We don’t get to choose our parents.
Unfortunately, many of us end up having to deal with parents who — despite their best intentions — do more harm than good to our fragile, developing psyches.
Psychologists and social workers have coined a term for such moms and dads: “toxic parents.” Children of toxic parents can have a hard time growing into independent adults. And it can be difficult for them to develop intimate relationships of their own.
It may take a while for those of us who were raised by toxic parents to figure that out. Most of us develop strong bonds with our parents, regardless of how good they were at raising us, and those bonds can obscure the reality of our relationship with them.
How do you know if you grew up with a toxic parent?
1. It’s hard to share things with your parent because they keep interrupting you.
Does it seem like every time you tell your parent a story, he or she invariably makes it about them?
That could be a sign of a toxic parent, according to Greg Kushnick, a Manhattan-based psychologist who also runs a health and happiness blog called techealthiest.
“If your parent usually struggles to stay quiet when you’re sharing something with him or her, it’s a sign that they can’t recognize your needs,” Kushnick told ATTN:. “Instead, they impose on you what they think you need.”
2. There was a black sheep in the family.
Did one of your parents constantly blame you or another family member for everything that went wrong?
The existence of a black sheep in your family may signify a toxic parent, according to Ruth Spalding, a social worker who runs her own practice, Live Well Counseling, in Traverse City, Michigan.
“When folks start to realize what was happening, they understand that the black sheep was scapegoated for a lot of problems that weren't their fault,” Spalding told ATTN:.
3. Your parent is always pitting you against your significant other.
Have you noticed that your parent has consistently wedged herself into your relationships over the years? Toxic parents are known to form alliances with their offspring, pitting them against their significant others.
“This is referred to as the ‘splitting process,’” Kushnick said. “Your parent uses gossip or whatever means possible to create a rift between you and your spouse or partner.”
4. Your parent shared way too much information with you.
Did your parents often tell you all this crazy stuff growing up? You know, about their jobs, their relationships, their finances — and you were, like, 8 years old?
Paul Coleman, a psychologist based in Wappingers Falls, New York, said that moms and dads who use their children as confidants might be toxic parents.
“We call this child the ‘parentified child,’” Coleman told ATTN:. “It’s a burden, because the child obviously cannot have the wisdom, experience, or perspective to offer advice, and yet may feel responsible for the parent’s happiness.”
5. You have holes in your memory from a young age.
Maybe you have bits and pieces of memories. But, for the most part, does it seem like your childhood was a complete blur?
It could signal you were raised by a toxic parent.
“Growing up in stressful environments can take a toll on your memory,” Spalding said. “While you might have some pretty crystal clear memories of certain events, there are whole years where you remember very little.”
6. Your parent smashed your favorite toys.
Coleman said that if you were the victim of “extreme or cruel punishment” so as to “teach a lesson,” then there is a chance that you might be the child of a toxic parent.
As an example: Did your parents do anything outrageous, like smash your favorite toys, lock you in a closet, or ground you for an extended period of time? That is something a toxic parent might do.
Do you think one of your parents — or both of them — were toxic?
It’s not the end of the world. The first step toward healing is accepting the fact that your parents were unnecessarily hard on you.
Next, you'll want to consider talking to mental health professionals in your area; you can also find a multitude of options via a simple Google search. If you're on the shy side and don't necessarily want to talk to anyone, that's okay, too. Books can also help.
Never forget that you control your own actions, experts advise. Just because your parents were toxic doesn’t mean you have to be, too.