What is Toxic Parenting?

Parents are human beings. And that means that they make mistakes, yell too much, or do potentially damaging things to their kids — even unintentionally. But for most parents, their impulse is to do better and make things right. What happens, however, when the parental relationship turns toxic.

Let’s begin by defining what a toxic parent is. 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.

A toxic parent is more concerned with their own needs than whether what they’re doing is hurtful. 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 of the following characteristics:

1. 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?”

  • They always put their feelings first. Parents may believe that their feelings should come first during family matters, but this is an antiquated way of thinking that is not going to foster positive relationships. Even though parents do need to make the final decision about everything from dinner to vacation plans, it is necessary to consider the feelings of every family member — including the children. 
  • Toxic individuals constantly force children to suppress their own feelings to appease their parents. Everything is about them and their feelings.  If there’s one trait that most toxic parents share, it’s this one. Toxic parents struggle to separate themselves and their feelings from parenting. They can’t grasp that the role of a parent is one of service — your job is to give your kid(s) the best possible chance to grow and develop into a well-rounded and healthy human being. Toxic parents seem to think, oh, the kids are fine. They wave their hand and say something about how kids are resilient and don’t need much   — only to turn around and complain that their kids don’t give them the love or respect that they should. Often, they are the toxic type of parent who doesn’t recognize that parenting takes work, and that little kids really aren’t “trying to be jerks.” They’re also prone to gushing about how much they love their kids even though they never do seem to say anything of substance about who their kids are (because they really don’t know).
  • They’re emotional loose cannons. They overreact or create drama. They make mountains out of molehills. Some toxic parents cannot discern a big problem from a small one. In their eyes, every little act of disobedience, every poor grade, and every dirty sock on the floor is the end of the world. Such toxic parents typically don’t know how to pick their battles, so they just harp on every little thing — often raising anxious children who are petrified to fail, or impulsive kids who don’t care about anything since they’re always in some sort of trouble. These are often the same parents who treat everything that goes wrong like a life-or-death matter. Their kids often grow up with an impending sense of doom they just can’t shake.
  • They overshare. They share improper info with you, like details about their intimate lives. They use you as their main source of emotional support.
  • They fail to provide you with affirmation and security. Some people believe that showing tough love is an important way to ensure that their children can take care of themselves in the future. If you were the recipient of this approach on a regular basis, you might even believe that this has had a positive impact on your life. However, if you practically fall apart now because of any perceived failure or rejection, then this most likely stems from a parent’s toxic refusal to provide you with the right amount of security and affirmation while you were young. Tough love might work sometimes, but it cannot be the only approach a parent takes if they want their child to become a well-rounded adult.
  • They do not allow you to express negative emotions. Parents who refuse to nurture their child’s emotional needs and make light of their negative emotions are setting up a future where the child will feel unable to express what they need. There is nothing wrong with helping children see the positive side of any situation. However, being completely dismissive of a child’s negative feelings and emotional needs can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and make it more difficult for them to appropriately handle negativity as adults.
  • They demand your attention. Toxic parents often make their children parental substitutes by always demanding their attention. This can be seen as bonding between the parent and child, but it is really a parasitic relationship that requires too much of the child’s time and energy when they should be focused on learning other skills. Although it may be difficult at times, a well-rounded parent will allow their children enough space to grow and be kids without demanding constant interaction to suit their own needs.
  • They make you responsible for their happiness. If one of your parents spent a lot of time telling you how much they gave up for you in connection with their unhappiness, then they were placing unrealistic expectations on your role in their life. No child should be held accountable for their parent’s happiness. Also, parents should never demand that children give up things that make them happy to even out the score. Being forced into this situation will make it difficult for adult children to understand that we are all responsible for our own happiness.
  • They expect their kids to agree with them about (practically) everything. Some children grow up with parents who will not allow them to express different thoughts or opinions. If you disagree with such a parent, they might accuse you of being headstrong, rebellious, stupid, or worse. It seems especially common in matters of faith. A parent might insist that a child who doesn’t believe exactly as they do will wind up facing serious punishment, like hell or physical retribution. Parents like these will typically not tolerate any questions from their children, because even asking a simple question would suggest the kid doesn’t believe whatever the parent thinks they “should.” Religious toxic parents might call their kids “possessed.” Other unhealthy parents might stick with just-as-damaging labels like “crazy.” Ultimately, this is toxic parenting because the child is not permitted to think for themselves. Such kids are typically expected to accept their parent’s words as fact and behave more like a soldier or a robot than a human being.
  • They don’t see their children as autonomous individuals. For too many toxic parents, their child is merely an extension of themselves, and little more than that. They might even fear the day their kid attempts to be more autonomous and spend years trying to prevent them from fully expressing their thoughts and feelings as a solo person. Parents like this often fall into the “children should be seen and not heard” camp. Age-appropriate behavior like temper tantrums, bad moods, whining, and crying aren’t properly addressed with love and understanding because these parents don’t care why their kid is acting out. All they care about is that the unwanted behavior stops. The irony of such parents is that they frequently succumb to their own intense emotions. If they feel angry or upset, they rarely think twice about throwing a fit or letting someone else really have it. These types of parents are often caught up in the idea that successful parenting creates obedient children who never “mess up” or embarrass them.
  • They’re uncomfortable when their kid is happy. As much as people love to say that all parents want the best for their children, many of us know that simply isn’t true. Some toxic parents aren’t happy when their kids are happy — they may be jealous or resentful of their own children. Some might wish they never had kids and they simply aren’t able to get past their own feelings to give their offspring what they need. Parents like this often sabotage their own kids. They might be quite cruel to their face or make off-hand remarks meant to chip away at a child’s sense of self-worth. This type of toxic parent can’t just be proud of their kid. They feel they must find a way to tear them down.
  • Their kids aren’t allowed to ask questions or express their honest feelings. Toxic parents are often terrible at processing human emotions that aren’t their own. Or they might struggle to work through their own emotional issues that pop up when they become parents. When their kids express their honest feelings, toxic parents often reply that they shouldn’t feel that way. Again and again, their children get the message that they are wrong for having their thoughts and feelings. It’s incredibly difficult to grow when your parents constantly tell you that your natural reactions are all bad. The same logic might apply to questions. These parents will tell their kids not to ask “stupid” or otherwise “inappropriate” questions without really explaining why. The parents probably don’t know. All they know may just be that they’re uncomfortable or they don’t know how to take the time and energy to answer their kids.

2. 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.

  • They make toxic “jokes” about you. All parents occasionally pick on their children, but when the so-called jokes become commonplace, this can be a huge problem. You do not need to accept this type of behavior just because your parent has always joked about something such as your height or weight. Ultimately, this is an undermining tactic that can make you feel very badly about yourself. If a parent has a legitimate concern to address with their child, they should be honest and non-critical, as opposed to making mean jokes.
  • They give you the silent treatment. It can be hard to talk to someone when you are angry and shutting out a child with the silent treatment is very damaging and immature. Dishing out this passive-aggressive treatment hurts any type of relationship and makes the recipient feel pressured into fixing the situation, even when they didn’t do anything wrong. If a parent is too mad to have a rational conversation, they should excuse themselves for a few minutes instead of blatantly ignoring their child.
  • They’re harshly critical. Nothing you do is ever good enough. They don’t respect your good traits or achievements. Everyone’s parents criticize from time to time. Without this component, we might never learn how to do numerous things properly, such as everyday chores like washing laundry. A toxic parent takes this to extremes by being overly critical about everything their child does. Parents can make the mistake of believing that they do this to make sure their children avoid making costly mistakes. Unfortunately, what this behavior really does is causing the child to develop a harsh inner critic that can be borderline crippling during adulthood. 
  • They’re often more judgmental of their own kids than anyone else’s. Some of you grew up with parents who were constantly asking why you couldn’t be more like Jill or Johnny across the street. Perhaps it felt like they had something good to say about every single one of your classmates, but when it came to the way they spoke about you, all they ever did was complain or make hardly helpful suggestions about what you might improve. Some parents seem simply compelled to destroy what they have created. Like so many other toxic parents, they may not even know why they do it, and it’s even more likely that they don’t realize what they’re doing. After all, toxic parents aren’t known for self-awareness or self-improvement. They’re typically too busy blaming other people, and unfortunately, that might mean their own kids.
  • They cause you to justify terrible behavior. Did you grow up believing that your parent was physically or emotionally abusive to you because you deserved it? If so, you may still be justifying the terrible behavior of others at your own expense. Toxic parents can twist any situation to suit their needs, and this leaves children with two choices: accept that their parent is wrong or internalize all the blame. In most cases, children, even those who are adults now, choose the latter option.
  • They scare even their adult children. Respect and fear do not need to go hand-in-hand. In fact, children who feel loved, supported, and connected are more likely to be happy as adults. Although discipline of some sort will inevitably be necessary from time to time, non-toxic parents do not use highly fearful actions and words that are permanently damaging to the human psyche. Children should not need to be afraid to be respectful, and adults should not need to end up feeling anxious each time their parent calls or emails.
  • They discipline out of anger or fear. Any time a parent disciplines their child, the expectation is that they’re doing it out of love. The whole purpose of discipline in parenting is to teach your child how to better navigate the world in a responsible way. But lots of toxic parents lose sight of the whole point. Instead, they end up disciplining their kids as a knee-jerk reaction to their own emotions. The toxic parent might feel angry, annoyed, disappointed, embarrassed, or even scared when their child behaves a certain way. They feel compelled to “nip things in the bud” instead of understanding the big picture and what’s going on with their kids. Spanking, berating, ridiculing — a toxic parent may label such tactics “discipline.” Their children might fear them, resent them, or feel utterly worthless, yet a toxic parent often won’t care or really see the problem. They are frequently the same type of parent to tease their kids for being “crybabies” or “overly sensitive.”
  • They withhold love and affection as a form of punishment. Many parents get confused or worried about what might be seen as “overly indulgent” parenting. They might wonder when it’s okay to hug or soothe a child who’s been acting out. A toxic parent, however, often has no impulse to soothe their “misbehaving” child. Instead, they frequently resort to withholding their love as a means of “discipline.” Parents who withhold love or punish their children by offering them dirty looks, refusing to hug or hold them, and telling their kids that they don’t like or love them are toxic. Shame is never a helpful motivator. If anything, it will only inspire worse behavior, or kids will learn to hide the truth from their toxic parents. The children of such parents might find themselves addicted to cruel romantic partners who similarly push them away and pull them back in to manipulate their behavior. The parents who do this will typically carry lots of other toxic traits, like holding the belief that parenthood is all about them and their feelings.

3. 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.

  • They don’t believe in a child’s privacy. Especially as a kid grows older, some parents really struggle to give them space. They might read through their kids’ diaries or rummage through their backpacks to look through their notes. Children who wish to lock their doors or work on a project alone might be regarded with suspicion. Such parents will often justify dismissing their kid’s requests for privacy by insisting it’s their house, their rules. Kids don’t need privacy, they reason, unless they are up to no good. Parents like these often have a hard time seeing their child’s emotional needs. They’re also often prone to expecting the worst.
  • 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. Parents can justify keeping a close eye on their children and, in certain situations, it may even be necessary to do a bit of snooping to keep them safe. However, everyone needs to be able to set boundaries for themselves, especially teenagers. Parents who are toxic override these boundaries at every turn, and this causes numerous problems. For example, a toxic parent will open their child’s door without knocking first. This sets up a pattern that makes it hard for their children to properly recognize and understand boundaries later in life.
  • They co-opt your goals. Did one of your parents become interested in everything you were doing to the point where they took over or even duplicated you? This can seem like the actions of someone who is interested in their child’s life, but what it often does is making it harder for the child to meet their goals. For example, if you must sell 50 boxes of cookies while your mother decides to make cookies and pass them out to the neighbors, it is going to be a lot harder to hit your sales goal. This behavior can derail you throughout your entire life if you allow your parent to keep getting away with it.
  • They want their children to follow in their footsteps or live out their unfulfilled dreams. I think it’s safe to say that many healthy parents live just a bit vicariously through their children. Birthday parties and holidays tend to be a good example of that. Lots of people just want to give their kids a better childhood than the one they had, and I don’t believe that’s inherently bad or toxic. It becomes problematic when parents don’t know how to create boundaries and recognize that their child is a fully autonomous and different person from them. Toxic parents often expect their kids to fulfill their unfulfilled dreams or make choices that make them happy, with little concern for what their children want. They might push their kids into specific careers, pressure them to get married and have children — anything they would have wanted for themselves or anything that might benefit them right now as parents or grandparents. Such toxic parents frequently like to say their children owe them certain choices or outcomes, because they have sacrificed so much for their kids. It’s manipulation that ignores how the children never asked to be brought into the situation where they would be expected to please their parents in every possible way.
  • They expect the worst of their own kids. Everybody knows that teenagers are not typically the most responsible or wisest people around. That’s no insult to teens, however. It’s just that developmentally, and even culturally, they don’t usually have the tools they need to make their best decisions. Healthy parents recognize that the teenage years can be hard, and they strive for a healthy balance of understanding and expectations along with age- and individually appropriate responsibilities. Toxic parents are different. They tend to sort of flip out during the teen years and expect the worst. Some toxic parents have the tendency to expect the worst at a younger age too. The whole problem with expecting the worst, though, is that you tend to bring out the worst behavior in your kids. Most kids feel it deeply when they recognize that their own parents don’t think too highly of them. That means they often won’t think too highly of themselves. And when people don’t think too highly of themselves, they tend to act out more. If they think they’re “bad,” they’re going to act the way they think a “bad kid” ought to act.
  • They expect their children to “perform.” On the opposite side of low expectations is the toxic parent who expects way too much from their kids. Parents who expect too much often do so because they have the idea that children are supposed to make their parents look good or basically, “perform” for them. This type of toxic parent often cares excessively about appearances. They don’t care so much about what their kid has learned and whether or not they are a happy and well-adjusted child. They want to know that their kid will impress other people. Parents like this might be fixated on things like grades, physical beauty, career status, or popularity. It never really matters what the fixation is, just the fact that it exists is damaging enough. These toxic parents don’t grasp that people need room to grow and make mistakes. Not their kids, anyway.

4. 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.

  • They use guilt and money to control you. Every child has experienced a guilt trip from their parents, but toxic individuals resort to this tactic on a regular basis. Even as an adult, your parent might still be controlling you by giving you expensive gifts and then expecting something in return. If you fail to do as they want, they will then try to make you feel guilty about it because of “everything they have done for you.” Healthy parents know that children do not owe them a specific response in exchange for money or gifts, especially when these items were not asked for in the first place. They use guilt to get their way.
  • Sometimes, people joke about their parents guilting them to get what they want. Maybe they want you to attend Christmas Day at their house every year even though you’ve already told them you’d like to go somewhere else.
  • Toxic parents will resort to guilt and manipulation to get you to change your mind. Sometimes, the manipulation will be very subtle and sometimes, it will be blatant. The stress is usually the same when you’re a child (even a grown child) who simply doesn’t want to disappoint their mom or dad. In a healthy parent-child relationship, both parties can express hurt, frustration, and disappointment without making demands or insisting that the other person overlook their own wants and needs just to make one party happy.
  • They keep score. Some parents remember every little “wrong” thing their child does. If their kid gets into any sort of trouble, their parent will never let them live it down. And should their child need any sort of help, it’s this sort of parent who is likely to write it down and bring it up far into the future. They may also be the same type of parent to call their kid a mistake or treat them like a burden. Instead of teaching their kids that family is always there for each other, they give their kids the sense that their love has strict limits, and that they’re running out of goodwill.
  • They take no blame and make zero apologies. Some parents have never apologized to their children for the things that they get wrong and they refuse to believe that kids might ever deserve an apology from a parent. Parents like this often have a toxic understanding of parenthood as the default position of always being right because they are always in charge. And yet, when things go wrong, these parents are the first to blame outside forces. If their kids attend therapy, they might sarcastically ask what they’re going to be blamed for this time. They often see themselves as martyrs — the last heroes in a dying lineage of authoritarians. This sort of toxic parent often has “No idea” why their kids won’t talk to them as they grow up. They may suspect it’s some outside influence and never even consider anything they’ve done wrong. But how could they? Parents like these simply don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong in the first place.

Most parents genuinely do their best to provide their children with a happy and healthy upbringing, but even these individuals can accidentally make mistakes.

Some parents go beyond the occasional mistake and veer into the toxic category. Regardless of whether a parent is purposefully being toxic, there are several behaviors that can cause so much emotional and mental damage to a child that it ends up greatly affecting them.

Some parents go beyond the occasional mistake and veer into the toxic category. Regardless of whether a parent is purposefully being toxic, there are several behaviors that can cause so much emotional and mental damage to a child that it ends up greatly affecting them.

The good news is that whether we become parents or not, we don’t need to be stuck repeating toxic cycles with our loved ones. We can recognize the toxic traits passed down in our families and stop them in ourselves.

It takes work, but it’s good work. It’s the sort of work that makes you think that maybe the whole world isn’t as messed up as we once believed, and perhaps there are a lot more kindred spirits than we ever even knew.

Looking for some support to work through a relationship with a toxic parent? Contact us to discuss ways we can help. 

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