10 Rules For Talking To My Kid About A Toxic Family Member
While I would like to think of myself as a carefree, laid back parent, most people will tell you different. Growing up with a toxic parent changed me — in good ways, and in bad — and one of the lasting effects has been how protective I am of my son. I want to give him the childhood I didn't have; I want him to experience two loving parents; I don't want him to worry about what I worried about as a kid. As a result, I have rules for talking to my kid about my toxic family member. Yeah, I guess I have to agree with everyone: I'm not that laid back.
Usually I'm not one to police conversations or hold back on sharing information. I'm all for honesty and think that being honest about my past — even the bad parts — when speaking to my son is important. However, there's a time and place and a way to go about having these kind of conversations, especially if they're being had between my son and someone who isn't me. Because I wasn't the only person negatively affected by my toxic parent, others will undoubtably talk to my son about his grandfather and why he's not around. Stories will be shared, eventually, and my son will start learning about his mom's dad, and why he's not in her life anymore (and why he's never been in his). There's nothing I can do to stop these conversations from eventually happening, and honestly I'm not sure I should. My history is something my son can learn from, and if it means he doesn't end up like my father — or end up in an abusive relationship himself — I will consider it all worth it.
Still, I want to make sure these conversations benefit my son. There's no reason to bring up this toxic individual if it is going to be harmful, in any way. So, while honesty is the best policy, it's also not always a necessity. With that in mind, here are just a few rules I have for anyone who decided to discuss my toxic parent with my son.
You Won't Make It My Kid's Problem
What my toxic parent has done is none of my son's concern. What I have experienced isn't his experience, and it certainly isn't his problem. As the parent, it's my job to shield him from certain things until I know he is able to not only handle it, but understand it. As a two-year-old toddler, he isn't ready to understand the complexities of anyone's relationship with this toxic family member, nor the side effects of having one.
So, if you're going to talk about this family member with my son, you aren't going to do so in a way that makes him feel like he has to be invested in what's going on. You're not going to burden him with problems he shouldn't have as a child. I want him worrying about finding his lost Toy Story toy, not about his abusive grandfather.
You Won't Go Into Details That Aren't Age Appropriate
My toxic parent has done some horribly abusive things, said some truly mortifying, manipulated things and hurt people in a number of devastating ways. My son doesn't need to know about it, though. He doesn't need to hear about pain and violence and sadness. Before I know it, he will be able to understand what's being said on the news and he'll hear plenty. Until then, I want him to be blissfully unaware of the ugly parts of humanity.
So if you're going to bring up this toxic individual, please do not go into detail about what he did or said or who he hurt. That's not for my son to know. It's not age appropriate information that benefits him in any way. He's a kid, and I'm in no rush for him to deal with adult issues. Let him be a kid.
You Won't Call Anyone Names. Regardless.
Trust me when I say that I understand the urge to call someone who has hurt you, done you or others harm, and is genuinely a horrible human being all around, a name. Trust me.
However, my son doesn't need to hear it. He doesn't know why you feel so inclined to express your anger that particular way; he just hears someone calling someone else a name. I don't want him to think that's appropriate even if, sometimes (you could argue) it's definitely warranted. Most importantly, this toxic family member is still a family member, and my son is related to them. I don't want him hearing someone calling someone he's related to a nasty word, and concluding that — because he's related to them — he's that nasty word, too.
You'll Make Sure They Know It's Not My Kid's Fault
I don't want my son ever, ever, thinking that he doesn't have a grandfather around because of something he did. I don't want him to think there's something "wrong" with him, and that's why he has only one grandfather instead of two. In no way should anyone talk about my toxic parent in a way that makes my son feel like there's something he could have done to change the situation, even though so much of what has already occurred was way before he was even a thought in my mind.
You'll Let Them Know That This Person's Behavior Isn't Normal...
It's never too early to teach my son that hitting people, invading their personal space, lying, calling someone a name, or being abusive in any way is not acceptable. Even at two-years-old, he's capable of learning not to touch someone without their permission, or in a way that causes pain. He's already understanding that you don't yell at someone, or call them bad names, or lie (we're working on the lying, and I have a feeling that one is going to take some time).
If you're going to discuss anything my toxic family member has done, make sure my son knows that what happened is not acceptable. Show him that refusing to accept that kind of behavior as "inevitable" or "normal" is not what someone "should do." Make sure he knows that you don't have to forgive or allow certain behaviors to continue, just because someone is family.
...But Many Families Do Experience It, So Our Family Isn't "Weird" Or "Broken"
Sadly, my family is not alone. Over 10,000,000 children will be exposed to domestic violence each year. An estimated 35 percent of all women who are married or in common law marriage, experience emotional abuse. A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds in the United States and over 3.6 million referrals are made to child protective agencies across the country every year. It's a harrowing fact, but so many American families know what it's like to live with a toxic, and otherwise abusive, family member.
So, if you're going to bring up the fact that I have a toxic father and, by default, my son has a toxic grandfather, do not make it sound like we are the only family to experience these particular problems. Do not create a picture in which our family is the "odd one out" because, for better or for worse, we are not.
You'll Use It As A Teaching Moment
Honestly, I don't see a reason to ever talk to my son about my toxic family member, unless it's to teach him something positive and beneficial (and even then, I would argue there are other ways you can teach someone not to be a garbage human being.)
If you're going to talk about why my son's grandfather isn't around, make sure you do so in an way that's at least teachable. Don't just say things to say things; make sure there's a purpose.
You'll Remind My Kid That He's Safe...
My son is young, and is at an age (and will be for a while) where certain things will be scary. While he might be genuinely terrified of a shadow or that one character from Monsters Inc., I don't want him scared of the "bad man" or mommy's "toxic dad." I don't want him thinking that his grandfather will eventually come find him and hurt him, too.
When he's at an age that affords him the ability to understand (and hear) certain details about your relationship with this toxic family member, remind him that he's safe. Remind him that he is not in any danger, and he will never be in any danger. There's no reason to scare my son in the name of "honesty."
...And He Is Supported...
I can't tell you that I know what it's like to feel supported by my father. I can't tell you that I know what it's like to feel like my dad "had my back" and would be there for me in a positive way. My son, however, does.
It's always great to remind him that he's supported and loved by his parents — both parents — but it's especially important when sharing stories of someone else not having that support.
...And He Is Loved
There's never a bad time to remind my son that he is loved. There's never a moment when saying, "Your parents love you very, very much," is a "bad" thing. I want my son to know that he is loved, and in a way that I didn't really get to experience (from both parents) when I was growing up. I may have had a toxic parent, but my son doesn't.