How do you deal with a toxic parent?

What's Covered

Parenthood is a privilege many never get to experience. From the onset of pregnancy to childbirth, and raising children takes a journey of discovery. Children bring joy and happiness in a home, a warmth previously inexperienced. The new experience affords parents the responsibility of taking their new role seriously, with one chance of doing it right. Depending on how well the responsibility is taken, the process can be very rewarding. The love that blossoms between a parent and a child is unrivaled.

The Family unit

A family is a fundamental element comprising parents and their children. No two families are the same. That said, there are healthy families and toxic families. The difference between the two is the level of freedom in each. With parents being the heads of families, the state of each is dependent on their emotional well-being, and the desire to raise emotionally stable and secure children.

Difference between a healthy family and a toxic family

A healthy family[1] has civic relational skills, with every member appreciated, seen as worthy of respect. The tone of the home is one of love and care. It is understood that though they belong in the family, they are their person first, then interconnected. This allows for freedom of expression, and children are not looked down upon. Every member is important regardless of their age.

Healthy homes nurture independence. Children from these homes are empowered to become who they want to be, in a healthy way. This is nurtured early in life with the goal of self-reliance in adulthood. The accountability of the parents to the children is essential. In a healthy home, the direction of the home is not entirely left to the head, all are involved and aware of where they are headed as a unit, which promotes order.

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Toxic families[2] on the other hand thrive in chaos. Because of abuse of power mostly from the head of the home, the mood in the home is one of anxiety and apprehension. With little or no emotional maturity in the parents, the levels of interdependence are unhealthy.

Children in these homes suffer the lack of freedom of expression because they are raised to be seen and not heard. There is an unspoken rule in the home to conform to its structure, with no questions asked. Passive aggression is the tone of the home.

Parents in such homes lack accountability to the children since they are considered insignificant.

Boundary lines, which are essential to any healthy relationship are non-existent or simply ignored. Because of fear of abandonment, toxic parents seeking control do not accept limits.

Individuality among the children is shunned as all are coerced to be actively involved in the family’s never-ending dramas.

While these families project a well functioning home to the outside world, the truth is they are decaying on the inside.

Parents project perfectionism to their children and expect them to believe it, and most do.

Overall, while healthy homes produce independent, emotionally mature children, unhealthy homes do more harm than good. Most children suffer from untold and unnecessary misery.

Who is a toxic parent?

For this write-up, I will alternate the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’.

This is the kind of parent who is overly critical and abusive of her children driving them to emotional misery. While one does get angry from time to time, a toxic parent[3] consistently and persistently exhibits this unbecoming behavior. Nothing the child does is good enough for the parent. The constant bickering wears the child out because the parent’s desires are insatiable. Being self-absorbed, everything has to be done their way. It is about them and nobody else. Fear is instilled in the heart of the child as they no longer know what is the right thing to do. A toxic parent is an abusive parent. Since they live for themselves, their behavior is ongoing,  usually progressing from bad to worse. Unfortunately, the victims of their narcissistic behavior are their children.

Types of toxic parents

Insufficient and weak parent

She is unemotionally mature, and will not take her responsibilities seriously in the home. She is evasive and seeing her children as adults, she considers them as her emotional support system. Her children suffer from lost childhood because they are forced to transition to adulthood before their time.

Controlling parent

Her main language is manipulation. She will control her children’s choices, over influence their thoughts and actions. Being overly involved in her children’s affairs – from infancy to adulthood – she believes her children need her to make sound decisions. She is assertive and quick to punish independence because she sees it as rebellion.

Substance abuser

Because of her addictions, be it to alcohol, pills, etc, she is unavailable and detached. Her addiction takes center stage. She is unpredictable, irate, and irresponsible in her behavior. She will demand that her shameful addictions are hidden from the public eye.

Verbal abuser

Her words are lethal. She will attack her children’s appearances, talents, or achievements. She hardly compliments them on anything. This form of abuse can either be direct or subtle. Direct verbal abuse is when she uses her words to demean, invalidate or shame the child while indirect, she will use ridicule, sarcasm, or out-of-place humor that makes fun of the child.

Sexual abuser

The innocence of the child is his/her target. This can range from exposure to pornography at home, to sexually exploiting the child. Either form is devastatingly damaging.

Signs of a toxic parent

Manipulative

Toxic parents use their power to get what they want at whatever cost. Guilt-tripping a child works to their benefit, at the expense of the child’s free will. Manipulation is her ticket to get what she wants to be done.

Lacks empathy

A toxic parent is a hollow shell, void of any positive emotions. They will not authenticate their children’s emotions, lest they embarrass them. The child will be shamed for expressing themselves in normal ways, like crying when sad.

Volatile

It is difficult to deal with an emotionally imbalanced person, and that is who a toxic parent is. Lacking emotional maturity, they wear their emotions on their sleeves ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. They are highly dramatic in their expressions, letting their emotions run wild if they don’t get what they need.

Selfish

Obviously, with these tendencies, life is about them and how others view them. They will use their children’s success to draw attention to themselves. Anything good in the family is about them. They will project themselves as gifted in a bid to receive accolades from others. At the same time, anything negative in the family is not their responsibility. They love to shift blame for any problem, including theirs.

Controlling

Right from childhood, a toxic parent seeks to be in charge, desiring to control how the child behaves, not embarrass them. In adulthood, the child suffers the loss of self-judgment. The purpose of this controlling behavior is to make the child stay attached to them, never free to make their own choices. This behavior feeds their need to be wanted by the child.

Domineering

This ranges from subtle to severe, depending on what a toxic parent wants. They will bully their children into submission, using excess pressure to have things go their way. They have an idea of how the child should behave, choose, react to situations, and will enforce it militarily.

Outbursts of anger

Out of a lack of emotional maturity, a toxic parent does not take no for an answer when they don’t get their way. Anger is the mode through which they best express themselves. This anger will be expressed in verbal abuse.

Disrespectful

A toxic parent acknowledges no boundaries. Because of their high handedness, they look down on their children, speaking at them instead of to them. All her actions around her children ooze disregard.

Silent treatment

According to her, it is the responsibility of her children to keep her happy. She demands their attention, and if it is denied she ostracizes them.

Patronizing

This is especially true for narcissistic parents. Out of a false superiority complex, they act friendly around their children, while at the same time looking down upon them. This is in a bid to stay in the lead at all times.

Play favorites

It is how she rewards conformity. Since she regards independence as rebellion, the child who cowers in submission will be her favorite. She will keep her close in a bid to make the others jealous of that closeness. The favorite child fails to know that they are being used to get to an end in the parent’s mind.

Effects of a toxic parent on Children

Children thrive in an atmosphere of love.[4] However, a toxic parent does not offer love, and if offered, it is not genuine. The effects of a toxic parent are damaging to the psychological well-being of a child. The following will be seen in these children.

Fear

Constant yelling and name-calling will drive children to terror. A child in such an environment develops anxiety.

Low self-esteem

Encouragement builds a child’s esteem, raising their level of confidence. With constant criticism from a toxic parent, a child has negative sentiments about themselves.

Second-guessing themselves

Also known as gaslighting,[5] the child is hesitant about what he should be confident of. It is emotional abuse that forces the child to question their thoughts or whatever is happening around them, or the choices they make, by playing with their minds.

Anger

A toxic parent disregards the emotions of their child. The child is not listened to nor comforted when in need. Pent up emotions in the child lead to anger and disappointment because of broken communication in the relationship.

People pleasing

In the quest to get the love and approval lacking from a toxic parent, a child will do anything to get it from others. He/she will walk on eggshells around those he desires approval from, not to upset them.

Confusion and feeling lost

A toxic parent is inconsistent in their behavior. They send mixed signals to a child, leading to confusion. The child, unable to relate to what is going on, feels lost.

Emotionally disengaged

A toxic parent is emotionally abusive. A child grows up detached from the parent to avoid further heartache. They stop investing in the relationship and simply move on. They may struggle to relate in other relationships in the future out of fear of being hurt or disappointed.

Secretive

In the event of sexual abuse, the abused child will become withdrawn. They know what has been done should not be. They are most likely threatened to stay silent and keep it a secret.

Why deal with toxic parents?

Anybody who has had to deal with a toxic parent will tell you how difficult it is. It is heartbreaking, creating wounds that take a lifetime to heal.

It takes courage to finally admit that one’s parents are toxic, and more courage to find ways to get out of this situation.

The well being of your mind and the good health of your soul is essential to the success of your life. That is why you must deal with the abuse.

How to deal with a toxic parent

Whether one is a young adult living at home, or an adult living on their own, one has to make certain changes to cope.[6]

A child living at home

For a child living at home, you will still have to encounter toxic parents daily. However, you still can find your freedom and healing. The following are ways that can help.

Empower your mind

You probably have heard the following statements. “You are stupid!”. “You are good for nothing!”. “You will never amount to anything!” “You are overweight!”. Such verbal abuse has an impact on the way you view yourself. Begin by disagreeing with such words. Replace them with who you are. You are valued. You matter.

Find a safe place in your home

This could be your bedroom. It is the place you escape to from the toxicity around you. A safe place offers you peace and quietness, which are essential in learning who you are.

Invest in a hobby

It will engage your mind as well as help you spend your time wisely. Taking the dog for a walk, writing a journal, or reading a book are good ways to do that.

Acknowledge your emotions

With no avenue of expressing yourself in the home, learn to accept what you feel. Are you sad? Feeling belittled or ignored? Resist the urge to hide from what you feel. Your emotions prove your humanness. Journaling or blogging is a helpful way of release.

Don’t engage

Engaging a toxic parent will most often lead you nowhere but to increased heartaches and wounds. Steer clear of wanting to have a sit down with them. It bears no fruit. Channel that energy elsewhere.

Keep self-sufficiency a personal goal

Since you most likely are dependent on your toxic parent for upkeep, work at being self-supporting. It empowers you to live on your own when that time comes.

Seek help

Find a trusted adult you can share with. It will help you unpack the baggage you have carried in your heart. Depending on the level of trust, they can help you find healing.

Adult children

For this segment, the assumption is that you are living on your own. Distance from the toxic parent is an advantage you have. As an adult, you have the power to choose how you want to relate with them. That said, the trauma caused by a toxic parent is still with you. Depending on the type of abuser a parent is, you will face control-related challenges. Here are ways that help you stay in charge of your life.

Set boundaries

You have a choice in deciding what’s acceptable and unacceptable. Enforce these boundaries. It will feel foreign at the beginning. Your toxic parent does not do boundaries, so expect resistance, manipulation, and silent treatment. Be clear on what you can and cannot do for them. Will you visit them for Christmas? How long do you want to stay? Make the decision beforehand to avoid being coerced to do otherwise.

Limit what you share with them

Toxic parents are nosy, always looking for information. “How much money do you earn?”. “Have you started dating yet?”. Remember that everything they seek to know they will want to control. If you can’t trust them with information, keep it to yourself. You do not want it used against you.

Help them where you can, and if you want to

Once in a while, they could reach out to you for help. Resist the urge to go overboard to please them. Be in control of what, when, and how you can help, and stick to it.

To talk, or not to talk

Depending on the level of toxicity, decide which best serves you. Do you suffer anxiety attacks every time you speak with them? What is the subject of their conversations with you? Do not tolerate further abuse in the name of being nice to them. Discontinuing future communication is also a way of finding healing.

Mourn the relationship

It is sad when one has to mourn the death of a relationship. Where abuse persists, with little regard to your feelings, it is time to let go. Allow yourself to mourn the loss of who you thought and hoped your parents would be to you but were not. It will help you separate imagination from reality. Mourning also helps find closure.

Forgive your parents

Forgiveness[7] is a gift you give yourself. What you went through in the hands of a toxic parent was not your fault. It was as a result of their dysfunction. Harboring bitterness affects the well-being of your soul and emotions and could affect negatively, other relationships you have.

Protect your children (if you have any)

Toxic parents will make toxic grandparents. Protecting your children from them is wisdom. Decide whether or not they get to visit with them, and for how long they stay over. While it could invite a backlash, they are your children and you must protect them.

Be your person

Being overly criticized for everything one does affects their individuality. Work at gaining it back. Find out what you like to do in your spare time. Give yourself a voice. Become who you want to be. Decide how, and with whom you want to spend your time.[8] Invest in your well-being.

Develop meaningful relationships

These could be safe places for you to speak out. They can act as support groups with healing as the goal while offering care. Although trust takes time to build, it is worth trying because toxic related wounds do not heal in isolation. Investing in support groups not only helps you find healing but could help others struggling with the same.

Seek help

Since abuse is etched from childhood, it takes time to heal from it. Abuse affects the proper function of the mind. Seeing a therapist is essential for healing. You want management strategies and a therapist can help in this.

What makes a parent toxic?

This is based on several things.

Upbringing

If growing up they were abused or neglected, they too could do the same to their children.

Trauma during childhood

What they experience growing up can cause post-traumatic stress disorders.[9] Did they experience alcoholism or violence at home? The early death of a parent can cause stress to a child. Were both parents present in the home? Did the parents divorce? Were they raised in adoption centers? All these contribute to the well-being or lack of it, of a child.

Mental disorder

This ranges from medical conditions to stress poorly managed. When a parent is of an unstable mind, they become unaware of the needs of the child. In the case where a parent has to be hospitalized for long periods, the children are raised by someone else other than the parent. While they feel neglected, the parent has no control over how they are raised while she is away.

Final thoughts

A child is likened to an open book. The parent decides what to write or not to write on it. The length of time a child is at home is relatively short. While the damage meted on them by a toxic parent is uncalled for, its effects are destructive and lifelong.[10] No one is seeking perfection in parents, but the responsibility to raise confident, emotionally secure children lies with them. It is possible to raise a secure family based on solid and firm family values.


[1] Curran, Dolores, and Dolores Curran. Traits of a healthy family. Ballantine Books, 1984.

[2] Collins, Bryn. The Toxic Parents Survival Guide: Recognizing, Understanding, and Freeing Yourself from These Difficult Relationships. Health Communications, Inc., 2018.

[3]February, Julian. “7 Toxic Things Parents Do to Their Children.”

[4] Campbell, Ross. How to really love your child. David C Cook, 2004.

[5] Wise, Narc. “How journaling combats gaslighting & frees you from narcissistic abuse.”

[6] Whitfield, Charles L. Healing the child within: Discovery and recovery for adult children of dysfunctional families (recovery classics edition). Health Communications, Inc., 1987.  Cooper-Lovett, Candice. “Invisible Victims: How To Help Children With A Toxic Parent.”

[7] McCullough, Michael E., Steven J. Sandage, and Everett L. Worthington Jr. To forgive is human: How to put your past in the past. InterVarsity Press, 1997.  Forward, Susan. Toxic parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life. Bantam, 2009.

[8] Roth, Kimberlee. Surviving a borderline parent: How to heal your childhood wounds and build trust, boundaries, and self-esteem. ReadHowYouWant. com, 2009.

[9] Fuller-Thomson, Esme, Jami-Leigh Sawyer, and Senyo Agbeyaka. “The toxic triad: Childhood exposure to parental domestic violence, parental addictions, and parental mental illness as factors associated with childhood physical abuse.” Journal of interpersonal violence (2019): 0886260519853407.

[10] Teicher, Martin H. “Wounds that time won’t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse.” Cerebrum 2.4 (2000): 50-67.

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Diana Lucas

Diana Lucas

Hi, Diana here. Welcome to my blog and hope you like my sharing. I am a mother of 2 boys, 3 years old and a 1 year old. I dedicate my career in child development research and I focus on parenting tips, positive parenting, educational toys for my babies. Your time here means a lot to me! Diana A. Lucas
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