Interpersonal relationships are often multidimensional and, at times, complex. They can create stress and tension in our daily lives. How we relate to others is often based on our relationships with our parents.
If, as a child, you were fortunate to have a loving, warm, affectionate, kind and humble parent, this will have made for a very rich childhood. This doesn't mean that your adulthood is problem-free, but you most likely now have a positive relationship with your parent.
However, if you grew up with a toxic parent, your relationships with yourself and others might be filled with angst. And the communication with that emotionally unhealthy parent is fragile.
To be very clear — I am not writing about relationships with parents in which there was a history of physical and/or sexual abuse.
At the same time, this is not to home in on one bad experience you had as a child. Every parent has a rough day. No one is perfect.
What I am writing about is a parent who engages in a constant pattern of hypercriticism, manipulation and overly controlling behavior causing intentional hurt to benefit and serve their own interests and ego. This can include verbal abuse, emotional blackmail, and the silent treatment.
The toxic parent is self-absorbed, and fails to see how their self-centered approach to parenting causes damage to their child’s sense of self-worth.
This style of parenting teaches a child that love is conditional. In other words, “I love you if you do the following.” They give their children this message, whatever their age might be.
However, even if the parent is confronted about their behavior they have a litany of excuses and justifications. They are magically able to turn around every situation to not only put themselves in the right light, but many times can elicit an apology as well.
A toxic parent is famous for writing letters or leaving voice mail messages that can be tricky to decipher. There is always a deeper message that you are left to decode. Try as you might, there is a chance that you will still misinterpret their note. Bottom line message they are sending you — “I’m OK and you are not.”
The parent/child relationship generally serves as a foundation on which other interpersonal relationships are built. This means as a child you may see the world as safe and beautiful, and that people are around to give you healthy emotional support.
A child who is raised with a nurturing parent has confidence. When mistakes are made, they serve as opportunities to learn, not as some sort of character defect.
The toxic parent has a unique way of making the child feel that every misstep you take is a character flaw. Constructive criticism is one thing, but typically this is not what the toxic parent doles out.
In 2002, Dr. Susan Forward wrote the book “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.” She said, “Many toxic parents control their adult children by treating them as if they were helpless and inadequate, even when this is drastically out of sync with reality.”
This type of parent constantly tries to manage their own image through their child’s actions and appearance, and the child can become overly sensitive to criticism in general. Concerned with superficial things, the toxic parent tends to put an overemphasis on perfection and status.
Forward pointed out that toxic parents have difficulty separating themselves from their children as the children age. “As the child grows older, it becomes even more important for the parent to pull the strings that keep the child dependent. As long as toxic parents can make their son or daughter feel like a child they maintain control.”
For the purposes of this piece, I did an email interview with psychologist Mary Seyuin, MA, LLP and asked for her thoughts regarding toxic parents.
Seyuin said, “Protecting ourselves from the effects of toxic parents is not an easy assignment. We did not learn how to nurture and protect ourselves if our parents did not model this for us. Toxic parents are wrapped up in their own wounding to see the real needs of the child. The treatment you suffered came from what was wrong from them, not what is wrong with you.”
Over the long term, this makes the parent/child relationship fragile and complex. Often, the adult child will work tirelessly to repair the damage, only to be met with additional harshness and negativity. There might even be times in which the relationship is better and communication seems to be healthy — and then the toxic parent decides to throw mud.
In a phone interview, Seyuin said that she practices detachment from her toxic parents.
“I spent many adult years being negatively affected by a toxic parent who simply did not have the love and wholeness needed to be a healthy parent. I fired her as my mother. I replaced her with a surrogate mother, who is healthy, loving, kind and supportive. This was an internal process, not something I made known to my biological mother. I chose to treat her kindly so I would not have regrets. But I no longer expected nor sought from her what I needed and never got.”
It is healthy for an adult to set appropriate boundaries and to practice lovingkindness. When possible, avoid opening yourself up to others being inappropriate, rude and insensitive.
Developing an awareness as to how the toxic person injured you and how their behavior impacts you today is key. When you have this level of insight, it opens your mind up to being able to change your own actions.
Realizing that people will say and do damaging things is part of accepting that you can’t control others. This doesn’t excuse their actions, but developing awareness and insight leads to your own healing.
Sometimes toxic parents are narcissistic, and when adult children begin to distance themselves from the parent the dynamics shift.
In a May 1, 2014, article on Psychologytoday.com, Dr. Seth Meyers wrote, “What’s interesting to note is the narcissistic parent’s reaction to witnessing healthy psychological change in their child. Once the child or adult child of the narcissist starts to get psychologically healthier and begins to distance himself a bit from the parent, the narcissistic parent experiences a sort of existential panic. Often, it’s a psychotherapist, colleague or friend who plants the seeds of change, declaring to the child that the parent is toxic and emotionally abusive.”
Making a decision to still connect with your parent is difficult. If you still have communication with your toxic parent, it is important to keep in mind that you will not be able to meet all of your parent’s desires exactly as they wish.
It is impossible. Their needs can’t be met by anyone else. They are internally wounded, and you can’t fix their self- esteem. Forward wrote, “Parents who feel good about themselves do not have to control their adult children.”
Children who live with a toxic parent grow up fearful to be themselves, so they may spend most of their life trying to please and take care of others. This comes at the expense of sacrificing the core of who they truly are meant to be.
Healing is possible and it begins with being kind to yourself.
Kristin Meekhof is a speaker, writer, author and licensed master’s level social worker. She completed the M.S.W. program at the University of Michigan and is the author of the book, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years.”
Reviewed February 23, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
Narcissistic Parents’ Psychological Effect on Their Children: Psychology Today- Retrieved February 22, 2016.
Toxic Parents: Bantum publishing 2002- Page 53, 69 by Susan Forward, PhD.
Phone interview with psychologist Mary Seyuin