Parents who carry a promise of love and care, while at the same time mistreat their children, 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 behaviour. 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.
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.
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
The physical abusers, where there is no place to hide, no escape from physical punishment
The alcoholics, where all the behaviors above are present
The sexual abusers, which represents the ultimate betrayal
The Verbal Abusers - The Bruises 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.
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.
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.
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.