In this final four-part series, I want to discuss toxic parents and how to spot toxic parents. As you all should know, I was raised in a toxic home environment. One of the subtle signs of toxic parents I quickly observed was noticing a lot of negative energy entering the house as soon as my father walked in. I would be on high alert for confrontation when I conversed with him. In a healthy family dynamic, family members communicate freely and discuss issues instead of looking for an opening to start an argument. All the toxic signs were there, but nobody stood up and demanded better treatment. My friends observed how harmful it was, but they had their own problems to solve. So, why did nobody try to rock the boat?
Fear. Fear of the unknown or known forms of punishment and disapproval treatments. You spoke up; you got smacked. You stood up for yourself; you were beaten. You tried to defend a sibling being verbally abused and threatened, then got hammered in submission. There was this constant feeling of living on the edge. One would wait for the shoes to drop, and all hell would break loose.
Of course, there were good and bad days, but many general rules, such as common decency and mutual respect, they were off the table. It almost felt like there was this unspoken set of rules. Because we were all family, it was as if this unspoken rule made it okay and acceptable for another family member to be granted permission to mentally, verbally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually abuse one another. It was sick and twisted.
Yet, we see and hear of this crazy way of treating one another daily. It truly is madness, in my opinion. That is why this topic is necessary. We all must learn how to spot toxic parents. Even if you are visiting a friend, it is advisable to know how to spot toxic parents. If you’ve grown up with toxic parents, it’s possible you only noticed something wrong in your family once you stayed at a friend’s house, and no one was shouting at someone.
How to spot toxic parents
When someone does not know how to spot toxic parents, it can be like walking mindlessly throughout life because all of your choices were chosen by someone else growing up. Plus, when every decision in life has been made for you by your parents, it’s easy to see why you might not be too confident in yourself. Being raised by a toxic parent is like being groomed into domestication. Being groomed into domestication during birth to your current age means training or taming a person to comply based upon conditions of love, approval, acceptance, forgiveness, or understanding.
For example, love is either conditional or unconditional love. If you do this for me, I will love you. If you don’t do this, I will not love you. I now disapprove of you, and shame sets. This example happens all the time in relationships. One can grow up being a people pleaser because deep down inside, they never received unconditional love, approval, or acceptance from their parents or caregivers. Therefore, they will feel this need to please and appease another person or use their love language.
For example, if one’s love language is receiving gifts, this person might overly shower someone with gifts to prove their self-worth. If their love language is words of affirmation, this person might shower you with praise to win your love and approval. They are giving you what they desire for themselves. The various forms of toxicity differ from person to person and relationship to relationship. You may have had a toxic relationship with your parents as a child without even realizing it. Growing up in a toxic environment becomes the norm, and you seldom question it, like I did as a child.
Of course, there will inevitably be days when parents will have an outburst, or they will punish their child, sometimes rather unjustly. But in a healthy relationship, you often see and hear parents making it up with the child again by offering an explanation and trying to reconnect. The difference is when screaming, shouting, and beating a child becomes routine, this is a sign of a toxic parent.
Therefore, I want to give you 25 signs you had a toxic parent.
- Zero Boundaries: Intrusive, without emotional boundaries, and can keep pushing a child beyond limits. Ignores boundaries and is appropriate for every age of any child. The child has no boundaries of personal space. Some examples would be thinking you are in your room until you open the door while your parents are trying to hear your phone conversations with your friend. Your entry was never allowed to be closed, and “alone time” was non-existent.
- Conditional Love: Withholding love and putting too many conditions on the child.
- Disconnection: The parent invalidates or ignores the child’s feelings, thoughts, opinions, dreams, or personal space.
- Selfish: Care very little about a child’s emotional needs, and their focus is on discipline and not on nurture or connection with the child. The parent’s emotional needs come first, even if the child is suffering and the parent cannot connect.
- Verbally Abusive: Insulting, undermining, stonewalling, and humiliating the child and being harsh while criticizing, as well as going to any lengths to establish control over their child by use of verbal abuse.
- Physically abusive: This one is self explanatory.
- Manipulative: Controlling and manipulative towards the child. It does not allow the child to make any kind of decision without approval, permission, or parental authority.
- Emotional Disbalance: Parent constantly overreact or create their own drama, and tend to offload their burdens on you.
- Home is not your safe space: Home is not a place of comfort, safety, or security. You dread going home after work, school, or visiting a friend because of the instability.
- Limited Independence: There is the freedom to go and hang out with your friends, but a parent or both parents decide. A specific time is fixed, and there might be a list of chores or requirements that must be met before freedom and independence are allowed. Like Cinderella attending the ball and her duties she cannot complete on time.
- Low Self-Confidence and Insecurity Issues: Owing to your dependency on your parents can result in not having faith in yourself. One might never think they can do something on their own and can constantly underestimate themselves.
- Your parents came first: One quickly learned that their parents had to be their priority. Your parents are the center of all your discussions. Their needs and wants would come before the children, and the parents made sure you always understood that. The unspoken rule of – if their demands were met, everything else would fall in place eventually. Your parents came first, rather than you coming first for yourself. This made the home not feel like ours, but you are just a guest.
- Object of Manipulation: To avoid rocking the boat, you make it a top priority to work toward fulfilling your parents wants and needs first, rather than yours. And when you do voice your wishes, they go unheard because the toxic parent overreacts to their problems. Treating the child like an object to manipulate, instead of a human beings whom they need to show love and tenderness.
- Came from a Dysfunctional Family: They had a difficult childhood or come from typical dysfunctional families where their own emotional, social, or even physical needs weren’t met. Therefore, they parent the same way they were parented.
- Sabotaging Relationships: When you bring your friend or love interest over to meet your parent(s), they do or say something to sabotage it. I will share two a brief stories. One on spousal abuse and another on religion and living together.
- Guilt trips: Since the toxic parent is the center of attention, they will hint toward what they wish to talk about, what they would like for dinner, where they would want to go for vacation, and so on. You learn over time to agree because if you don’t, they will guilt-tripped you. A good example is when you realize that your parents never knew what was your favorite food or restaurant because they always chose for you.
- Criticism instead of Appreciation: When you do something extremely important or a nice gesture, your toxic parent will find flaws and imperfections. Instead, they will focus on things that didn’t take off well. They can so little to no feelings or emotions when they get a promotion or achievement at school, college, or work. They will either act like it is nothing, pretend not to hear you, or compare themselves to you, switching the topic from your glory onto them. There can even be body shaming, criticizing your grades, or making fun of a friend or love interest.
- Everything is Bad or Wrong: Your toxic parent might publicly tease, humiliate, mock, embarrass, or criticize you at a party, family gathering, or social event. They could even gaslight you into believing you are clumsy, stupid, ugly, worthless, or could never hold a decent job. Some probably told you about all the beautiful things they’ve done for you since you grew up and how grateful you should be because you were such a challenging child. Then a parent can show favoritism towards a sibling. This can leave the child feeling broken, not good enough, and unlovable, with resentment, anger, jealousy, and intrusive thoughts.
- No Voice and Unheard: There is no emotional connection because you are ignored. Most children raised by toxic parents weren’t involved in any decision-making around the house. In some cases, parents will demand and decide their kids’ careers. Having no voice, being ignored, being incapable of making decisions, and not being respected in your own house can make any child feel unloved and unwelcome in their own home.
- Bribery for Controlling: Bribery is a very subtle way of controlling you and your actions. No one would think that your parents are toxic with the amount of love they shower upon you in the name of gifts and money. These are often the signs of a toxic dad if he is co-parenting after a divorce. He could get you lavish gifts, mainly for two reasons: so you wouldn’t demand too much of his time, and you would stay on his side and do his bidding. One of the most common things toxic parents say is something along the lines of “I bought you everything you wanted, don’t talk back to me”, in an attempt to establish control.
- Never a grown-up: You will always be a child to your parents, but with toxic parents, you will never be a grown-up. Since you never grow-up, you won’t be able to participate in the decision-making process or have a firm say about anything important to your toxic parents, or for your new family.
- Derail Goals and Dreams: Your ambitions take a backseat because they make other things overly critical. They might ask you to focus much on them instead of your goals or dreams. Some might make up a fake illness to control and manipulate you. And, you wouldn’t ever blame them or think they would be responsible for it either, but it’s just what they do. They would make you do what they want, even if that means lying, gaslighting, or guilt-tripping you into submission.
- Toxic Parents try to Parent Your Children: I had this happen to me and it was scary. If your child acts our or misbehaves and you refuse to spank your child because you were spanked growing up, watchout. Your toxic parent might grab your child by the arm and smack them in front of you. Then they will insult and undermine your parent abilities and approach.
- They appear scary to Children: Toxic parents are not good with other children. They can appear angry, unfriendly, scary, and in their own world. If your parent is narcissistic, they will appear charming, friendly, and will love-bomb people they like and disrespect others they dislike.
- Not Fighting Fair: During an argument or fight, they will bring up something painful from your past. This is called a nuclear bomb approach. The bomb is laced with shame, guilt, disgust, zero forgiveness, and criticism. The toxic parent does not know how to resolve disagreements with always winning in the end. To win, a nuclear bomb will be launched, while you get destroyed.
How to identify toxic parents
Life is our teacher. The best way I learned how to identify toxic parents was to spend time at my friends house. The downside of being raised in a toxic home environment is it forces a child to grow up, instead of enjoying childhood. As my son puts it every week, “My father robbed me of my childhood.” To me, this is a crime. Every child should be allowed to just be a kid. They do not need to be burdened with adult problems and responsibility. And in my opinion, children are only allowed to be a child for a short period of time. Allow your child to enjoy it, instead of filling their day with a long list of chores or duties.
For example, when my mom did not want to deal with us kids, she would lock herself in her bedroom. I had to be the responsible adult and take care of my younger brother, make sure my brother did his chores, cook dinner, do the dishes, laundry, clean the house, and at times shop for food. I was only in fourth grade, around eight or nine years old. I was too independent at such a young age with zero boundaries. My mother would be considered a neglectful and absent parent. Now some people might not consider this abuse, but it was abuse. My brother and I both agreed that she never should of had children. She was too damaged from the abuse my father did to her during their marriage.
Yet, living at my father’s home was much worse. I did not have to take care of my younger brother or cook dinner. I had to survive a different forms of abuse. I had to avoid physical fights, drug use from my step-siblings, witness spousal abuse, stealing, lying, and other forms of abuse. My father would be considered a rage acholic. I was never good enough in his eyes. In his mind, I was the reason his first marriage failed. Therefore, I was seen more as an object, instead of his only daughter. He de-personalized our father/daughter relationship. It’s odd to think of it in this manner, but the only way he could have done the things he did in the book, The Undetected Narcissist, was to de-personalize me.
Are my parents toxic?
Again, have you seen any of these traits and behaviors in a parent or sibling?
- Self-centered behaviors
- Physical and verbal abuse
- Controlling behaviors
- Manipulative behaviors
- Lack of boundaries
- Foster self-hate in you
- Act differently with you in front of others
- Insist their opinions and values are right and others’ opposing ones are wrong
- Very sensitive to criticism
- Emotional instability
- Extremely controlling
- Blaming everyone else
Why is it unhealthy to be raised in a toxic home environment?
I will shock a few people here because I need to share some vital information. Some might wonder why being raised in a toxic home is unhealthy. I turned out fine, some might say. Here is the reason why. A toxic parent is someone whose negative behaviors, actions, and beliefs cause mental and emotional damage to their children’s sense of self. This damaged sense of self can spiral into suicidal thoughts and uncontrollable anger. If untreated and ignored, the child can develop mental health issues such as chronic depression, anti-social skills, PTSD, addictive behaviors, unhealthy habits, personality disorders, and social anxiety. Again, if untreated and ignored, someone can and will get hurt. I learned by watching the documentary “I shot my parents” that in the US, five children kill their biological parents every week. Shocking, but with the increasing breakdown of family structure, most people want to ignore it.
When a child grows up in a toxic environment and reaches adolescence, most toxic parents don’t know how to handle it in a healthy manner. The overly strict parent tries to become even more rigid to show dominance and control over the pre-teen or teenager. The problem I hear often is these kids just want a break. Covid made life much harder for children, teenagers, and young adults. There seems to be more pressure now a days for kids. Pressure to fit in, be accepted, heard, seen, acknowledged, and respected.
Plus, these young minds have all these raging hormones, making them emotional roller coasters at times. The sad fact is most abuse is carried out by family members, usually a son or daughter. These adolescent teens have problems of their own, which bleeds into the toxic home environment. The child could have money troubles, bullying, alcohol, drugs, relationships, or psychiatric issues. Children killed by their parents were the second most frequent type of family homicide. This is also seeing an increase, from one in seven family homicides in 1980 to one in four by 2008. But the fastest growing homicide is parents killed by one of their children, committed primarily by sons aged between 16 and 19. I found this information on the website Times of Malta.
What shocked me the most in the documentary” I shot my parents” is the father could not understand why his son tried to kill him. I feel sorry for the father and others out there that are stuck in confusion. I am sure his father’s parents were overly strict, and he came out fine, but the father did not understand depression or why a child has anger outbursts. There is always a reason behind various questionable behaviors. His son reported wanting to kill his parents when he was eight. This is not a typical statement for a child to make at eight. Yet, I do understand why. There is no blame or shame here – just my clinical observation and intake. Let me explain.
People seek out a sense of balance, harmony, and peace when facing life challenges. Our mental and emotional well-being suffers when we do not get this break or self-care opportunity. Pressure builds up, and there is only so much stuffing down one can do before all the pressure bubbles to the surface and explodes. Remember, it is trapped energy. From my observation, both parents were overly strict that it was suffocating. The child had household chores, but the duties were excessive. His parents installed surveillance cameras in the home to ensure their son was doing his chores. In my mind, this is very insulting and offensive. The child needs family connection time, not to be visually monitored. This is excessive and shows a lack of trust and faith.
Their son reported harsh punishments, but his parents considered it choirs. The child had minimal downtime to relax and be a kid inside the home environment. The child had no absolute freedom inside the home and quickly discovered at a young age that he could be his authentic self with his best friend outside the toxic home. The boy was constantly grounded, had high demands and expectations, everything he loved was taken away from him regularly, and he struggled with chronic depression. The parents were clueless about the chronic depression because they focused solely on keeping their son in line and ensuring he did all his chores. This is not how we show unconditional love to a child. Therefore, if your child is acting out at school, struggling at home, and seems depressed, STOP!!! Your child is indirectly speaking because actions speak louder than words. Here is what I suggest to all my clients.
- Sit your child down
- Say something positive about your child (sandwich approach)
- Put your ego aside as a parent
- Remember what it was like being a child or teenager
- Do not parent how you were parented
- If you need to apologize, do it
- Keep listening
- Validate the child’s concerns
- Say something positive about your child again
- Find a solution, form of balance or harmony
- Thank the child for sharing
- Ask your child if they would like to do this again next week to see if things have gotten better
- If your child says yes, post it in a spot as a visual reminder.
- Plan to do something fun together after, to reconnect at a deeper level.
Why is it unhealthy to be raised in a toxic home environment?
I hate to say this, but from my observation, he did not receive unconditional love until he tried to kill both his parents. When he did his chores, he was not shown appreciation, and at times, it appeared he received no positive praise, only negativity. People need positive recognition. Instead, he had to do the following task and was continually reminded that he was grounded. This form of not praising your child reinforces in their mind that they are bad, not good enough, a burden, and an enslaved person.
And, of course, the media likes to spin it in a negative light because some people in the media don’t understand or care. One article states that Nathon Brooks: Teen Shoots Sleeping Parents Because They Took His Video Games Away And Grounded Him. The young man was struggling at school, to appease his parents, in life generally, and had chronic depression. It was a cry for help. He did not have the coping skills of an adult, and many parents do not remember that all teenagers struggle with life. Being a teenager is not easy or fun at times.
I also think that he had more flexibility and freedom in jail than living at home. Having all your hobbies and pleasures taken away from you in your home environment on a consistent daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly can make anyone snap. You are not living, just existing. The home feels like a dictatorship, and that might have worked for his parents growing up, but it did not work for him. And when he thought he had killed them, he felt relief. His parents pushed him too far and were not aware of the warning signs for chronic depression.
Yet, they did see the warning signs and like most people, seeking therapy just seems taboo. Some people don’t like to admit their family is struggling. Instead they will pretend that everything is fine, when it is not. The lead investigator said that they had never been to a homicide before and the surveillance cameras were inside the house, not outside. Why? They never answered this question, but the cameras inside the house caught their son holding the weapon. And the parents did say that he had an explosive temper. If that was the case, why not get him help? Nobody is at fault here. It took this tragic event to wake up his parents and himself.
Now their relationship appears to be more supportive, loving, and accepting. They have forgiven their son and now focus more on supporting his mental health challenges. Nobody should experience what this family did, but this often happens when people are unaware of healthier parenting styles and mental health. We can learn from each other, and I hope this information is valuable to you because I want everyone to be safe and understand one another better. Therefore, here are the symptoms of chronic depression:
- Emotional numbness
- Anger, anxiousness, or irritability
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Feelings of pessimism or hopelessness
- Rumination over personal losses or failures
- Lack of pleasure in anything
- Lethargy or restlessness
- Lowered concentration
- Difficulty making decisions
- Low motivation levels
- Hallucinations or delusions
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Unintended weight loss or gain
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Headaches, cramps, or other aches and pains
- Thoughts of death, self-harm, or suicide
NCADV.org, “On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence.”
World Health Organization, “Globally, it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 years, have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.” World population is at 8 billion.
Child Risk Factors: Close-relationship level:
- lack of emotional bonding between children and parents or caregivers
- poor parenting practices
- family dysfunction and separation
- being associated with delinquent peers
- witnessing violence between parents or caregivers
- early or forced marriage
How to spot toxic parents
Since we are talking about toxic parents and domestic violence, I wanted to share some important information I found online. In the United States, an estimated 10 million people experience domestic violence every year. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner. About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, and/or partner stalking with injury, PTSD, contraction of STDS, etc. I was shocked to discover that Oklahoma is #1. There is a link to the Domestic violence by state 2023.
About 49.1% of Oklahoma women and 40.7% of Oklahoma men experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, including intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner rape, or intimate partner stalking. This is the highest in the United States. Oklahoma ranks third in the U.S. for the number of women killed by men in single-victim, single-offender homicides.
Kentucky has the second-highest rate of domestic violence, with 45.3% of women and 35.5% of men having experienced domestic violence. In a single day in 2019, Kentucky’s domestic violence programs served 1,420 adults and child survivors, while another 128 requests when unmet due to a lack of resources. Kentucky also ranked 11th in the U.S. for femicides, which is the intentional killing of women or girls because they are female.
Is being a toxic parent a mental disorder?
It can confuse many people when they finally realize a toxic parent raised them. Being a toxic parent isn’t a mental disorder. However, a toxic parent may or may not be suffering from mental illness. Remember, everyone can become toxic when they shift from their rational, empathic brain into their survival brain. Learning to identify a toxic parent can be essential for the well-being of the child or children of this person. Why? When we are in the dark about a toxic person, we get wounded. We take their behaviors personally when we should not. Instead of setting healthy boundaries or keeping ourselves safe from abuse, we become compliant. One can walk into a trap if they are set up or baited.
Therefore, to identify whether or not someone is a toxic parent, you should look for warning signs that indicate that they are toxic. If their behavior suggests they are toxic and you are their child, you can take steps to learn to accept this parent. If you still have to live with this parent, you must learn to keep your sanity, adapt, and keep yourself safe.
How to deal with toxic parents
I realize this topic, how to deal with toxic parents is a hot topic. It deserves a blog post all to itself. Therefore, here is the condenses version for now. The best way to deal I have learned in how to deal with toxic parents.
- Seek outside support from a professional
- Learn how set healthy boundaries
- Take some self-care time to heal
- Educate yourself about toxic behaviors and traits
- Work on yourself to increase your self-confidence
- Weed out the toxic people from your life
- Create a routine to either read, listen, or journal
- Discover your authentic self and enjoy life
- Focus on repairing the toxic relationship or not
- Accept you can’t change your toxic parent; only you
Every year it seems that new information, tools, and resources are available. When you first realize that your parents are toxic, it can be a hard pill to swallow. Take one day at time. It is not a race. We all need time to process and digest all the information we receive. And listen to your gut. Some information might speak to you and others do not. This is your journey and each step you take to break free is vital as the next step. At times, you might need some space to think things over and to clear your head. Journaling is a wonderful tool that can help you track and monitor your growth and maturity. I hope you have enjoyed this blog post about how to spot toxic parents. Any comments are appreciated. Take care!