Growing up with a toxic father can affect you as an adult
Charday Penn/E+/Getty Images
If You Have A Toxic Dad, You'll Recognize These 11 Signs Right Away

Understanding your childhood can help you be a better parent.

by Lindsay E. Mack
Originally Published: 

By the time you reach adulthood, you probably have some serious thoughts about your upbringing. Most parents legitimately try their best, but there are unfortunately some exceptions to this rule. Knowing the signs you have a toxic father can help you heal from past trauma, as well as refrain from repeating these mistakes with your own kids.

First, though, it’s important to understand what makes a relationship toxic in the first place. “In the context of parenting, the word toxic means they are hindering their child’s development and causing harm,” Dr. Kelly Campbell, professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, tells Romper. Often these parents experienced neglect or dysfunction while growing up, then go on to replicate these maladaptive behaviors when raising their own children. “Toxic relationships are marked by disrespect and devaluation,” Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at Michigan State University and director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab, tells Romper. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when around this person.

Fortunately, you aren't doomed to repeat your father's behaviors. Simply knowing the signs of toxic behavior, and being aware of your own actions, can go a long way toward correcting them. Plus, you don’t have to give the toxic person a place in your current life. “Establishing and maintaining distance may be the healthiest choice in a toxic relationship that is not likely to change. Distance can be physical (you do not see them) or mental (certain topics are off limits or mental boundaries are drawn to protect oneself),” says Hall. You can also explore the option of counseling to address these pain points and find a healthier way to parent your own children. Growing up with unhealthy family dynamics is rough on any child, but you can identify the signs of a toxic parent and move on to a happier future.


Your father is disrespectful

Grace Cary/Moment/Getty Images

Does it feel like you’ll never measure up to your father’s demands? “When someone consistently and intentionally makes you feel less than, not worthy, and disrespects you and your life, it is a toxic relationship,” says Hall. It’s about discerning the intention behind their comments. There’s a difference between expressing a genuine concern for your well-being and simply bashing every choice you make.


Your father gives you the silent treatment

There are plenty of healthy ways to address conflict, and the silent treatment is not one of them. When you think of the fight or flight response, the silent treatment is an example of flight, according to Alexis Auleta, LCSW, individual, couples, and family therapist. “While many silent types use silence to protect themselves emotionally, there are those who use silence to manipulate and punish others,” she tells Romper. “It’s important to know the difference.” Those who are consciously weaponizing silence as a punishment do so to hurt you. “Silence is used to psychologically control, punish and manipulate others,” notes Auleta.


Your father uses threats

Out-of-control threats are not only the sign of a toxic father, but they are also ineffective. In fact, constant threats may cause older kids to pursue disruptive behaviors, Auleta explains. “Verbal abuse, threats, and retaliation are some of the ways a toxic parent attempts to control and manipulate a child. This is especially true as a child gets older and seeks to gain more independence. When the parent/child power dynamic is threatened, a toxic parent will use tactics such as threats and consequences to maintain control … Over time, [the child] may be left feelings of powerlessness at home, making her more prone to participate in higher risk behavior outside of it.”


Your father has substance misuse issues

Does your father seem to turn into a different (meaner) person after drinking? As it turns out, alcohol abuse is one of the potential signs of a toxic parent. Issues around substance misuse can certainly affect a person’s ability to parent, and this can turn into a cycle of substance abuse when the child grows up. “Some children of toxic parents develop maladaptive coping skills in order to survive their childhoods,” Auleta says. “As kids get older, they might engage in high risk behaviors in an attempt to escape the stressors they are experiencing or to simply rebel against a controlling parent. For some, this is where addiction can start.”


Your father doesn’t want you to grow up

Richard Bailey/Photodisc/Getty Images

Taking the regular steps toward adulthood should be celebrated. But in some cases, “the parent tries to keep the child dependent on them even when the child is an adult or becoming an adult,” says Campbell. In reality, growing up and maturing is simply natural.

“A toxic parent will attempt to block the natural progression of dependence to independence,” notes Auleta. “They will encourage and even demand that their child remain dependent upon them in order to maintain control and dominance.”


Your father has violent outbursts

Sure, anger can get the best of everyone now and then. But a toxic person may regularly experience violent outbursts and then blame you for the reaction, Auleta tells Romper. “It’s often a way for toxic people to both maintain control in relationships as well as protect the image they have of themselves as good people,” she explains. “‘It’s because of you that I screamed at the kids.’ ‘If only you had done what I said, this wouldn’t have happened,’” Auleta offers. This kind of a bad temper is totally destructive.


Your father provides conditional love

Ideally, a parent’s love is unconditional. But in a more toxic scenario, “the parent only shows approval or love when the child conforms to who the parent wants them to be,” says Campbell. There’s no space to just be yourself.

Love can be earned and also quickly taken away. “Conditional love is about manipulating and controlling others by taking advantage of their longing for your acceptance, praise, and approval,” says Auleta. “When a parent uses conditional love, they are teaching their children that love isn’t always available to them.”


Your father inspires fear

Did you have to walk on eggshells growing up? If your father used fear as a manipulation tactic, then this is almost certainly a sign of toxic parenting. “A ‘walking on eggshells’ home environment is full of fear and tension for children. In an effort to avoid verbal, psychological, or sometimes physical abuse, a child will begin to learn what triggers their parent and what doesn't …​​ This can often lead to a hyper-vigilant state for children, which carries well into adulthood and can negatively impact their relationships in the future,” Auleta says. Remember, fear does not equal love or respect.


Your father is narcissistic

As far as narcissists are concerned, they're the center of the world. So, of course, Campbell notes that parents with narcissistic tendencies can be toxic as well. Even after reaching adulthood, you may feel like your father's needs are larger than life — and far more important than your own.

Auleta tells Romper that some narcissistic traits a toxic father might display include dominating the conversation, excessive or neglectful communication (like too many or too few calls or texts), blaming others for their behavior, making you second guess your decisions or criticizing your choices, or love bombing after being verbally, psychologically, or emotionally abusive.


Your father is aloof

Moyo Studio/E+/Getty Images

Speaking of unchecked narcissistic traits, narcissistic fathers who are aloof and removed from their children probably did not provide the warmth and care needed by kids. It's potentially damaging. “If this happens consistently over time, a child learns that he can’t rely on that parent for warmth, connection, protection, and love,” says Auleta. “The attachment between parent and child becomes insecure and unstable because consistent care and love is lacking.” Often this is a result of the parent themself having experienced these behaviors in their parents, and they are now continuing the generational cycle.


Your father is controlling

Did your dad monitor and manipulate your every move? Overly controlling parents may lead to kids with higher levels of depression and dissatisfaction, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. If this sounds all too familiar, you may want to seek counseling for support.

Having toxic parents leaves a major psychological impression on a child — one that can carry on into adulthood. Knowing the signs of a toxic parent can help you identify whether you potentially grew up with a toxic father and heal the cycle. The best way to assess and improve your personal family dynamic is to find a good therapist who can help you navigate the situation.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Studies referenced:

Schiffrin, H.H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H. et al. Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being. J Child Fam Stud 23, 548–557 (2014).

Sources interviewed:

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication at Michigan State University and Director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab

Dr. Kelly Campbell, professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino

Alexis Auleta, LCSW, individual, couples, and family therapist

This article was originally published on