A toxic parent is characterized by the fact that this person’s negative behavior causes severe emotional damage to their child’s self-esteem. The characteristics of a toxic parent do not in and of themselves constitute a mental disorder, but a toxic parent may well have a mental illness. It is extremely important to the well-being of the child or children of such individuals that they are able to identify their parent’s toxic behavior as such. The best way to identify whether a parent is toxic or not is to look for signs of toxic behaviors. If the behavior suggests that a person is indeed toxic and you are the child in that situation, you should learn step-by-step how to live with that parent. You should also take steps to learn how to deal with the parent’s toxic behavior as best you can. This is especially true if you suspect child abuse may have occurred.
Table of Contents
- 1 Pay attention to the clues
- 2 Living with a toxic parent
- 3 Dealing with a toxic parent
- 4 Final Words
Pay attention to the clues
Consider what the parents say to their child.
A toxic parent often makes the child feel bad about themselves. Perhaps he criticizes the child incessantly and particularly harshly. Many toxic parents also show no appreciation for their children and their achievements. A toxic parent is often very negative and may often yell at the child. More sophisticated toxic parents might be more subtle when criticizing and maybe even abusing their child. Such parents might wrap harsh criticism in niceties or say nasty things with a deceptively soft tongue. A classic example of this would be when a child gets a good grade on a test. The child might say, “Look! I got an A on my math test!”. A toxic parent might then reply, “And why didn’t you get an A+?”. This devalues the child’s hard work and leaves the child feeling that they have let their parents down.
EXPERT COUNCIL Psychologist Dr. Liana Georgoulis is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with over ten years of experience and is now the Clinical Director of Coast Psychological Services in Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Pepperdine University in 2009. Her practice offers cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based therapies for adolescents, adults, and couples. Liana Georgoulis, PsyD Psychologist Toxic parents come in many forms. The psychologist Dr. Liana Georgoulis says: “There are a lot of behaviors that can be considered toxic. There are the overtly aggressive behaviors like yelling, blaming and hitting, but there are also more insidious behaviors that can further damage a child’s personality and self-esteem For example, a parent may be very hostile to the needs of the child, or they may be overly dependent on the child and use them as an emotional support system.”
Understand that a toxic parent demands their child’s attention.
The children of toxic parents often take on the role of the parent in this dynamic, while the toxic guardian constantly seeks the child’s attention. This is particularly common when parents are angry or worried about something. Unfortunately, most children are unable, and should not, be able to shoulder that responsibility and keep their parents happy. A parent’s greatest responsibility to their child is to take care of the child and not the other way around.
Realize that toxic parents are selfish.
A toxic parent is unable to put their own ego aside during an argument with their child. Instead, the child experiences an icy silence until, in desperation, it begs for forgiveness. A toxic parent doesn’t care about how the child feels, they only care about their own well-being. Children usually find it very difficult to deal with this negative parental behavior. Young children in particular do not yet understand why their parents behave the way they do. In the case of most toxic parents, that also means they feel the need to control everyone else. For a toxic person to be happy, everything must always go their way. For this reason, toxic people are not afraid to make other people (and their children) feel guilty in order to get their way. It could also be that toxic parents fail to identify other people’s feelings, which is why they don’t realize that their behavior is having a negative effect on others.
EXPERT COUNCIL Psychologist Dr. Liana Georgoulis is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with over ten years of experience and is now the Clinical Director of Coast Psychological Services in Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Pepperdine University in 2009. Her practice offers cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based therapies for adolescents, adults, and couples. Liana Georgoulis, PsyD Psychologist “Instability, lack of emotional support, and overly critical standards can all be toxic behaviors.”
Remember that a toxic parent is very negative.
Everyone has a bad mood or negative thoughts from time to time—but toxic parents rarely have anything positive to say. A toxic parent often lapses into just the opposite extreme: almost all statements made by a toxic parent are complaints or derogatory statements. Complaints about your own child or children will often be the issue. Toxic parents also have no qualms about serving their children these nasty statements on a silver platter. Negativity breeds more negativity. A child who grows up around parents who are consistently negative will most likely develop the same outlook on life. In addition, such children often have a negative self-image because they have heard so many negative things about themselves from their parents. Keep in mind that most toxic parents are very socially affable – they just aren’t nice to their own children.
Watch for evidence of explicit abuse.
While this may not always be the case, there is a relatively high probability that a toxic parent will subject their child to some degree of verbal abuse. It could be that the parent constantly criticizes the child. However, the toxic parent may be using more complex psychological games to convince the child that they are a bad person. In some cases, the abuse may be even more pronounced. Toxic parents may physically or sexually abuse their children. Hitting a child in any way (including a slap on the bottom) is always physical abuse. In the case of children, any form of sexual touching is considered sexual abuse. If you suspect that someone you know is abusing their child, you should definitely inform the authorities – even if you are not sure. Some meaningful indications are, for example, sudden changes in behavior, extreme withdrawal, conspicuous or attention-getting behavior, unkempt or unclean appearance or clothing that is not suitable for the weather. It is always better to be safe than sorry in such cases. You can call the police, the youth welfare office or the sexual abuse helpline if you need help identifying the right contact person. If you are an abused child, you should tell someone about your situation. You can tell a teacher at school you trust or call the police.
Living with a toxic parent
Create a safe space where you can let your feelings out.
If you’re forced to live with toxic parents, you’ll probably have trouble dealing with the negative emotions that come with it. It may be that this unfair situation triggers a lot of anger in you. Having a place to let off steam would be a good way to deal with the negative feelings in response to this difficult situation. For example, a great method would be journaling. However, you should make sure that you hide the journal in a safe place where your parents cannot find it. You can choose a handwritten journal or write in a text file on your computer if you prefer. You can write whatever you want in your diary. If you wish, you can use your journal to identify negative patterns. This might be helpful to better deal with your toxic parents. Write down any events that are troubling you and think about how you could better cope with such events in the future. In your journal, you should also write down positive things about yourself. If your parents are causing you to be dissatisfied and unhappy with yourself, it is very important that you create reminders to yourself that you are not a bad person. Sure, maybe you make mistakes sometimes, but everyone else makes them too. Try to write down one thing each day that was good about you or that you did well. This may seem ridiculous to you at first, but this method can have a positive impact on your self-image. You can also ask friends and family members to add things to this list. It might improve your mood when other people say positive things about you. Just make sure you avoid any family members who might have been influenced by your parents with a negative portrayal of you, as these people are likely to have a distorted view of things.
Remember it’s not your fault.
Dealing with toxic people is not easy. These people seem to have a knack for spreading negativity, often making those around them feel unhappy about themselves. Unfortunately, a great many toxic people exhibit toxic behaviors because they grew up around toxic people themselves. The way your parents behave is by no means your fault. You better be proud that you recognized your parents’ toxic behaviors. Because now that you understand that your parents’ toxic behavior has nothing to do with you, you have a chance to break this vicious cycle. You should also remember that you can only control one person: yourself. It is by no means your responsibility as a child to make your parents happy; however, you are not living in a healthy parent-child relationship either. When this happens, you have no choice but to deal with your own behaviors and reactions. For this reason, you may find it helpful to write down in your journal ways to better cope with difficult situations. Also write down how you have reacted in the past. How could you have acted better? This isn’t meant to be an exercise in self-doubt, but rather a proactive way of giving yourself more control over the situation.
EXPERT COUNCIL Psychologist Dr. Liana Georgoulis is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with over ten years of experience and is now the Clinical Director of Coast Psychological Services in Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Pepperdine University in 2009. Her practice offers cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based therapies for adolescents, adults, and couples. Liana Georgoulis, PsyD Psychologist Toxic parents make you doubt yourself. dr Liana Georgoulis, a licensed clinical psychologist, says, “When a child tries to address what’s happening in a basic way, like telling their parents they need a meal and would like to eat, they have toxic parents a way of getting the child to question the legitimacy of their needs. Toxic parents get their children to believe that they are incredibly flawed, wrong, or defective; they make the child doubt themselves. Once self-doubt comes up, it’s incredibly difficult to get rid of, and many people come to therapy for help.”
Seek help from people you trust.
You could try talking to your toxic parents about your feelings, but nothing good will likely come of it, especially if they don’t recognize their own toxicity. The next best course of action would be to seek the advice of a trusted adult friend or family member who can help you navigate the situation better. Consultation with a therapist is also a good option, giving your parent a “safe” reason to talk to a therapist. No matter which person you finally confide in: Talk to them about the feelings your parents trigger in you and ask for advice. This idea has the second advantage that another adult can act as a mediator between you and your parents. If you’re trying to talk to your toxic parents and another adult is around, your parents won’t be able to easily dismiss your concerns as childish fantasies.
Walk away if necessary.
If you’re under 18 and living with your toxic parents, you probably have no choice but to endure the situation as best you can. However, if you live with a parent who abuses you in any way (emotionally, sexually, or physically), you should leave your parents’ home immediately. There is no justification for abuse and there is no reason why you should stay and endure the abuse. Go to a friend or family member’s house. If you have nowhere to go, you can go to a neighbor. If you are being abused or mistreated, you should contact the authorities immediately. If you are afraid to call the police, you can also call the domestic violence helpline.
Dealing with a toxic parent
Distance yourself from the relationship.
When it comes to dealing with toxic parents (or toxic people in general), there’s no better way than to distance yourself from those people, whether you’re that person’s child or an outsider. It may not be possible to cut off all contact with the toxic person, but you can try to stay as far away from the person as possible. If you are over 18, you are a legal adult. You can leave your childhood home and never look back if you want. If you still hope to maintain a relationship with your toxic parents, consider explaining to your parents why you are distancing yourself. This conversation might encourage your parents to seek the help they need; however, you should prepare yourself for the fact that your parents may not be interested in changing. Make sure you consider beforehand whether it is worth leaving the relationship with your toxic parent behind or whether you would miss those relationships that you also lose as a result of breaking up with your parents, such as with your siblings or the other, non-toxic parent. Perhaps it is worth not giving up the relationship completely, so as not to jeopardize relationships with other people. In some cases, it might be best to cut off all contact with your parents altogether. This is especially true if your parents don’t seem interested in changing anything about their behavior. Go out and find people who treat you well and make those people your family. Your friends are the family you choose. It might be painful at first, but in the long run, you’ll probably be happier and healthier without the toxic parent.
Understand that there isn’t much you can do.
Whether you are the child of an abusive parent yourself or a loved one who is aware of the toxic situation, it is important to acknowledge that there may not be anything you can do to change the situation. The only person you can control is you. A toxic person will not change until they realize how wrong their behavior is — and is willing to put in the effort it takes to do so to leave toxic thinking and acting behind. Unfortunately, not many people are willing to do that. If you’re a close family friend, you could try talking to the toxic parent about your concerns. However, be prepared that this conversation might be difficult and that the person might cut you out of your life afterward. If you suspect child abuse may have occurred, it would be safer for everyone involved if you contact Child Services or the police rather than trying to resolve the situation on your own. Remember that emotional abuse is difficult to prove unless there is physical or sexual abuse at the same time. It is best to make a list of things you have observed that you can provide as evidence of emotional abuse. If you’re afraid you won’t be able to talk to the parents about it, you should be the child’s ally from now on. When appropriate, you should give the child the encouragement and support they need to feel loved and valued. If the child has at least one positive person in their life, that’s better than nothing.
Try to remember that toxic people are people too.
It can sometimes be difficult to feel compassion for toxic people. In fact, people like that make it difficult for you. Try to remind yourself that this toxic person is also a human being who is likely to be feeling great emotional pain – whether they realize it or not. Remember that this person’s pain has nothing to do with you. When you can visualize this, it will be easier for you to have compassion. You might be better off dealing with toxic people when you have no other way out. However, that doesn’t mean you have to stay with that person and expose yourself to toxic behavior at all times, nor is it an excuse for their negative behavior. If dealing with a toxic parent is making you depressed, it’s perfectly fine to remove yourself from the situation. Your well-being should always be the top priority.
Try to be respectful when dealing with toxic parents. It definitely won’t always be easy, but by being respectful, you can keep things from getting out of hand. If the toxic parents show a willingness to change, you should support them. Sure, they’ve done a lot of damage, but it also takes a lot of courage to admit that they’re to blame. If you are concerned that a child is being physically, verbally, or sexually abused, you should report it to the authorities immediately. No child deserves to be abused and many children are not in a position to claim their rights themselves.