We all live with the consequences of poor parenting. However, if our childhood was traumatic, we carry wounds from abusive or dysfunctional parenting. When they haven’t healed, toxic parents can re-injure us in ways that make growth and recovery difficult.
Typically, they do not treat their children with respect as individuals. They won’t compromise, take responsibility for their behavior, or apologize. Often these parents have a mental disorder or a serious addiction.
What is toxic parenting?
Toxic parenting is parenting styles that inflict on-going and repetitive trauma, abuse, humiliation, ill-will, disparage, shaming, belittling, and defaming children. They are the parents that lack insight, compassion and nurturing abilities to foster healthy emotional growth in their children. They are also the parents that are fearful of abandonment and thus control and manipulate their children so they are conditioned to depend on them. Just as toxic chemicals break down vital cells that keep our bodies from getting sick, so does toxic parenting erode a child’s self-esteem, confidence and self-worth.
Once the spirit of a child is broken, the child believes he/she is worthless and unlovable.
Parenthood is a responsibility no parent is ever adequately prepared or equipped for, but is executed based on adults’ experiences during their own childhood. Parents are only human and have many problems of their own. Most children are able to deal with an occasional outburst of anger but need reassurance, love and understanding to counter its negative effects.
Children have a need to bond with their parents or caregivers, but this need makes them vulnerable to being parented by people who were wounded during their own childhood years. Adults often promise to never behave or react towards their children in the way their parents did towards them. Unfortunately they often struggle to learn from the past mistakes of their parents and repeat their parents’ dysfunctional toxic parenting patterns.
Signs of a toxic parent
- They fail to provide you with affirmation and security
- They are overly critical
- They demand your attention
- They make toxic “jokes” about you
- They cause you to justify terrible behavior
- They do not allow you to express negative emotions
- They scare even their adult children
- They always put their feelings first
- They co-opt your goals
- They use guilt and money to control you
- They give you the silent treatment
- They ignore healthy boundaries
- They make you responsible for their happiness
Why does toxic parenting cycles continue?
Adults who have suffered at the hands of a toxic parent are almost always unable to recognize toxic parenting characteristics in themselves. These wounded children develop into wounded adults, passing on the dysfunctional patterns to their own children – sometimes without even recognizing the behaviours as problematic in the first place. Our prisons are full of people who had toxic parents.
A child’s home and style of upbringing is to him the norm for upbringing and believes that is the way it is been done in all other households. They will therefore often not even look for alternative ways of doing.
Children will rarely do what you TELL them to do – but they will always do what you DO. Children are meticulous observers and duplicators of behaviour, especially the people they most frequently spend their time with, such as parents or caretakers. Research indicates that parent-child attachment constitute the basis of all future relationships.
Parents attempting to climb beyond their own toxic upbringing may simply not have the tools to find and adapt more positive ways in which to relate to others.
Types of toxic parents
The Inadequate Parent
Constantly focusing on their own problems, these parents turn their children into ‘mini-adults’ who take care of them. Some parents disclose their deepest feelings and thoughts to their children, using their children as buffer or a crutch during emotional situations.
The Controlling Parent
They use guilt, manipulation and even over helpfulness to direct their children’s lives. They are convinced that their children are incapable of doing anything and therefore dictate and control their children’s feelings, decisions and even thoughts. They will punish independent decision -making by using guilt, shame, humiliation and excessive lecturing. This continues into adulthood when they still treat their children as minors.
The Substance Abusers
Their addiction leaves little time or energy for the demands of parenthood and they usually require the family to deny and hide the problem. They are easily angered, unpredictable, aggressive and withdrawn. They blame others for their problems and lack of personal responsibility.
The Verbal Abusers
These parents frequently hurl verbal attacks on a child’s appearance, intelligence, competence or value as a human being. They demoralize their children with constant put-downs and rob them of their self-confidence.
There are 2 types of verbal abuse:
Direct verbal abuse: verbal attacks delivered directly, openly, viciously. They call their children stupid, ugly, worthless, etc.
Indirect verbal abuse: teasing sarcasm, insulting nicknames, and subtle put downs, hiding abuse behind humor.
The Physical Abusers
Incapable of controlling their own deep-seated rage, these parents often blame their children for their own ungovernable behaviour. Child abuse is defined as ”infliction of physical injuries such as bruises, burns, welts, cuts, and bone and skull fractures.” Physical abusers may also be considered as those who allow or permit abuse; even if that parent omission is due to fear or concern about the status quo of the family.
The Sexual Abusers
Whether flagrantly sexual or covertly seductive, they are the ultimate betrayers, destroying the very heart of childhood – its innocence.
Assessing the toxic levels in your parenting behaviour
It is not always easy to figure out whether your parents are or were toxic. A lot of people have difficult relationships with their parents. That alone does not mean that your parents are emotionally destructive. Many people battle with the question whether they were mistreated or whether they were just being over sensitive.
Dr Susan Forward in her book Toxic Parents, designed questionnaires to help parents take the first steps towards resolving that struggle. Some of these questions may cause anxiety or discomfort. That is okay. It is always difficult to tell ourselves the truth about how many our parents may have hurt us. Although it might be painful, an emotional reaction is perfectly healthy.
Article was written by Adele du Plessis & Mariaan Maartens / Auksano Issue 12/ 2103.
Mariaan Maartens is a therapist at Auksano since 2006 and is also the editor of the Auksano magazine.
Adele du Plessis is a social worker specializing in the assessment and therapeutic support of children and teenagers.
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