10 Signs You Had Toxic Parents — And How to Break the Cycle

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Fairygodboss is a career community whose mission is to help women achieve their career goals and our members often talk about the hardships in balancing work and home. Many times, it’s a difficult workplace environment that new moms are trying to navigate. However, for others, it’s sometimes the “mother” part of “working mother” that makes working parenthood difficult.

This was certainly the case for Heidi Crux, who is an accomplished professional with over 25 years of experience both in and out of the boardroom teaching communication basics and management principles at the university level. She wrote this article to share her perspective on parenting.

When I brought my first daughter home from the hospital I remember looking over her crib as she slept and muttering to myself "Now what?" I had read all the prenatal books, but I still felt totally unprepared. In fact, prior to my first pregnancy, I was determined not to have children because I thought I would be a terrible mother. I feared I would be abusive, neglectful and downright toxic towards my own children. How could I not create the same dysfunctional family dynamic that I had lived all my life? It was the only thing I knew. I remember asking my husband to police me. I needed to know there was someone keeping an eye on me. He tried to reassure me that it wasn't necessary, but I made him promise nonetheless.
To be completely honest, there were many times when my children would trigger what I call the "crazy" in me and I really wanted to react the way my narcissistic mother had with me, but my awareness and fear of recreating such a toxic environment enabled me to walk away, regroup and calm down. If I hadn’t policed myself, my poor children would also lay claim to a dysfunctional family as their own. 
What I did learn growing up was exactly what not to do as a parent. That in itself was a valuable lesson. I learned:  
  • How not to scream at your children: In the beginning, your screaming will frighten them, but later on it will enrage them and inspire retaliation.
  • How not to hit your child: You may get away with it when they are young, but trust me, they are counting the days until they are bigger than you. 
  • How not to treat your child as a slave: Sure chores are to be expected, but things like making your kids cook breakfast for you before leaving for school is simply backward and wrong. 
So from this springboard of dysfunction how can we approach parenthood with even the slightest hope of raising kind, well-rounded and successful people? I can say from experience that it won’t be easy, but it is doable.

Breaking the Cycle of Dysfunction

Toxic parents tend to rear toxic little people, who, unless they seek to heal themselves in adulthood, will pass on their childhood experiences subconsciously. If you have ever said to yourself, “I will never say that to my children,” or, “I will never do that to my child,” I hope you have the support you need to follow that through. The problem is that often the adult-child is not even aware of their dysfunctional ways of thinking and the go-to response or abusive behavior is always at the ready when you don’t know what else to do.    
I am happy to say that, despite my dysfunctional beginnings and emotional child abuse, I did manage to produce three very strong, independent and confident young women. Their accomplishments (a flight attendant, figure skater, and engineer) are enough to make any parent proud, but what I am most proud of is the kind of people they turned out to be: honest, caring, and confident. I really believe I have broken the cycle of abuse and dysfunction that has been rampant in my family for so long, and I am so grateful.

Signs You Were Raised by Toxic Parents

So, how do you approach parenting if you had toxic parents? Well first, let's be sure that you had a toxic parent. Here are 10 signs that you grew up with toxic parents who had an impact on your emotional well-being, according to Healthy Way:
1. Their feelings always came before yours. (You had to quickly learn emotional independence.)
2. They didn’t recognize your boundaries. (Parenting becomes toxic parenting when there's no respect.)
3. They controlled you using guilt. (And the guilt worked.)
4. They demanded your attention. (A healthy relationship is attentive but not overly attentive.)
5. They didn’t talk to you. (This can be considered parental alienation.)
6. They took away their love. (This is also sometimes considered parental alienation.)
7. They were overly critical. (They expected too much out of you.)
8. They competed with you. (They may have been a narcissistic parent.)
9. They made you responsible for their happiness and well-being. (This is not okay from a family member or anyone else.)
10. You’re still scared of them. (Your parent-child relationship wasn't healthy, and neither is your parent-to-parent relationship these days).
"All parents make mistakes in upbringing," writes Blaz Kos of Agile Lean Life, but parental abuse is something different. "That’s normal since there’s no perfect parent. But there is a clear line when too many mistakes, especially repeating abusive behavior towards children, lead to a toxic home environment that does severe emotional damage to an innocent young person. Parents who carry a promise of love and care, while at the same time mistreat their child, 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 acceptable behavior. Toxic parents usually do extremely unloving things in the name of love."

Toxic Beliefs

Kos says some other examples of toxic beliefs include:
  • 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

Toxic Rules

And some 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.

Categories of Toxic Parents

In fact, he breaks toxic parents down into seven different categories:
  1. The godlike parents, "where the child’s independence is suffocated"
  2. The inadequate parents, "where the child becomes almost invisible"
  3. The controllers, "where the child is only an extension of the family"
  4. The verbal abusers, "who directly or indirectly humiliate a child over and over again"
  5. The physical abusers, "where there is no place to hide, no escape from physical punishment"
  6. The alcoholics, "where all the behaviors above are present"
  7. The sexual abusers, "which represents the ultimate betrayal"

The Cycle of Toxicity

Once you recognize that you had toxic parents, it's important to understand how the cycle of toxicity works.
"Toxic parents most often had toxic parents too," Kos writes. "A toxic family system is frequently 'inherited,' causing damage to generation after generation. The toxic system is thus not something that toxic parents invent, but rather a result of the accumulated feelings, rules, interactions, and that have been handed down from ancestor to ancestor."
There are several main ways in which a toxic family system get handed down, he explains:
  • Repetition compulsion
  • Rage outlets
  • The abused become the abuser 
"Knowing that is definitely not an excuse for your toxic parents, but it is a good thing to know — especially to understand the bigger picture, but even more to not continue toxic behavior with your own children and other important relationships in your life," he adds."

How to Parent Differently From Your Toxic Parents

Now here's how I suggest you learn to not be like them:
1. Resolve not to be the parent you had as a child.
2. Actively seek counseling to heal your inner child.
3. Model the person you want your children to be like.
Some of you might be saying “What a minute, I already have children, but I have never worked on healing my inner child. Now what?”
It’s not too late, but you have to realize that your abusive childhood experiences will affect your children in one way or another if they are left unchecked. Triggers are all around us and if we haven’t learned how to diffuse them, we will continue to be puppets of our past — puppets who will project negative words or behaviors onto the people they care about the most. This was my biggest concern and I decided at that moment that since I did not know what a healthy mother-child relationship looked like, that I was going to fake it until I made it. I would model all the behaviors I would have liked to see in my mother. Modeling was my only weapon in this war called parenting and, damn it, I was going to win!

How to Model Good Behavior

Modeling behavior is nothing new. Umpteen books, blogs, and braggarts claim to have mastered the art, but I would wager most of them are full of "diaper contents."  I know this because I have polled hundreds of parents over the years. I have read countless books. I have sent my children to their friends’ houses for sleepovers secretly tasked with gathering information on what goes on at Janie’s house. Yes, I have stooped to that level because everyone knows that all is fair in love, war, and parenting! As I suspected, the double-standard was running amok in every household. The most common modus operandi was "Do as I say, not as I do." Seriously? Some people actually think this tidbit of pseudo-wisdom actually works, but our kids know it’s BS.
Modeling is doing everything you don’t want to do. There is no room for hypocrisy or double standards here. If you want your child to make their beds, you have to make yours. If you want your child to take the higher road in a conflict, they have to see you do the same. If you want your child to be honest and forthright, then you can’t tell them to lie when they answer the phone for you with instructions to "tell them I’m in the bath." Even these little indiscretions make a huge impact on how your child will model themselves in the same situations. They have to see that you hold yourself as accountable as you hold them, especially if you are hoping to foster integrity.
My adult daughters now laugh hysterically when I recount stories of how I would "run around the house naked with scissors in my hand and have cake for breakfast" when they were at their dad’s house on the weekends. When my girls weren’t around, I didn’t make my bed, I drank straight out of the milk carton and I had ice cream for dinner, which I ate on the couch in my pajamas! I’m not kidding. When the opportunity arose to be solely the dog’s role model, I let loose, but the moment my girls came home, it was business as usual. 
Modeling means simply putting yourself in your child’s shoes at every moment. Imagine yourself at the same age as your child and think about what you would have liked at that moment. Did you need a hug, a sounding board or just a shoulder to cry on? Think about how you felt and then approach your child with the understanding, love, and compassion you wish you had received. Keep your inner child in your thoughts constantly; he or she will guide the way.  

Modeling Kindness

For instance, if you want your child to be kind, you have to model being kind (always). If you want your child to be well-rounded, you have to model well-roundedness (always). If you want your child to succeed in life, you have to model success.  I know everyone thinks they have ‘kind’ mastered, and some consider themselves rather well-rounded, but can you honestly say you have succeeded in life? I don’t mean your financial status, education, or your career status. Being successful in life means being happy and being happy is a state of mind, an attitude, and a confidence that no matter what life throws at you, your foundation will always be there to support you. Isn’t that what we all want for our children?
How do you model kindness? Being kind to others is easy, but how kind are you to yourself? Remember, your children are watching. Have you ever said to yourself; How could I be so blind? What’s wrong with me? I’m sure I screwed that up. If you have, then you are not modeling kindness. Children watch how we handle ourselves, and if we are that harsh with ourselves, they will do the same. They will learn how to beat themselves up or worse, they will come to believe that they just aren’t good enough.

Modeling Well-Roundedness

What about well-roundedness? Being well-rounded is not just about having a varied educational background. It's about being balanced, and your work-life balance should be your top priority. Even if you work long hours you can still be balanced by really showing up in those moments away from work. Don’t obsess over your to-do list on the weekends, and don’t tell everyone how busy you are as an excuse for postponing time with the important people in your life. Well-roundedness means taking the time to nurture all of your relationships. Your children need to see their relationship with you as your priority. If you don’t, they just might be too busy for you one day.   

A Final Note

Parenting is challenging to say the least, and parenting without the blueprint of a healthy and nurturing childhood is even more difficult, but don't lose faith. You can end the cycle of child abuse. You don't have to raise toxic people who will have a toxic relationship with your grandchildren because you had a toxic relationship with them. The toxic parenting ends now. Every step you take, even the missteps, will have a significant return on investment. The hidden bonus in raising kind, caring and well-rounded children is that their success in life will be guaranteed.

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This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Heidi Crux is the author of Public Speaking Simplified and Demystified. Communication Basics to Create Lasting Impressions. Heidi is a graduate of Dale Carnegie Training with over 25 years of experience both in and out of the boardroom teaching communication basics and management principles at the university level. As a trainer and coach Heidi conducts seminars and workshops upon request as well as public speaking engagements. 

What is your no. 1 piece of advice for how to prevent the toxic people in your life from interfere with your goals and happiness? Share in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members.