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Toxic Parents: How To Identify Them And What To Do If It’s Your Family

What are toxic parents | Signs | Effects | How to deal with your toxic parents

You can always divorce an abusive spouse. You can split up with a mistreating partner. But what if your parents are the ones who are making you suffer?

It is true that even the best parents fall short from time to time. While there is no perfect parent, most are good enough. However, a few are downright toxic.

What Are Toxic Parents?

Toxic parents create a negative and toxic home environment. They use fear, guilt, and humiliation as tools to get what they want and ensure compliance from their children. They are often neglectful, emotionally unavailable, and abusive in some cases. They put their own needs before the needs of their children. Children who grow up in such dysfunctional families experience toxic stress on a daily basis.

Many toxic parents will never admit that their parenting style is wrong, hurtful, or damaging. It is common for parents to cling to their parenting style, insisting that it is in the child’s best interest or that it is their normal style of parenting. 

Abusive behaviors of toxic parents negatively affect their children in the short term as well as well into adulthood.

In psychology, the term used most often to describe toxic parents is narcissistic parents. In severe cases, these parents suffer from personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder​1​.

toxic mother yells at daughter

Signs Of Toxic Parenting

A toxic mother or father will often display a litany of toxic behavior, including: ​2​

Self-absorbed

Toxic parents tend to be self-centered, putting their own needs before their children’s. Such parents are self-absorbed, emotionally unavailable, and do not have empathy for others.

Rigid

They insist their opinions and values are right, and others’ opposing ones are wrong. These parents will force their children to adopt the same opinions and values.

Easily offended

Toxic parents tend to be very sensitive to criticism. Whenever their opinions, values, or actions are challenged, their inability to control emotion leads to emotional outbursts and unpredictable, reactive behavior.

girl covers her ears as mother yells at her dealing with toxic parents

Emotional instability

Some toxic parents have explosive tempers and they are high in hostility. A toxic parent can be an unpredictable parent. At the slightest provocation, they become dramatic, hostile, aggressive, and cruel.

Manipulative

Parents who are toxic are manipulative. They may use guilt or silent treatment to control their children. They may also twist the truth to their advantage and play the victim to get what they want. 

Abusive

Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are commonplace in toxic families. Yelling, screaming, and name-calling are their primary means of communication with their children. 

Any form of assertiveness, individual differences, or rebellion is seen by toxic parents as a personal attack. They use physical pain to discipline and enforce abusive family rules.

Some abusive parents don’t stop there. The children can also suffer from physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Extremely Controlling

Toxic parents thrive on control. Their parenting style is often authoritarian. They tend to use fear to ensure compliance. 

The unreasonable demands of parents can follow these kids into adult lives. 

Additionally, some control their child in order to live vicariously through them.

Blaming Everyone Else 

Toxic parents never take responsibility for their actions and are usually in complete denial. They blame everyone around them for the turmoil, tension, and hostility within the household. 

girl buries face in hands suffering from toxic parents

Effects Of Toxic Parenting On Children

Toxic parent-child relationships can have an immense impact on children’s healthy development. Children and adult children of abusive parents may experience the following challenges.

Mental health

Prolonged childhood stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can adversely affect children’s brain development and harm their physical and mental health​3​.

Children of narcissistic parents often have higher incidences of depression​4​. Lacking emotional regulation skills is also a common issue for these children​5​. It is more likely they will suffer from PTSD later in life​6​.

Physical health

In addition to the psychological effects of toxic environments in the home, children who live in a home where abuse and neglect are prevalent tend to have compromised immune systems. 

Our biological systems are profoundly affected by the environments in our early years. Children living in toxic environments are more likely to develop asthma, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Outcomes

Children from abusive dysfunctional families tend to have lower self-esteem. They are also linked strongly to behavioral issues. Adolescents are at risk for antisocial behavior and drug use​7​.

Because they didn’t form a secure attachment with their parents, adult children may have a difficult time forming intimate relationships or maintaining healthy relationships with others​8​.

people in support group hold hands dealing with toxic parents in adulthood

How To Deal With Your Toxic Parents

If you are a child with toxic parents, seek help from teachers and school counselors as soon as possible. You will need help and guidance to deal with the toxic behavior of parents.

If you are an adult child, your journey to adulthood has been tough, but you’ve made it. Now it’s time to help yourself heal.

Create a support network

The assumption that parents always love and protect their children is not universally true. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately for them, most people don’t understand or believe this because they haven’t gone through it. “Blood is thicker than water,” describes the importance of loyalty and family ties to many with normal parents.

It hurts when the people who were supposed to love us hurt us. But it hurts even more when you tell a trusted friend about this painful past, only to hear them scold you for being an ungrateful child.

So, it is important that you create a support network of people who will listen to you and support you. 

It can be an empathetic friend or an experienced psychologist. Surround yourself with people who will help you heal, rather than make you feel worse about yourself.

Set Boundaries And Stick To Them 

Most abused children understand that they must set personal boundaries with their toxic parents. But this is easier said than done.

Bonding is hard-wired into us, especially to our caregivers, even if they do not treat us well. Despite being mistreated, many children still hope to gain their parents’ complete approval and acceptance.

We cannot change others (you’ve probably tried for a long time). Toxic people will probably never change unless they seek help for themselves. Focus on what you can control and manage your own expectations and reactions, rather than hoping for change.

At some point, you’ll need to take care of your own psychological wellbeing if the painful relationship patterns don’t seem to improve. 

Cutting off contact and forgoing the toxic relationship because your parents cannot follow healthy boundaries may seem like a drastic measure, but your mental health and emotional health are more important. You need to protect yourself from harm.

Seek mental help

Children who suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other psychological issues need to seek help from mental health professionals.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are not only able to treat mental disorders, but can also provide strong support for those coping with issues resulting from childhood trauma such as:

  • You have a constant feeling of being trapped in the pain of childhood.
  • You are suffering because of your anger towards your parents.
  • You are afraid people will not like you, so you work hard to please them you seek constant approval​9
  • Your insecure attachment leads to difficulty in relationships.
  • You have been involved in intimate partner abuse and domestic violence.

You can work through these issues with the help of an experienced therapist and rebuild the happy life you deserve.

Also See: Toxic Things Parents Say

Final thoughts on toxic parents

Fortunately, the damage caused by toxic parents is not written in stone. Neuroplasticity allows us to rewire our brains for happiness with new experiences. The importance of having healthy adult relationships and a support network cannot be overstated.

References

  1. 1.
    Dutton DG, Denny-Keys MK, Sells JR. Parental Personality Disorder and Its Effects on Children: A Review of Current Literature. Journal of Child Custody. Published online October 2011:268-283. doi:10.1080/15379418.2011.620928
  2. 2.
    Brown NW. Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-up’s Guide to Getting over Narcissistic Parents. New Harbinger Publications; 2008.
  3. 3.
    Johnson SB, Riley AW, Granger DA, Riis J. The Science of Early Life Toxic Stress for Pediatric Practice and Advocacy. Pediatrics. Published online February 1, 2013:319-327. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-0469
  4. 4.
    Dentale F, Verrastro V, Petruccelli I, et al. Relationship between parental narcissism and children’s mental vulnerability: Mediation role of rearing style. International Journal of Psychology & Psychological Therapy. 2015;15(3):337–347.
  5. 5.
    Murray DW, Rosanbalm KD, Christopoulos C, Hamoudi A. Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: Foundations for Understanding Self-Regulation from an Applied Developmental Perspective. .; 2015.
  6. 6.
    Margolin G, Vickerman KA. Posttraumatic stress in children and adolescents exposed to family violence: I. Overview and issues. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Published online December 2007:613-619. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.38.6.613
  7. 7.
    Schilling EA, Aseltine RH Jr, Gore S. Adverse childhood experiences and mental health in young adults: a longitudinal survey. BMC Public Health. Published online March 7, 2007. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-30
  8. 8.
    Miga EM, Hare A, Allen JP, Manning N. The relation of insecure attachment states of mind and romantic attachment styles to adolescent aggression in romantic relationships. Attachment & Human Development. Published online September 2010:463-481. doi:10.1080/14616734.2010.501971
  9. 9.
    Rappoport A. Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist. 2005;1:1-8.

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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