No one has a perfect relationship with their parents or in-laws.
If you’re lucky you have a positive and healthy relationship with your parents most of the time. Unfortunately, for some people – those with toxic parents – this isn’t possible. No matter how hard you try, you can’t have a mutually satisfying and respectful relationship with people who are emotionally unhealthy.
What is a toxic parent?
The term “toxic parent” is a bit nebulous and we probably all define it differently. Often, narcissistic or those with other personality disorders or mental illnesses, abusive, emotionally immature, and alcoholic or addicted parents are labeled as toxic.
Young children, even those with toxic parents, assume that their parents are typical. Without any basis for comparison, you think other families operate by the same dysfunctional rules and that everyone’s parents are cruel, unavailable, or controlling. Eventually, however, you realize that emotionally healthy parents show genuine concern for their children’s feelings, encourage them to follow their dreams, apologize when they screw up, and talk about problems in a respectful way. You realize that your parents are different.
Toxic parents cause a lot of pain and lasting psychological problems for their children. The good news is that it’s possible to overcome the effects of toxic parents. The first step is to be aware of what it really means to have a toxic parent and recognize the particular ways that your parents are dysfunctional or emotionally unhealthy.
Signs you have a toxic parent
Below are some of the common signs of a toxic parent.
Toxic parents are:
1) Self-centered and have a limited capacity for empathy: They always put their own needs first and don’t consider other people’s needs or feelings. They don’t think about how their behavior impacts others and they have a hard time understanding how other people feel.
2) Disrespectful: They fail to treat you with even a basic level of respect, courtesy, and kindness.
3) Emotionally reactive: Toxic parents often have difficulty controlling their emotions. They overreact, are “dramatic”, or are unpredictable.
4) Controlling: They want to tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Toxic parents always want to have the upper hand. Guilt and money are common ways they exert power and control.
5) Angry: They’re harsh and aggressive. Or they might be passive-aggressive – using the silent treatment, snide comments said under their breath, or intentionally forgetting
6) Critical: Nothing you do is ever good enough for a toxic parent. They find fault with everything.
7) Manipulative: They twist the truth to make themselves look good. They use guilt, denial, and trivializing to get what they want.
8) Blaming: They don’t take responsibility for their own behavior, won’t own their part in the family dysfunction, and blame it all on you (or another scapegoat).
9) Demanding: They expect you to drop everything to tend to their needs. Again, they have no concern for you, your schedule, or your needs; it’s all about them and what you can do to serve them.
10) Embarrassing: They behave so poorly (anything from making racist jokes, getting into physical altercations, making sexual advances towards your spouse, and so on) that you’re embarrassed to be associated with them.
11) Cruel: Toxic parents do and say things that are downright mean. They mock you, call you names, point out your shortcomings and intentionally bring up things that you’re sensitive about.
12) Boundaryless: They intrude on your personal space and don’t accept that you’re a grown adult who is completely separate from them. They want to know about your personal life, they stand in your personal space, open your mail, come over uninvited, offer unsolicited advice, and undermine your parenting.
13) Enmeshed: Your parents have an unhealthy reliance on you. They share too much personal information with you (secrets or details of their marital problems or sex life, for example) and rely on you to be their primary source of emotional support.
14) Competitive: Not only do they always need to be right, they act like they’re in competition with you. So, instead of cheering you on and being happy for your successes, they try to one-up you, diminish your accomplishments, or ignore you.
And the last sign that you have toxic parents is about how you feel rather than what they do.
15) You feel bad when you talk to, spend time with, or think about them: You feel worse after an encounter with your parents. You dread talking to them. And even the thought of your toxic parents can cause your body to tense up and your stomach to churn. Painful memories may surface. Their negative energy taints everything they touch. If you have toxic parents, you probably weren’t encouraged to have your own feelings, so you might not be used to noticing them. So, be sure to pay attention to your feelings and notice whether your parents trigger feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, shame, or other negative emotions.
Awareness leads to acceptance
If you have toxic parents, please remember that it’s not your fault. No matter how much they try to blame you, your parents aren’t “difficult” because of anything you did.
Recognizing that your parents have significant problems, and are unlikely to change, paves the way to acceptance. And when we accept people as they are, we free ourselves from the struggle to try to change them. We can grieve the loss of the kind of parent-child relationship that we wished for.
Acceptance is very helpful in restoring your peace of mind. But even still, it’s very stressful to have toxic parents and you need strategies to help you cope with your parents’ dysfunction. To learn more, my next post focuses on ways to cope with toxic parents and break codependent patterns.
Visiting toxic family members for the holidays
The holidays are extra stressful when you have toxic family members. If you’d like this year to be different, download a copy of my new workbook Handling the Holidays. It’s designed to give you concrete skills and strategies for changing your approach to the holidays. Learn more by clicking the image below.