it by saying that you are just doing what you think is best for your kid. Collect yourself. Understand why you are feeling that way. Try to evaluate, assess and resolve it by yourself. Below are some books that I highly recommend for you.

  1. Practical Parenting To Go – Yuval Harpas

If you would like to know whether you are a toxic parent or about to become one, then this book is perfect for you. This book has a section where you can answer a set of questions and evaluate yourself as to how you are as a parent to your child. The result will give you an idea if you are a toxic parent and if you are, this book also gives you steps on how not to be one to your child. It is very easy to read and the contents in the book are something that you can relate to.

Practical Parenting to Go
a perfect book to read and discover if you are becoming a toxic parent and ways to avoid it
  • Overcoming Toxic Parenting – Rick Johnson

If you have toxic parents and fears that you will do the same thing to your child, then this book is perfect for you. This book does not only talk about your hurtful past. It also gives you a clear view of how to overcome toxic parenting and how to cut the legacy so you will not do the same thing with your child.

Overcoming Toxic Parenting
A great book to read if you are a product of toxic parenting and you want to cut the invisible toxic trait so it will not happen to you and your child

Now, if you have read numerous self-help books but still feel the need to identify and discover if you are becoming a toxic parent, then there are support groups that you can attend to and help you with your dilemma. What’s good about technology today is that people are also using the power of social media to offer support to people. You can get support through chat, messaging and phone calls if you are not comfortable discussing your situation face to face.

Final Thoughts

As a parent and also a product of toxic parenting, I can say that everything is easier said than done. I learned that parenting is tough. But this should not be the reason to become toxic to my child. I cannot undo my past. I cannot change how my parents treated me. But I can change my future. I can either use my past as a shield to justify my toxic behavior if I am to become one or I can learn from it and take this learning to become a better parent. I choose the latter. So to us parents, always remember that you are not alone in your journey. You will fall, commit mistakes, but this is all part of the wonderful parenting process. In closing, I hope that this quote will inspire you to become a good parent.

“Good Parenting does not mean giving your child a perfect life. It means teaching your child how to lead a good and happy life in our imperfect world” – author unknown

[1] Friedman, RICHARD A. “When parents are too toxic to tolerate.” New York Times (2009).

[2] 13 Signs of a Toxic Parent that many People don’t Realize

[3] Psychology today- signs you are the child-toxic-parent

[4] Gathrid, D., Weisberg, D., Phillips, J., Anderman, B., & Fischer, L. Who are toxic parents?

[5] Breaking the Cycle of Toxic Parenting- Karen Young

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Vivian Perry

Vivian Perry

Mother of 3 kids. Enjoy reading parenting books and studied child care degree. Vivian loves to learn and write about parenting tips and help her kids to grow positively with grit mindset.