But not in all of them. In many others, they are seeds of fear, obligation, or guilt. There are many parents who act abusively towards their children, and such toxic behavior becomes consistent and dominant in a child’s life.
All parents make mistakes in upbringing. That’s normal, since there’s no perfect parent.
But there is a clear line when too many mistakes, especially repeating abusive behavior towards children, lead to a toxic home environment that does severe emotional damage to an innocent young person.
Parents who carry a promise of love and care, while at the same time mistreat their child, are called toxic parents.
Almost all toxic parents say they love their children, and they usually also mean it. But love involves much more than just expressed feelings. Real love towards children is also a way of behaving.
What toxic parents call love rarely comes up as nourishing, comforting, encouraging, respectful, valued and accepting behavior. Toxic parents usually do extremely unloving things in the name of love.
That’s how they cause great emotional damage to their children. Lost childhood, depression, anxiety, crippling feelings of guilt and shame, and low self-worth are only some of the frequent effects of toxic upbringing.
On top of that, we all tend to repeat familiar patterns of feelings, no matter how painful and self-defeating they may be. In other words, children of toxic parents try to reenact their old, painful experiences in other adulthood relationships. Consequently, a double damage is being done.
Children of abusive parents tend to become their own abusers. And soon abusers of others.
One of the first best-selling books defining toxic parents and how to overcome their hurtful legacy and reclaim your life was written by Susan Forward.
The book Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life is absolutely an essential book to read if you had abusive, ignorant, inadequate, alcoholic or addicted parents. It’s also a great book to read if you have issues in your adult relationships, assuming your home environment was perfect (you might be living in a denial).
That’s why I decided to write a summary of the book.
Every family is a carefully designed system
Every family is a system, a group of interconnected people, where each person is affected in profound and often hidden ways.
Every family is a complex network of a whole spectrum of positive and negative feelings – from love, pride, joy to jealousy, guilt and anxiety.
It’s a constant flow of the full range of human emotions. These emotions are connected to different needs, values, rules and beliefs.
But very little of a family system is immediately visible, on the surface. You have to go deep to see families’ hidden rules and emotional drivers. The deeper you go, the more you discover.
Hidden rules and underlying beliefs are the ones that drive attitudes, judgments and perceptions. These hidden rules and beliefs are often expressed in terms of “shoulds”, “oughts” and “supposed to’s”.
On the final level of communication, these beliefs can also be expressed as direct rules of what to do and what not to do.
In reasonably mature and caring families, the underlying beliefs and rules are formed in a direction where the feelings and needs of all family members are taken into consideration. The rules are reasonable and provide ethical and moral structure to a child’s development.
On the other hand, in toxic families the underlying beliefs and unwritten rules are almost always self-centered and self-serving in big favor of toxic parents.
In toxic families, the rules are based on a bizarre and distorted perception of reality, putting children in a place where they can be easily abused.
Examples of such toxic beliefs are:
- Children should respect their parents no matter what
- There are only two ways to do things – my way and the wrong way
- Children should be seen but not heard
- It’s wrong for children to be mad at their parents
And examples of unspoken toxic family rules can be:
- Don’t be more successful than your father
- Don’t be happier than your mother
- Don’t lead your own life
- Don’t ever stop needing me.
If children don’t obey these rules and toxic beliefs, parents react by inflictive punishment or withdrawing their love.
Consequently, children blindly obey abusive family rules, simply because they don’t want to be punished; and even more, children don’t want to be traitors to one’s family by not obeying, no matter how awful their position is.
A family system without personal freedom is a toxic system
The single most dramatic difference between healthy and toxic families is how much freedom exists among family members – including children.
In healthy families exists complete freedom to express yourself as an individual in a respectful manner. Healthy families encourage:
- Sense of self-worth and adequacy
As a rule, unhealthy families discourage individual expression. Basically, everyone must conform to the thoughts and actions of the dominant toxic parent.
Toxic families blur personal boundaries, they promote fusion and welding together of family members, all subordinated to the will of toxic parents.
On an unconscious level, it’s hard for a family member to know where one ends and another begins. In an ill-advised effort to be close, toxic family members start to suffocate one another’s individuality.
Children in toxic families usually become prisoners of their parents’ moodiness.
In toxic families, the system functions in a way, where every decision a person makes becomes intricately interwoven with the rest of the family. An individual’s feelings, behaviors, and decisions are no longer made on a personal level.
A person is not themselves anymore, they’re only an extension of the family system. Children in such a toxic system needs constant approval from their parents, even for the smallest actions. These children logically become approval junkies in their life, constantly seeking their next fix.
As we said, every family is a system with many written and unwritten rules. Every system needs balance and toxic families are built on a very fragile system, where chaos is a way of life and everybody is dependent on the chaos.
To keep the toxic system together, toxic parents often fight the loss of equilibrium by increasing chaos. The more toxic the family, the less it takes to kick it off‑balance. That’s why toxic parents usually react to even minor deviations as if their lives are at stake.
It’s very easy to live in denial that your parents weren’t toxic
Many people have trouble seeing that the quality of the relationship with their caretakers, most often parents, has a major impact on their quality of life.
Because children have little frame of reference outside the family, all the things they learn about themselves and others become universal truths engraved deeply in their minds.
Research (among others also research on the attachment theory) has shown that the relationship with your parents actually has one of the greatest impacts on the quality of your life.
Nevertheless, it’s very hard to identify toxic families or admit that you were raised in one. There are several reasons for that:
- First, toxic families usually present a very normal façade to the world. To the outside they look normal, only inside are they rotten.
- Then children need to see their parents as perfect, and that can continue in adulthood.
- Last but not least, toxic parents have their own narcissistic tendencies of seeing themselves as much better parents than they actually were.
Toxic parents make rules, judgments and inflict pain. That’s a hard truth to embrace.
That’s also why children of toxic parents usually live in denial, and toxic parents even have a denial system of their own, seeing themselves in a much better light than they actually are.
Family loyalty is a very powerful force in children’s lives, no matter how corrupt and toxic the family might be.
It’s much easier for a defenseless, dependent child to feel guilty for having done something bad (guilt), or even be bad (shame), and to deserve a parent’s rage, than to accept the fact, that their parent, the protector, can’t be trusted.
- Calling them names and insulting them
- Constantly criticizing
- Using physical pain to discipline
- Getting drunk or using drugs in front of the kids
- Depressed and emotionally unavailable parents
- A child taking care of the parent
- Anything that needs to be kept secret
- Being frightened of caretakers
- Being afraid to express anger towards parents
Usually, toxic parents mistreat their children even when they become adults, and that can be seen in:
- Treating an adult as if s/he is still a child
- All major decisions have to be approved by parents (or there’s unconscious pressure)
- Intense emotional reaction to spending time with parents
- Being afraid to disagree with parents
- Money manipulations
- Feeling responsible for how parents feel
- No matter what you do, it is never good enough for parents
- Deep down you hope that your parents will change for the better someday
A toxic relationship with a parent also greatly influences all other relationships in an adult’s life, even the one with yourself. Unfortunately, in a negative way. The most common examples are:
- Constantly entering abusive relationships, possessing the toxic attachment style (avoidant or anxious)
- Believing that the people close to you will hurt or abandon you
- You expect the worst from people and life in general
- You don’t know very well who you are, what you feel and what you are
- You are afraid people wouldn’t like you if they knew the real you
- You feel like a fraud
- You get angry or sad for no apparent reason (emotional flashbacks)
- You have a hard time relaxing or having a good time
- You are a perfectionist
- In a way, you find yourself behaving like your parents, even if you don’t want to
The toxic behavior of parents as a rule leads to feelings of low self-esteem, which further leads to damaging intimate relationships, loss of confidence, feelings of inadequacy, paralyzing fear, unfocused rage, depression, anxiety, rage, procrastination, self-sabotage and many other destructive behaviors.
Since a child’s world is very narrow, parents represent the only available source of love and comfort, no matter how abusive they are. And that distorts how a child sees themselves, others and the whole world.
All healthy relationships, be they between adults or adults and children, require a big portion of vulnerability, trust and openness. These are the things that get completely destroyed in toxic families.
And as long as you deify your toxic parents, living or dead, you are agreeing to live by their version of reality, by their rules, usually far from who you are. You are accepting painful feelings as a part of your life, and it’s time to stop that.
Abuse: Any behavior that inflicts physical or emotional pain on a child, regardless of whether it leaves marks.
Toxic parents usually also had toxic parents
Toxic parents most often had toxic parents too. A toxic family system is frequently “inherited”, causing damage to generation after generation.
The toxic system is thus not something that toxic parents invent, but rather a result of the accumulated feelings, rules, interactions, and that have been handed down from ancestor to ancestor.
There are several main ways how toxic family systems get handed down:
- Repetition compulsion: We are driven towards things that are familiar to us, even bad ones. Familiarity provides a sense of comfort and structure. We know the rules, we know what to expect. That’s why the relationship patterns with all other people close to us tend to be the same as the ones we learned in the relationship with our parents. We expect from other people to behave towards us as out parents did. In practical terms that means that we seek the same intimate relationships in our adult lives as we had with our parents.
- Rage outlets: Rage is quite a common characteristic of children raised by toxic parents. Abused children have a lot of accumulated rage. You can’t be battered, humiliated, terrified and denigrated without being angry. Since a child has no way of releasing all the anger, it gets accumulated, and has to find an outlet in adulthood, usually in the form of violent behavior, crime, manipulation (external outlet) or headaches, depression, illness (internal outlet).
- The abused become the abuser: Sometimes a child assumes that if they possessed the same qualities as the abusive parent, they could protect themselves. Victimized children thus fantasize how they could protect themselves by acting the same way as the abuser. In the end, they develop the same damaging traits as the toxic parents.
Knowing that is definitely not an excuse for your toxic parents, but it is a good thing to know – especially to understand the bigger picture, but even more to not continue toxic behavior with your own children and other important relationships in your life.
The most common types of toxic parents
There are many forms of toxic families, but there are also very frequent and standard types that run more or less on the same negative behavior patterns. We can put toxic parents in the following standard categories:
- The godlike parents, where the child’s independence is suffocated
- The inadequate parents, where the child becomes almost invisible
- The controllers, where the child is only an extension of the family
- The verbal abusers, who directly or indirectly humiliate a child over and over again
- Competitive parents
- The physical abusers, where there is no place to hide, no escape from physical punishment
- The active abuser
- The passive abuser
- The alcoholics, where all the behaviors above are present
- The sexual abusers, which represents the ultimate betrayal
Now let’s dive a little bit deeper into these seven types of abusive parents.
1. Godlike parents – The suffocation of a child’s emerging independence
A child has no way to survive on their own. Children are completely dependent on their parents. Without them, they would be unloved, unprotected, unfed, unhoused, living in a constant state of terror, knowing they cannot survive alone.
The parents are the all-powerful providers. Children need, parents supply. With nothing and no one to judge them against, a child assumes their parent is perfect. And as long as a child believes their parents are perfect, they feel protected. That’s a psychological fact.
An unpredictable parent is a fearsome god in the eyes of a child. Some parents assume they can fully control their children, simply because they gave them life.
When a child is completely dependent on their parents, how their needs are being met plays a very important role in personality development.
What also greatly stirs the upbringing in the right or wrong direction is how caretakers accept it when a child is around 2 years old and starts to assert his or her independence.
For the most part, normal parents attempt to tolerate independence or even encourage it. From potty training to the first “no” and rebellious teenage years, normal parents understand that a child is not their extension, but is developing as an autonomous human being.
Toxic parents are not so understanding; far from it.
Toxic parents tend to see any rebellion, individual differences or any kind of will assertion as a personal attack on them.
Instead of promoting healthy development of a child, they unconsciously undermine it, usually by reinforcing the child’s dependence and helplessness, often disguised in the belief that they are acting in their child’s best interests.
With that approach, toxic parents become godlike parents, unpredictable parents to be feared and obeyed no matter the cost.
Such an environment encourages the development of the belief that the child is bad and the parents are good, combined with the belief that the child is weak and the parents are strong, and these toxic beliefs can long outlive the child’s physical dependence on parents.
“My father only screamed at me because he wanted to teach me a lesson, but he didn’t mean to hurt me”, is an example of denial because the truth about the toxic parents might be too painful.
2. Inadequate parents – parents who focus their energies on their own survival
All children have basic inalienable rights and needs. Besides the basic needs to be fed, clothed, sheltered and protected, there are several other needs and rights that must be met for a child to develop into a healthy adult individual.
Examples of these needs are:
- Emotional nurturing and respect for feelings (having the right not to feel the same as parents)
- Being treated in a way that helps the child develop a sense of self-worth
- Being guided by appropriate limits on a child’s behavior
- Having the right to make mistakes and be disciplined without physical or emotional abuse
- Children have the right to be children, to spend their early years being playful, spontaneous, and irresponsible.
Inadequate parents especially have problems meeting the last need.
While loving parents do nourish a child’s maturity by giving them certain responsibilities and household duties, inadequate parents enforce responsibilities at the expense of a child’s childhood, most often because they are not capable of taking good care of themselves – because of depression, neediness, irresponsibility, lack of social support, and so on.
That leads to deep emotional scars.
Children who are forced to act like adults always fall short. Because it’s impossible for a child to function as an adult, since they are not adults. External demands of parents soon get transformed into internal demons with impossible standards and constant judgement.
If a parent forces adult responsibilities on a child, family roles become indistinct, distorted, or even reversed. The child suddenly doesn’t have anyone to emulate, learn from, look up to and model.
Children who are forced to grow up too fast are robbed of their childhood. While other kids are playing outside, carefree, children of inadequate parents have to act like adults, taking part of adult responsibilities onto their shoulders.
Since children can never do adult responsibilities as good as adults, children of inadequate parents most often develop deep feelings of inadequacy and low worth.
These children develop an internal image that they can never do good enough. For the rest of their lives they try to make their parents happy somehow, with impossible standards, by trying hard at everything, being workaholics, perfectionists, and so on.
Inadequate parents, who with their behavior focus their energies on their own physical and emotional survival, send their kids the message that they are the only ones important, they are the only ones who count.
That makes a child feel invisible. And if a child feels invisible, it’s impossible to develop a sense of self-worth.
The only way that can be done is if parents validate a child’s needs and feelings. But that’s one thing inadequate parents are not capable of.
3. The Controllers – A child is only a parent’s extension, nothing else
Loving parents, who feel good about themselves, have no need to control their (adult) children. Toxic parents, on the other hand, experience the development of the child’s separate identity as a big loss.
They operate out of fear of abandonment and a sense of dissatisfaction with their own lives. That’s why they pull strings to keep their children dependent on them, or to have control over their lives at least to a certain extent even in adulthood.
Direct control of children involves intimidation, it’s often humiliating, and a child’s feelings get to be completely subordinated to the feelings and demands of a parent.
That’s why children raised by over‑controlling parents usually develop anxious and fearful personalities, and have difficulties maturing. In such families, the imbalance of power is tremendous.
In controlling families, the child’s opinion is worthless, and child’s needs and desires are irrelevant.
Controlling parents treat even their adult children as helpless and inadequate. They find many different ways to manipulate them, to be constantly needed, and forcing things to be done their way.
The most frequent manipulation leverages of controlling parents are guilt and shame. They compare their children among themselves, with other relatives or even neighbors.
They leverage money or constant criticism to keep their children dependent and subordinate. No matter how hard the adult children try, controlling parents always make them feel like they are doing something wrong. They know many ways of emotional extortion to get things done their way.
Every manipulation puts people in a corner. They only have two options. They can either give in or hurt someone who is only “trying to be nice”. And manipulation is what controlling parents excel at.
When toxic parents control a child in an intense, intimidating, guilt-producing way, there are only two potential responses left – either you capitulate or rebel. Unfortunately, both reactions mean that you are being controlled, even if you intentionally do the opposite of what your parents demand.
The best solution in such situations is to go after healthy rebellion. Healthy rebellion is an active exercise of free choice, where you go for the option that is in your best interest. But more about that later.
4. The verbal abusers – The bruises inside are hard to heal
Verbal abuse is as damaging as physical abuse, and in some cases, it does even more damage to a child. Insulting names, degrading comments and constant criticism all leave deep emotional scars that hinder feelings of self-worth and personal agency.
We know two different types of verbal abuse:
- Direct style of verbal abuse: These are the parents who directly insult their children for being stupid, worthless, ugly or similar. It can be anything from telling the child how much better it would be if they had never been born, to any other type of assault that intentionally hurts a child’s feelings.
- Indirect style of verbal abuse: These are the parents who do verbal abuse by being cynical, sarcastic, teasing their children or performing subtle put-downs. They make “innocent” little comments or remarks that hurt as much as direct insults. Positive humor is a good tool to bond a family, but humor that belittles does damage. Children take sarcasm, cynicism and teasing at face value.
Many times, verbally abusive parents rationalize or mask their toxic behavior in educational lessons. They are only trying to make their child become a better person, or teach them how to deal with the cruel world.
But every child internalizes and starts believing what their parents say about them, and verbal abuse is definitely not doing the child any good.
Extremely competitive people have a great tendency to become verbally abusive parents. At some point, they become afraid that their children will outperform them.
Loving, healthy parents experience their children’s skill acquisition with excitement and joy. Competitive parents, on the other hand, often feel anxious, scared and deprived. That’s why they start to belittle their children. The hidden agenda of the parents becomes that their children can’t outdo them.
It’s a very similar situation to when controlling parents push their children to be the best in everything or to push them into achieving career goals they themselves never had the chance to achieve.
In both cases, the child’s adolescence becomes an especially threatening time for an insecure parent, where a child needs to be pushed down or verbally controlled to serve the parent’s needs.
A special form of verbally abusive parents are also perfectionist parents, who are never satisfied with anything, and the child’s every mistake is a catastrophe. They don’t understand that children have to make mistakes and learn that it’s not the end of the world if a mistake is made.
Perfectionist parents impose unobtainable goals, impossible expectations, and ever-changing rules. They operate under the illusion that if their children is perfect, the family will be perfect. In the end, they achieve the opposite.
5. The physical abusers – when the scars are seen
Physical abuse (same as verbal) most often happens because of the parent’s exhaustion, high stress levels, anxiety and their own unhappiness in combination with an appalling lack of impulse control. These parents usually come from families where physical abuse was the norm and they were also greatly abused in one way or another.
They expect their children to meet their needs (to be served, not to be disturbed etc.), and when that doesn’t happen (because it simply can’t), they lash out. Their anger is directed more towards their parents and how their parents mistreated them, than towards their children.
But that’s a poor excuse for being a physical abusive parent, since all the research shows that any physical punishment has only negative long-term effects on a child. Beating creates strong feelings of rage, revenge fantasies, and self‑hatred.
5.1. The passive abuser
In toxic families, one of the parents is usually an active abuser, and the second one is the passive one. The passive parent might not beat or abuse the child in any other form, but since they do nothing to protect the child from the active abuser, they become a partner in the abuse.
Instead of taking steps to defend a child, passive parents become a frightened child themselves, afraid of the active abuser, acting helpless and passive.
But the final result is that passive abusers are effectively abandoning their child. Passive abusers can and should stop the active abusers. There’s simply no excuse for a parent to stand by and allow their children to be brutalized.
Children are the easiest targets. They can’t fight back, and they can easily be intimidated into silence.
Two extremely problematic forms of abuse are done by alcoholic parents and sexual abusers. The book offers a lot of good advice and direction for what to do in such cases. And since these cases can’t be solved by reading a summary, I only summarized the major highlights from the book about these two kinds of abuse.
6. The alcoholic parents
Alcoholic parents do everything mentioned above. Children of alcoholic parents develop a high tolerance for accepting the unacceptable. The drinking problem leads to the development of a special “secret” toxic bond between parent and child.
Drinking also leads to a destruction of vulnerability, trust and openness in the family. Jealousy, possessiveness, and suspicion usually drive alcoholic parents. Children learn early on that relationships lead to betrayal and love leads to pain. A child becomes a scapegoat for all that is wrong with the parent.
7. The sexual abusers
Incest is definitely the cruelest, most baffling of human experiences, and the hardest form of any abuse. Incest is any kind of physical contact with a child’s mouth, breasts, genitals, anus, or any other body part, done with the purpose of sexually arousing the aggressor.
It’s usually also any kind of behavior that needs to be kept as secret between a parent and the child.
These are many misconceptions out there around incest, namely:
- It’s a rare occurrence,
- it happens only in poor and uneducated families,
- it’s a normal reaction to sexual deprivation,
- young girls provoke being molested,
- sexual abusers are usually strangers,
- incest stories are many times not true and many others.
Parents, no matter how toxic and corrupt they are, have a monopoly in family’s power and credibility, which is why incest can easily be covered up.
Incest rarely happens in open, loving and communicative families. Instead, incest occurs in families where there is a lot of emotional isolation, neediness, stress, isolation, secrecy and lack of mutual respect.
The only way for victims to survive such traumas is to mount a psychological cover-up, pushing these memories deep into the unconscious mind that may not surface for many years, or not even ever.
The damage of incest is huge. It leads to a child feeling dirty, damaged and different. Sexually abused humans are usually robbed of healthy relationships and sexuality.
Many of them become overweight as adults, to keep the opposite gender away and because the body mass creates a false illusion of strength and power. If you experienced any such damaging occurrences, absolutely read the book!
When toxic parents feel bad, they often look for others to blame, and those others are usually their children.
Reclaiming your life from toxic parents
Now that you know the main types of toxic parents, let me summarize the recommendations of the book on how to overcome their hurtful legacy and reclaim your life.
The main problem to begin with is that children of toxic parents usually have such a strong need for parental approval that they don’t even live the life they really desire. Many people physically do leave their parents’ nest, but they never leave their home emotionally.
This can be seen either in them always putting parents’ needs and desires first, even if they don’t live with them, or in rebellion at all costs, or even in becoming totally alienated from parents.
As long as you somehow react strongly to the interaction with your parents, you act as their emotional extension or they are controlling you in some way.
The good news in this regard is that:
- You can change yourself without changing your parents.
- Your well-being doesn’t have to be dependent on your parents.
- You can overcome childhood traumas, even if your parents stay exactly the same.
- You don’t even have to forgive your parents in order to feel better about yourself.
In knowing all that, don’t wait for your parents to change, because it’s not likely going to happen. You have to become a fully autonomous person, completely responsible for your own life.
But you must be aware that you can’t change lifelong patterns overnight, no matter how self-defeating they may be. Emotional work on yourself can be pretty heavy, and thus it’s easy to start looking for excuses not to do it. In such cases, slowing down isn’t a problem. Just make sure you never stop.
Here are the book’s main recommendations on how to reclaim your life:
- Become aware of your true feelings, beliefs and behaviors towards your parents
- Don’t use forgiveness as an excuse to pretend it didn’t happen, but rather actively grieve
- Make it clear to yourself that your parent’s misguided behavior was not your responsibility
- Practice self-definition and learn to assert your own will by learning to express anger
- Become proactive in communication and confront your parents if necessary
- Break the cycle and make sure you don’t impose toxicity on your children
1. First, a word or two about forgiveness
Letting go of the need for revenge is difficult, but it is clearly a healthy step to make. Letting go of revenge fantasies starts with forgiveness, but forgiveness has to be done the right way. Many victims who are advised to forgive feel even worse after trying to do that.
That’s because forgive and forget can only mean pretend it didn’t happen. It’s possible to forgive toxic parents, but it has to be done as the conclusion, not at the beginning of the process.
Firstly, children of toxic parents need to grieve over the fact that they never had the love from their parents they yearned for. The first step is to go out of denial and stop diminishing or discounting the damage that has been done.
Pretending it didn’t happen and masking it in forgiveness does no good.
Forgiveness is especially appropriate when parents do something to earn it. They should acknowledge what happened, take responsibility, and show at least some willingness to make amends. But that doesn’t always happen.
In the end, emotional and mental peace of children raised by toxic parents comes as a result of releasing oneself from toxic parents’ control, without necessarily having to forgive them.
2. Your parents’ toxic behavior is completely their responsibility
You must absolutely let go of the responsibility for the painful events of your childhood. You were in no way responsible for your parents’ toxic behavior. You were no way responsible for:
- The way your parents neglected or ignored you
- The way your parents made you feel unloved or unlovable
- Your parents’ cruel or thoughtless teasing
- The bad names your parents called you
- Your parents’ unhappiness and their problems
- Your parents’ choice not to do anything about their problems
- Your parents’ drinking and what they did when they were drinking
- Your parents hitting you or molesting you
The toxic behavior is completely your parents’ responsibility. Even if no harmful intent existed, it’s the final result that counts.
If harm was done by inadequate parents, the intent is completely irrelevant. Toxic parents are responsible for what they did do and for what they didn’t.
3. Becoming aware of your toxic beliefs and negative feelings towards your parents
Understanding the relationship between your family beliefs and negative feelings is an important step toward putting a stop to self-defeating behavior. We all have a strong emotional reaction to our parents, but if these feelings are too strong or too negative, we tend to bury them in order to protect ourselves.
In toxic families, expressing feelings is usually not allowed, and so becoming aware of feelings towards parents is a demanding task. That’s why it’s very important that you take it easy, and allow blocked feelings to slowly surface. Unfortunately, you usually have to feel a little bit worse before you can feel better.
Stifled emotions can especially be seen in high levels of stress, anxiety muscle tension, fatigue, headaches, and so on. We often say with our bodies what we can’t or won’t say with our words. If your body shows clear signs of emotional suffering, it’s time to slowly open the buried negative feelings.
Beliefs lead to rules, feelings make you obey them, and that’s what leads to a certain behavior, even if it’s a toxic one.
Identify your feelings towards your parents and write them down. Examples of such feelings can be (there’s a whole checklist in the book):
- I feel guilty when I don’t do enough for them.
- I feel guilty when I don’t do everything they ask me to do.
- I feel guilty when I say no to them.
- I feel scared when my parents yell at me.
- I feel scared when they’re angry at me.
- I feel scared when I’m angry at them.
- I feel sad when my parents are unhappy.
- I feel sad when I can’t make their lives better for them.
- I feel sad when my parents don’t like my husband (wife, lover, friends …).
- I feel angry when my parents criticize me.
- I feel angry when my parents try to control me.
- I feel angry when they tell me how to live my life.
All these kinds of negative feelings, if suppressed instead of expressed in a healthy way, lead to a certain toxic behavior. These toxic behaviors towards parents are usually complaint or aggressive types of behaviors.
Examples of such toxic behaviors towards parents are (again, there’s a whole checklist in the book):
- I often give in to my parents no matter how I feel.
- I often don’t tell them what I really think.
- I often don’t tell them how I really feel.
- I often act as if everything is fine between us even when it isn’t.
- I am constantly arguing with my parents to show them that I’m right.
- I constantly do things that I know they don’t like to show them that I’m my own person.
- I often scream, yell, or curse at my parents to show them they can’t control me.
Now write down all the complaint or aggressive behaviors that you run to in interaction with your parents. The next step is to connect feelings, behaviors and underlying beliefs.
The best way to find the connection between feelings and beliefs is to use the word because. It’s a piggyback technique that gives a lot more sense to the emotional reaction to our parents. You can also help yourself with asking why a few times.
For example, you can say “I feel guilty when I do something that upsets my parents, because it’s my job to make my parents happy”.
4. Facing anger and learning to express it
In toxic families, emotional expression is not allowed, especially expressing anger. Anger is something only parents have the privilege of displaying in such toxic families.
Consequently, children of toxic parents start to see anger as something bad, ugly, frightening, destroying. But the stifled anger in them only accumulates and escalates in several possible directions:
- You might bury anger and become sick and depressed
- You might divert anger into suffering and martyrdom
- You might deaden it with addictions such as alcohol, drugs, food or sex
- You might blow up at every opportunity, letting anger turn you into a tense, frustrated, suspicious and belligerent person
Anger always means that something needs to be changed, because it’s a normal human reaction to mistreatment. It’s mandatory for children of toxic parents to learn how to deal with anger in a healthy way.
Until you get anger out in the open in a secure and safe way, you simply can’t deal with it.
Healthy dealing with anger includes the following:
- Giving yourself permission to be angry, without making any judgements
- Externalize your anger by pounding pillows, yelling at photographs or having imaginary dialogues
- Increase your physical activity
- Use anger as an energy source for self-definition, it can help you define your limits and boundaries
- Express your anger in a healthy way or talk about your anger with safe people
5. Let yourself grieve
Grief is a very normal and necessary reaction to loss. There’s no healing without grieving. The first step is to identify your losses with the goal of experiencing your grief.
It’s your job to work through these feelings to release their hold over you. Children of toxic parents usually have to grieve over the following losses:
- Loss of good feelings about yourself
- Loss of feelings of safety
- Loss of trust
- Loss of joy and spontaneity
- Loss of nurturing, respectful parents
- Loss of childhood
- Loss of innocence
- Loss of love
If you don’t consciously go through the emotional process of grief, you experience these losses almost on a daily basis, most often ignoring and repressing them. Then they take a lot of emotional energy, and take a terrible toll on your feelings of self-worth.
Nevertheless, people usually avoid the grieving process (especially men), because it entails shock, rage, disbelief and sadness. All these feelings may get overwhelming, and at times the sadness seems never‑ending. You might even feel ashamed of grieving.
But grief is an active, not passive action. Grief lets you get unstuck, to heal, and to do something real about the problems of lost childhood. Grief does come to an end, and it enables you to integrate and accept the reality of your losses.
Be as nice to yourself as you would be to a friend who was having a difficult time. Reach out to get all the support you can get from people who care about you.
6. Asserting emotional independence
Emotional independence means that you can be part of the family, while at the same time you can also be a separate individual. It means you can be who you are and let your parents be who they are.
Only when you feel free to have your own beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, ones that differ from those of your parents or any other people you have a relationship with, are you emotionally independent and self‑defined. In a healthy family, you are free to agree or disagree with your parents.
Children from toxic families assume that they have to cut off their parents to be emotionally independent. But that’s not true.
Toxic parents can control children even with no contact or if they are dead, simply because the children have too strong reactions to parents, in form of fawning or rebellious behavior. The solution to emotional independence is simply in learning to stand up for yourself, learning to be assertive.
Many people don’t step up for themselves, because they confuse self-definition and autonomy with selfishness. There is no need to feel guilty trying to satisfy your own needs in a healthy manner.
In this case, it’s okay to be selfish. If you want to break unhealthy relationship patterns with your parents, the first step is to focus on what you want as opposed to what your parents want from you or demand from you.
It doesn’t make sense to be a good person to everybody but you. Make decisions based on what you want and what you need, rather than exclusively on what your parents want or need.
- Becoming a separate individual from your parents
- Looking honestly at your relationship with your parents
- Facing the truth about your childhood
- Having the courage to acknowledge the connections between childhood events and adult life
- Gaining the courage to express your real feelings to them
- Confronting and diminishing the power and control that they have over your life
- Changing your own behavior when it is cruel, hurtful, critical, or manipulative
- Finding the appropriate resources to help you heal your inner child
- Reclaiming your adult power and confidence
7. From reacting to responding in interaction with your parents
When you only react, you act without thinking, listening, and exploring all the options you have. We all usually act the most reactively when we feel emotionally threatened or assaulted. Reactive behavior is thus the most intense with our parents.
Nevertheless, reactive behavior usually does even more damage in relationships.
When you act reactively, your emotional reactions are often out of proportion to the events that evoked them. You perceive even a small suggestion as a personal attack, a minor constructive criticism as a personal failure.
You feel good only if the other person completely accepts your view, if you get the complete approval you want so deeply. Without such complete approval, you have a hard time maintaining even minimal emotional stability.
The opposite of being reactive is being proactive or responsive. When you’re responsive, you are thinking as well as feeling. You don’t let your feelings drive you to act impulsively.
On top of that, responsiveness allows you to maintain your sense of self-worth, no matter what the other person says about you. Responsiveness puts you back into control of your life to a great extent. There are two ways how to communicate responsive:
- Practice non-defensive responses
- Practice power statements
As long as you seek you parents’ approval, you’ll act reactively. As long as you try to make them see your point of view, you’ll react in an emotionally destructive way.
Only if you stay calm and refuse to be stampeded will you retain power. Only a non-defensive response can keep the conflict from escalating and shows your real inner strength. Thus, your job is to practice a non-defensive response with your parents.
Examples of non-defensive responses:
- Oh, I see.
- That’s interesting.
- You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.
- I’m sorry you don’t approve.
- Let me think about that.
- Why don’t we talk about this when you’re not so upset.
- I’m sorry you’re hurt (upset, disappointed).
The moment you argue, apologize, explain, or try to get other people to change their minds, you hand the power to them. They can be your parents or anybody else.
Even if you ask someone to forgive or to understand, you give them the power to withhold what you’re asking for. But with a non‑defensive response, you are asking for nothing, and when you do that, you simply can’t be rejected.
The other way to responding instead of reacting is to communicate with position statements. Position statements clearly express what you think and believe, what’s important to you, what you’re willing to do and what not, and what’s negotiable and what’s non-negotiable.
8. The confrontation
In the book, there is a really long chapter on confronting your parents. You can find scripts, scenarios and many different recommendations to follow to make confrontation successful.
So, if you plan to confront your toxic parents, absolutely read the book first!
The purpose of a confrontation with parents is not to retaliate, punish them, put them down, dump anger on them or get positive feedback. The purpose of a confrontation is to:
- Face them
- Overcome the fear of facing them
- Tell them the truth
- Determine what kind of a relationship you want to have with them from now on.
You should do the confrontation for yourself, not for them, and see confrontation as successful, simply by having the courage to do it. The vitally important reason for confronting your parents is that what you don’t hand back, you pass on.
If you don’t deal with your fear, guilt and anger at your parents, you’re simply going to take it out on your partner or even your children.
You can constrictively confront your parents by writing a letter or talking to them face-to-face. Either way, the main idea is to communicate four important things to them:
- What they did to you
- How you felt about it at the time
- How it affected your life
- What you want to do from now on
The most frequent reaction of toxic parents is a counterattack. The most frequent responses are something like – it never happened, it was your fault, I said I was sorry, we did the best we could, look what we did for you, how can you do this to me, and so on.
The confrontation usually leads to three potential positions:
- Parents slowly admit their mistakes and the damage they have done and try to repair it
- Parents cut off communication with children, because everything is too painful for them
- Something in the middle happens
Many times, confrontation needs to be cut short, because toxic parents start to twist words, accuse, scream or even break furniture, threaten you, and make you feel crazy.
You must also be prepared that your parents can cut you out of their lives, disown you or respond with some other drastic reactions. It does happen, but not as often as one might think. But you must be prepared for that to happen.
It’s a pretty logical response, since they wouldn’t be toxic parents if they had the capacity to listen, hear, be responsible and respect feelings of others.
But remember, the important thing in the confrontation is not their reaction, but your response. If you manage to stand fast in the face of your parents’ fury, accusation, threats and guilt manipulations, you will experience your finest hour.
In confrontation, your job is to hold on to your reality and make sure you don’t get pushed back into reactive and defensive patterns, no matter what your parents do.
In most cases, something in the middle happens (between taking responsibility and complete denial), which gives you a great starting point to redefine the relationship with your parents and enforce some rules and boundaries. Again, if you want to confront your parents, please read the book first.
9. Stop playing the game
It’s quite often an action in vain, trying to get toxic parents to change. You struggle to do whatever it takes to get them to become loving and accepting of you.
You would do anything to hear them say that they love you and that they are proud of you. Yet, it doesn’t happen. This struggle can drain your energy on a daily basis, and fill your life with pain. So, stop playing this game.
Simply let go of trying to get your parents to change, in hopes that this is the only way you can feel better about yourself.
Let go of trying to figure out what you are supposed to do to get their love, because there is nothing you can really do. Stop being so emotionally reactive to them and instead live a proactive life on your own terms. Let go of the fantasy that one day, you will get the caring support you deserve.
The child within you still clings to the hope that someday, your parents will see how wonderful you are and give you all of their unconditional love. Maybe it’s time to let go of this fantasy.
Instead of fantasizing how your parents will change, strive to become a self-defined and assertive person. The more self-defined and independent you become, the less your toxic parents are probably going to like it, but they will also have less control over your life.
That’s why it’s important that you trust your own feelings and perceptions, and become who you really are, following your own goals and respecting your own needs.
10. Last but not least, break the cycle of toxicity
Once you break the old toxic patterns, you’ll be much more open and available for a truly open and loving relationships – towards yourself and others. You will be finally able to love yourself. When you break the cycle, you stop acting like a victim, or stop acting like an abusive or inadequate parent.
You no longer have to be the helpless, dependent child with your partners, children, friends, colleagues, authority figures, and parents. You can finally be more emotionally available in your relationships, especially to your children. You get a chance to develop the secure attachment style.
As we said, children of toxic parents usually behave toxically to other people in their relationships – spouse, siblings, friends etc. Apologizing to all the people you have hurt, and all the mistakes you made (especially to your children if you have them) is an important part of breaking the cycle.
Genuine love creates feelings of warmth, pleasure, safety, inner peace and stability. These are also the loving behaviors you should spread among the people you love and the whole humanity.
But remember, becoming a true loving adult is not a linear process, … but a road on which you go upwards, downwards, forwards, backwards, and inside out.
You will falter and make mistakes on the path. A great deal of self‑reflection and proactive behavior can definitely help you on this path of becoming a healthy adult. You will also never be completely free of anxiety, fear, guilt and confusion, because no one is. But the demons seeded in you by your toxic parents will no longer control you.
And that is the key. Now go grab and read the book Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life!