When you think of the term ‘parents’ or ‘family’, it might evoke an array of emotions, based on your childhood and current family situation and your memories, these feelings could be mostly positive, mostly negative, or an equal mix of both. It is important to realise that while blood can make people related, that doesn’t mean that we need to hold them at a pedestal and look at them through rose tinted glasses - we need to remember that they too can be extremely toxic and bad for our Mental Health and wellbeing. Everything is not always picture perfect like the movies.
Parents and families plant mental and emotional seeds in us and the environment they create helps these seeds to germinate over time. In some families, these seeds are those of love, respect and independence, but that is not the case for everyone. In others, these might be seeds of fear, obligation, self-doubt, or guilt. There are many parents who act abusively towards their children and their toxic behaviour becomes consistent and dominant in a child’s life. While all parents might make some mistakes in bringing up their children as there are no perfect parents, there is a clear line when their behaviour can lead to a toxic home environment that can do extreme emotional damage to the mind of their children.
There are people in your life who will lift you up and give you support whenever you need, and there are also going to be others out there who will delight in tearing you down or causing you pain. It can be particularly disheartening, distressing and challenging when a toxic person like this also happens to be your parent. Dysfunctional and imperfect parents are common, but sometimes the dysfunction can go beyond an occasional blow-up or a misunderstanding into complicated, repetitive, and damaging patterns that take more than a cup of tea to resolve. Parents who carry a promise of love and care but at the same time mistreat their child are called toxic parents. The phrase "toxic parenting" was first popularized by psychologist Dr. Susan Forward in her book ‘Toxic Parents’, but the concept has been around for as long as parenting has existed. This post will explore the traits/ behaviours displayed by toxic parents, the implications they are likely to have on children and strategies for coping with the toxicity.
The term “toxic parent” isn’t a medical term or a clearly defined concept, but it has become an overarching term used to describe those parents who consistently behave in ways that cause guilt, fear, or obligation in their children. Their actions aren’t isolated events, but steady patterns of behaviour that negatively shape their child’s life. Toxic parents are more concerned about their own needs being met rather than trying to introspect and understand that what they’re doing could be harmful or damaging. They likely won’t apologize or even admit that what they are doing is wrong. While some toxic parenting situations are obvious, others are less evident. Their self-centeredness makes them neglect their children and not acknowledge that their children have their own emotional needs and desires. What toxic parents call love is not nourishing, comforting, encouraging and respectful behaviour as they do extremely unloving things disguised under the blanket of love and wanting the best for their children. In toxic homes, there may also be extreme difficulty regulating emotions and in communicating those emotions which can lead to frequent flare ups. These homes are also where the entire environment feels unpredictable and as if one is constantly walking on eggshells.
Families, particularly parents, have a significant influence on an individual’s life, be it in terms of their sense of self-worth, perception of and trust in others, their Mental Health, and their world view. It becomes the foundation by which a person sees, experiences and interacts with the people, places, and things around them. Toxic parenting can lead to great emotional damage to the children be it in terms of a lost childhood, depression, anxiety, crippling feelings of guilt and shame, and low self-esteem - and these are only some of the frequent effects of toxic upbringing. In terms of anxiety and depression, unpredictable or hostile relationships can cause anxiety, while those involving repressing resentment can cause depression. Also, given that individuals tend to repeat familiar patterns of feelings, no matter how painful and self-defeating they may be, children who have grown up around toxic parents try to re-enact their old, painful experiences in other adulthood relationships. Consequently, a double damage is being done as the cycle of pain, trauma and anguish continues. Children might grow up to have trouble making decisions to the point where they might feel fearful or anxious when asked to make a choice for themselves. Other long terms effects of familial/ parental toxicity include feelings of isolation or loneliness, having a low sense of self-worth or self-esteem, experiencing chronic feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness, attachment issues and even post-traumatic stress.
Growing up in an unhealthy or toxic home can contribute to several emotional, interpersonal, and Mental Health challenges, some of which are mentioned above but there are ways in which one can cope with it. Some of these include:
Recognise the situation for what it is.
At the outset, it is important to determine and accept that your parents are toxic. While your relationship with your parents may not be 100% rosy all the time, if there is a persistent pattern of abuse, neglect or dysfunction, there is a problem. If you find yourself feeling like you’re being constantly suffocated around your parents, that you can’t be yourself or you feel like you’re twisting yourself into a pretzel to please them, those are definitely red flags.
Set and enforce boundaries.
Boundary setting is extremely helpful when it comes to having clear expectations and limits for how others can treat us. Put simply, a boundary is simply an invisible line that you set for yourself and that you do not allow someone to cross. This may be physical or emotional, and where the line is drawn is completely up to you. These boundaries can help you create an emotional and physical space between yourself and the toxicity. Setting boundaries with toxic people can be difficult because they don’t respect limits, but don’t let that deter you. Boundaries are essential to all healthy relationships. If you need to, it’s okay to limit contact with your parents, tell them no, come late or leave early. The foundation of relationships is respect, and it is ok to distance yourself from those who don’t respect you or continue to treat you poorly.
Stop trying to please them.
It’s normal to want your parents’ approval, but toxic parents are nearly impossible to please and knowing this can help you in not trying to constantly seek their approval as it is unlikely that you will ever get it irrespective of your hard work. It is your life, and you are entitled to make your own choices and do what makes you feel good. If you choose to live your life according to their goals and values it will leave you feeling chronically unhappy, unfulfilled and might lead to Mental Health distress as well. Seeking the approval of toxic parents will leave you feeling like their captive as you will be chasing love and validation from those who will probably never give it to you.
Focus on your feelings.
It’s important to take the time to think about your experiences, how they shaped you and the emotions they evoked. Take time to sit with them and think about how they made you feel and act. You might want to write down your feelings in a journal or talk to a trusted family member or friend. You can also approach this by making a list of the things you want to change and write down the way you would like to feel instead. You can then start working on items on the list one at a time and move down the list once you have mastered one behaviour.
Get professional help.
The process of living and coping with toxicity can be overwhelming but the good thing is that you don’t have to embark on this path alone. You can consider talking to a helpline for support, reaching out to your GP or taking an appointment with a licensed Mental Health professional. This can help you begin your journey of recovery as you look at ways in which the toxicity affects you and how you can cope with it while taking care of your Mental Health.
Take care of yourself.
Living and dealing with toxic parents can be extremely stressful and can take a toll on your overall physical and Mental Health as well as your overall wellbeing. In such a time it is important to take care of yourself and make your wellbeing a priority. You might choose to start with the basics such as ensuring you eat timely and healthy meals, get enough sleep, find time for exercise, remain connected with loved ones, acknowledge and express your feelings in a healthy manner and find time for things which are meaningful for you. Self-care is extremely crucial.
It is important that we talk about toxic parents and families because so often these aspects get buried under the carpet due to the stigma or the rosy lens through which we look at families and parents. Recognizing the patterns are the first step to making a change. The good news is that whether we become parents or not, we don’t need to be stuck repeating toxic cycles with our loved ones. We can recognize the toxic traits passed down in our families and stop them in ourselves. If you feel that you are showing some of these patterns yourself, you can commit yourself to making a change for your own Mental Health and that of others around you. If you have lived with or are living with toxic parents, give yourself some grace and be patient with yourself. Know that you are not alone in this journey.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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