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27 Signs of Toxic Parents

Toxic parents are harsh, unsupportive, and emotionally abusive. They create a hostile home environment that subjects children to chronic toxic stress. Such adverse childhood experiences can have damaging impacts on a child’s mental and physical health. There are 27 signs of toxic parents, including mental and physical abuse, manipulation, excessive criticism, and emotional unavailability.

To deal with toxic parenting, recognize toxic behavior, set boundaries, and seek therapy. Many toxic parents behave destructively due to their troubled pasts, mental health issues, and inadequate coping mechanisms under stress. Severing ties with toxic parents involves steps like ceasing communication, filtering emails, adjusting social media settings, and avoiding joint gatherings.

Teens living with toxic parents should minimize conflict, practice self-care, and plan for future independence. Common indicators of being raised by toxic parents include a tendency to please others, fear of confrontation, emotional suppression, and difficulty in forming healthy relationships. Adults who have toxic parents often face challenges such as mental health disorders, emotional dysregulation, low self-esteem, and difficulties in forming healthy relationships.

toxic parent traits, A child and mom sit back to back, disagreeing.

What is a toxic parent?

A toxic parent creates a dysfunctional home environment that causes children to experience prolonged distress, called toxic stress, daily. They put their own needs before the needs of their children. Research shows that toxic parenting subjects children to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that lead to long-lasting impacts on the child’s emotional and physical health, such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder and heart disease.​1​

toxic parents traits

What are the signs of a toxic parent?

There are 27 signs of toxic mothers or fathers.​2​

1. They are mentally abusive.

Toxic parents are psychologically abusive. They are harsh and hostile. Yelling, screaming, and name-calling are their primary means of communication with their children. Abusive parents give harsh criticism and say hurtful things that are emotionally damaging to their children.

2. They are physically abusive.

Some toxic parents are physically or sexually abusive. Instead of providing love, warmth, care, and protection, these toxic parents harm and create fear in their children. Physically abusive parents hit their children when they are angry. Sexually abusive parents commit sexual acts, molestation, or exposing their children to sexual content.

3. They use harsh punishment.

Toxic parents use harsh punishment as a means of control and discipline. This can include excessive scolding, unreasonable restrictions, or physical punishment. Such severe measures are usually disproportionate to the child’s behavior or mistake.

4. They boast “tough love.”

Toxic parents often mask their violent and abusive behavior under the guise of “tough love,” misleadingly portraying harmful actions as beneficial discipline. They justify physical abuse as a form of discipline, labeling it “old-school parenting.” This perspective falsely normalizes harmful behaviors as traditional methods.

5. They gaslight.

Toxic parents twist the truth and reality to suit their own needs. Doing so creates confusion and doubt in their children’s minds, making them question their perceptions and memories. These parents frequently play the victim in situations, shifting blame and responsibility away from themselves and onto their children.

6. They enjoy humiliating their children.

Toxic parents derive satisfaction from humiliating or embarrassing their children, using belittlement and degradation to undermine their children’s self-esteem and maintain control over them.

7. They are strict.

Some toxic parents are authoritarian parents with strict and unrealistic rules.

8. They are critical.

Toxic parents constantly criticize others, often finding fault in others’ actions or choices. Children with toxic parents often feel that no matter what they do, they can never meet their parents’ expectations or gain their approval.

9. They are rigid.

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

10. They lack emotional regulation.

Toxic parents have explosive tempers and are unstable. They become dramatic, hostile, aggressive, and cruel at the slightest provocation. They have outbursts and take their emotions out on their children.

11. They are sensitive and easily offended.

Toxic parents often have low self-esteem and are hypersensitive to criticism, reacting negatively when their opinions, values, or actions are questioned. They perceive any form of disagreement as a personal attack, leading them to react in a confrontational or aggressive manner.

12. They show no affirmation.

Toxic parents rarely show affection or affirmation to their children.

13. They are controlling.

Toxic parents thrive on control. They tend to use fear to ensure compliance. The unreasonable demands of parents often follow their children into adulthood.

14. They are intrusive.

Toxic parents invade their children’s privacy without respecting their personal space. They read their children’s messages and are overly involved in their social lives.

15. They don’t want their children to have friends.

Toxic parents are jealous of their children’s friendships and want to isolate their children to maintain control and influence. They sabotage their children’s friendships or deprive them of social experiences, hindering their ability to develop interpersonal skills, empathy, and a sense of belonging.

16. They are manipulative.

Some toxic parents use fear, guilt, and shame to manipulate their children’s emotions and control them. They create an environment where children are constantly anxious and afraid of making mistakes or displeasing their parents.

17. They use love as a weapon.

Some toxic parents withhold affection or use silent treatment as a form of disapproval, or they show favoritism towards a child who meets their standards.

18. They are cold and emotionally unavailable.

Toxic parents create a distant and unresponsive environment for the children, preventing them from developing a secure attachment. Without guidance and modeling, children struggle with emotional expression and regulation.

19. They are unsupportive.

Toxic parents do not provide their children with emotional support, encouragement, or understanding. They ignore their children’s struggles and refuse to engage with their aspirations and goals.

20. They invalidate their children’s feelings.

Toxic parents dismiss or belittle their children’s emotions instead of acknowledging or validating them. They invalidate their children’s sadness, anger, or frustration with statements such as “You’re overreacting,” “It’s no big deal,” or “Just get over it.”

21. They show no interest or respect for their children.

Toxic parents show no interest in or respect for their children’s ideas, opinions, or preferences.

22. They are narcissistic.

Toxic parents are self-centered. They prioritize their own needs above all else. In extreme cases, this trait aligns with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), leading them to have no concern or empathy for others. Some toxic parents expect their children to admire them regardless of their treatment. Note that NPD can only be correctly diagnosed by trained professionals.

23. They believe they’re always right, even when wrong.

Toxic parents have an “I’m always right” mindset. This attitude stems from a deep-seated need to maintain control and authority over their children.

24. They expect their children to read their minds.

Toxic parents have unrealistic expectations that their children should be able to read their minds and anticipate their needs or desires. They become upset or angry when their children fail to understand or act upon unspoken wishes.

25. They see their children as extensions of themselves.

Toxic parents do not see their children as independent individuals with their own identities and needs. Parents view their children as part of their parents and impose their aspirations, values, and beliefs on their children.

26. They never apologize or regret.

Toxic parents will never admit their parenting style is wrong, hurtful, or damaging. They insist that hurting their children, whether physically or emotionally, is in their best interest and a standard parenting practice.

27. They blame everyone else.

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

10 tips to handle toxic parents

How to deal with toxic parents

To deal with toxic parents, follow these 10 tips.

  1. Recognize toxic behavior in your parent: Acknowledge when you see the signs of toxic parents.
  2. Set and enforce firm boundaries: Be firm about your boundaries.
  3. Stop pleasing them: You don’t need their approval to live your life.
  4. Don’t argue with them: It’s pointless to argue with toxic parents.
  5. Protect yourself: You may have to cut them off if your boundaries are not respected.
  6. Don’t feel guilty: Protecting yourself is not wrong.
  7. Recommend therapy: If your toxic parents want to continue the relationship, they need to commit to therapy.
  8. Don’t try to change them: Only toxic people can change themselves.
  9. Empower yourself: Take charge of your relationship.
  10. Don’t need to explain: You don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Why are parents so toxic?

Many toxic parents are toxic because they have had a toxic childhood themselves and tend to suffer from depression, social anxiety, or low self-esteem. When they experience a high level of stress in life, the lack of coping skills causes them to become hostile and emotionally abusive. A study of 44 psychologically abusive mothers confirmed these associations.​3​

How to get rid of toxic parents

Here are 9 steps to cut ties and get rid of toxic parents.

  1. Stop visiting.
  2. Stop calling.
  3. Stop writing or emailing.
  4. Don’t pick up the phone when they call.
  5. Set up an email filter so their emails don’t reach your inbox.
  6. Unfriend them on social media.
  7. Adjust your privacy settings in social media accounts.
  8. Ask friends and families not to invite both you and them to gatherings.
  9. Don’t discuss this with your friends (some cannot resist asking you to forgive them).

How to deal with toxic parents as a teenager

To deal with toxic parents as a teenager, having patience and planning are necessary since your options are limited. Minimizing conflicts, taking good care of yourself, and planning for the future is the best way to get through this stage. When you have more options as an adult, having a plan will allow you to stop the toxic relationship with your parents and live a better life.

What are the signs you were raised by toxic parents?

Here are 11 signs you were raised by toxic parents.

  1. You try to please everyone.
  2. You are scared of confrontation.
  3. When you’re upset, you suppress instead of express your feelings.
  4. When your emotions have reached a breaking point, you have uncontrollable outbursts.
  5. You struggle to make decisions because you fear making a mistake.
  6. You don’t know how to set boundaries in your relationships.
  7. You often find yourself ending up in abusive or toxic relationships
  8. You feel you’re never good enough and doubt your abilities.
  9. You cannot trust or build healthy bonds in intimate relationships.
  10. You fear being abandoned.
  11. You are anxious and depressed.

What are the effects of toxic parents in adulthood?

There are 8 effects of toxic parents in adulthood.​4–11​

  1. Mental health disorders: Toxic stress from ACEs adversely affects children’s brain development and mental health. Children with toxic parents have higher incidences of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life.
  2. Lack of emotional regulation: Emotional dysregulation is common in these children.
  3. Reduced executive function: Children with dysfunctional families have poorer working memory, inhibition, and attention, affecting their academic achievement, peer relationships, and self-control.
  4. Low self-esteem: Children from dysfunctional families tend to have lower self-esteem.
  5. Anti-social behavior: Adolescents are at risk for delinquency and drug use.
  6. Weakened immunity: Children who live in a home where abuse and neglect are prevalent tend to have compromised immune systems. They are more likely to develop physical sicknesses, such as asthma, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  7. Difficulty in relationships: Children who cannot trust their parents struggle with attachment issues. They have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood.
  8. Prone to abuse: The child, seeking affection or approval not received at home, might adopt behaviors such as people-pleasing, abandonment issues, becoming clingy or conflict-averse, struggling with boundary-setting, or inadvertently entering abusive relationships to fulfill their need for attention.

How do I know if my parents are toxic?

You know your parents are toxic if their actions induce chronic stress in you. Chronic distress resulting from repeated parenting practices is toxic stress. Toxic parenting creates adverse childhood experiences that can result in child trauma.

What are the types of toxic parents?

There are 9 types of toxic parents.

  1. Abusive parents: Physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse their children.
  2. Strict parents: Have rigid rules and expect blind obedience.
  3. Controlling parents: Exert excessive influence over their children’s lives.
  4. Narcissistic parents: Characterized by excessive self-focus, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.
  5. Gaslighting parents: Psychologically manipulate, causing their children to question their perceptions, memories, and sanity.
  6. Manipulative parents: Influence or control their children to benefit their needs or desires.
  7. Codependent parents: Enmesh their needs excessively with those of their children.
  8. Helicopter parents: Intrusive hovering over their children and preventing the development of coping skills.
  9. Neglectful parents: Uninvolved and unresponsive to their children’s needs.
  10. Emotionally distant parents: Emotionally unavailable and lack warmth toward their children.

Why is toxic parenting bad?

Toxic parenting puts children under stress for an extended period. The stress from having a toxic mother or father is different from everyday stress because it’s chronic and comes from a child’s primary caregivers.

Everyday stress, like a tough day at school, is temporary and often resolved quickly. It’s a normal part of life and can help children develop resilience with sufficient adult support. The type of stress from toxic parenting, called toxic stress, is persistent and unpredictable, making it hard for children to find relief or safety.

This ongoing stress strains a child’s coping mechanisms and keeps their sympathetic nervous systems heightened. Prolonged exposure to this stress can lead to an overproduction of stress hormones, such as cortisol, adversely affecting their brain development, including the amygdala and hippocampus, which control emotion regulation.​12​

Do toxic parents know they are toxic?

Yes, some toxic parents know they are toxic, but many do not. For example, a 2013 study at Washington University found that narcissists do know that they behave in a narcissistic way.​13​

Some parents may recognize their actions but struggle with personal issues, such as past trauma or mental health challenges, which impede their ability to change. Others might be unaware due to a lack of self-awareness or understanding of healthy parenting practices.

Cultural and societal norms also influence perceptions of what constitutes appropriate parenting, sometimes masking toxic behaviors as traditional or acceptable methods. Yet some parents are in denial about the impact of their actions, believing they are acting in the child’s best interest.

Final thoughts

Children growing up with toxic parents often wonder, “Why do my parents hate me?” or “Why are my parents so strict?”

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.


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