The scars of our youth run deep into the viscera of our beings. It is nearly impossible to separate what was done to us with how we have managed and what we have become. When the scars are made by the ones who are supposed to love us the most, the effects can be long-ranging and insidious. It bleeds into our everyday lives, whether we are conscious of it or not, and that includes how we parent our children. It is crucial to recognize these five surprising ways having a toxic parent shows up in your parenting if you're going to actively work against it.
It was Susan Forward who coined the term "toxic parents" in her book Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. It was a revelation for many of us who did not previously have the language to describe the dysfunctional relationships we had with our parents. In the very first chapter, Forward describes how one of her patients has mimed the behavior of his toxic father without even recognizing it. His father's yelling and demanding behaviors became his screaming and nagging. She posits that many of us continue to replay the patterns of our toxic childhoods, and that we must actively participate in our own recovery to break the cycle.
I contacted several therapists to find out exactly how having toxic parents creeps into your parenting, and surprisingly, they're not all terrible.
1. It Changes Your Perception
"It makes us vigilant and it makes us aware. It lets us shift the pre-wired connections made at an unconscious level. Parenting your own children is a perfect time to re-write your story," Dr. Dara Bushman, Psy.D. tells Romper. She says that while you may worry that you'll just repeat the cycle, "you will create an environment that is conducive to the way you want to raise your children."
2. You Are Probably Great At Manipulation
Caroline Artley, LCSW, a therapist in Maryland, tells Romper that "a child who grows up with a toxic parent might adapt by catering to the parent's perceived needs. Perhaps they learn how to keep their parent in an ideal mood by supplying emotional support or staying out of the way. They become keen manipulators out of necessity." If you've ever known a toxic person, you will understand why manipulation of their moods is absolutely key to your own personal survival. However, this does impact your parenting. Artley notes that children of toxic parents might not have the chance to form behaviors that are healthy and that they "may use manipulation to their benefit again, except this time at the expense of their child." Thankfully, she says that these parents can break the cycle, it can just be a struggle.
3. It Can Take More Effort To Parent
Traci Parramore-Chambers, MA MFT, the Director of Outpatient Services of the Discovery Mood and Anxiety Program at Discovery Behavioral Health relays to Romper that becoming a parent can urge the children of toxic parents to truly reflect on how they were raised, and in turn understand how that might make them parent so that they might break the cycle. However, this is an exhausting process. Parramore-Chambers notes that "this choice is not easy because of the many emotional reminders to engage in modeled behaviors, not to mention, those emotions are strong because of the long term and unconscious connection."
4. You Might Be Completely Unaware That It's Affecting You
You might not even recognize what you're doing when you're doing it, according to Dr. Sherrie Campbell clinical psychologist and author of But It’s Your Family: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members. Campbell says, "The more covertly toxic a family system is, the harder it is for children to recognize that what they were raised in was toxic. If you don’t have an understanding of the toxic family system, you will falsely assume you are the problem." You might end up in a pattern of blaming yourself, not knowing of the influence your own parents are having on your current situation. This makes it harder to fight the patterns, get help, and forgive yourself.
5. You Find Yourself Judging Everything
Because it's a cycle, the children of toxic parents are forced to reckon with the idea that their parents probably did not understand their own toxicity, and therefore, they might not understand theirs. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jan Harrell tells Romper that in order to change, parents should "...take away the label of 'toxic' and replace it with 'ignorant.'" It is only then that you "have the possibility to turn from judgment (of others and what they do not know how to do, and of ourselves as we struggle with this impossible and yet heartfelt task of raising children) and the resulting shame or blame, to compassion."