What Makes A Parent Toxic?

There are difficult parents, and there are toxic parents. The difficult ones cause their child to be cautious and to have to adapt their behaviour around them; whereas the toxic parents are much more detrimental to their child's personality development and character formation.

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What makes a parent toxic?

There are different responses to that question.

There are the underlying causes, and the consequent behaviours.

A common cause would be their own childhood history of abuse or neglect.

Another would be their later trauma resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - and perhaps drug or alcohol dependency as a form of self-medication.

There might also be unstable mental health problems or personality disorder traits.

The other answer to what makes a parent toxic is not about the reasons, it refers instead to the parents' actual behaviours towards their children.

My parents and childhood were difficult but does that make them toxic?

No. There are 'difficult' parents, and there are toxic parents.

The difficult ones cause their child to be cautious and to have to adapt their behaviour around them; whereas the toxic parents are much more detrimental to their child's personality development and character formation.

If your parents were a bit moody, or perhaps stressed due to financial, relationship or family issues, or pre-occupied with work and physically or emotionally unavailable for you. Or maybe they felt resentful and bitter about being trapped in parenthood. This is all emotionally neglectful to a young child and perhaps abusive (depending upon the circumstances) - but not necessarily toxic.

If you had to move house and schools several times in childhood – this might have caused you to have attachment difficulties – but it's not in itself a sign of toxic parenting.

It's important to remember that religious teaching and the behaviour of members of a religious faith can be toxic! Harsh, strict, cruel and punitive faith-based boarding schools are toxic. Parents who allow such abuse of their child are condoning it and so are complicit in toxic abuse.

Any religious doctrines that instil shame and guilt in a child, and condemn playfulness and fun are also toxic to a developing personality.

The causes of toxic behaviour

A toxic parent may be repeating the old patterns of parenting which they experienced themselves as a child. They don't have enough self-awareness, knowledge, skills or perhaps desire, to change those dysfunctional patterns.

It may be that they left their own childhood with a personality disorder or mental health problems and this greatly affects their ability to parent their own children properly.

If they'd been severely traumatised in their early years they may lack empathy and consideration for the needs of their own vulnerable child. In fact a child's vulnerability might trigger something in them that they can't face - and instead they punish the child for showing 'weakness' and 'neediness'.

The toxic parent may have had to squash down their own tender feelings so they could 'toughen up' and survive in their own troubled family – or with alternative parental figures, or in a children's home or foster care.

There are some anomalies

Those toxic parents who had a seemingly good childhood themselves, and no later physical or emotional traumas which created their cruel and selfish behaviour.

These were the much wanted, 'spoilt' and cherished children. Those who could do no wrong, were overly indulged and never had to wait for anything they wanted. They were brainwashed into believing that they their needs came first and they had great power because they were superior to others and deserving of special attention, privileges and rewards. They were the centre of their universe - and other people were only here to meet their needs!

A parent's behaviour becomes toxic when:-

  • They put their own feelings and needs first, have a self-centred focus, and a need to be the centre of attention.

  • The parent fails to provide a reliably safe, secure and supportive home environment – due to their own erratic, unpredictable and scary behaviours.

  • They need the child to be seen as successful - because in their eyes this as a positive reflection upon themselves. If a child fails to 'succeed' the parent feels acute shame and punishes the child for giving them such bad feelings. However the successful child must not cast a shadow over the brilliance of their toxic parent!

  • If the child is favoured and appreciated by anyone, the toxic parent becomes jealous and envious – even violent towards the child for having beauty, or talent.

  • The child is objectified and seen as something that can be 'useful' – to support the parent emotionally, practically. And perhaps in later years financially.

  • The child feels that they can 'never get it right' for their parent no matter what they do, and how hard they try to please them.

  • The child is suppressed and oppressed, and their physical and emotional needs are neglected.

  • The parent feels burdened by the needs of the child - and will belittle, ridicule, ignore or punish cries for care and attention from the child.

  • The parent is distracted and disinterested in what the child has to say – and so the child gives up trying to connect.

  • The parent creates a bad atmosphere of tension and fear - and others feel they have to tip-toe around to avoid upsetting them.

  • They play mind games with the child – and they tell lies, give out mixed messages to confuse and manipulate the child and cause them to doubt their reality. It's a form of mental and emotional bullying of a child who has only an immature brain with little reasoning, rationality and logic to be able to question and challenge a parent's motives or behaviour. The child wouldn't even dare to challenge the toxic parent for fear of the harsh consequences.

  • The parent shows passive aggressive behaviours by ignoring the child's requests and comments. They also 'forget' arrangements, outings and promises made with the child.

  • The parent becomes aggressive and violent when their behaviour is challenged - or they may instead just adopt the silent treatment and refuse to speak to the child.

  • The parent sees themselves as the 'hard-done-to' victim – even of the child's alleged crazy behaviour. They will then get others to believe them and be 'on their side' against the child.

  • There is always a 'deal' going on, and the child's entitlement to stay in the household feels conditional upon their compliance with the whims of the parent. There might also be another power 'deal' set up by the parent - 'I'll only do this for you if you do that for me first'.

  • The toxic parent needs to feel powerful and to have control over the child's thoughts, emotions, language and behaviour. They squash the child's authentic emotional expression – even telling the child that they are wrong for having feelings.

  • The parent also uses guilt-tripping and emotional blackmail towards the child to get them to conform. In later years this is used to trap the grown-up child into staying with the parent - who then becomes dependant upon the child for money, care and support.

  • The parent scrutinises the child's behaviour and rapidly responds with criticism, sarcasm, blame and shaming comments.

  • Boundaries are inconsistent and confusing. The parent might also intrude upon, and disregard the child's personal boundaries.

  • Some toxic parents have very weak boundaries and are overly permissive – and avoid making decisions or giving the child adequate boundaries and guidance.

  • The parent plays the both martyr and the hater... 'how can you treat me like this after all I've done for you?' - then switches to 'I wish you'd never been born. You have ruined my life.'

  • If there are siblings the parent will play them off against one another. One is set up as The Golden child who can do no wrong, and the other as The Black Sheep & Scapegoat. The children are treated differently which does none of them any favours. They each live with conditions and expectations from the parent, which shape their self-concept and identity in later years.

  • The most obvious toxic parents are the ones who physically and sexually abuse their child.

Why do we use the word toxic?

It seems like a harsh word and yet it fits.

Their behaviour is akin to sociopathic and psychopathic disorders – showing cruelty and aggression, and lacking guilt, empathy or remorse.

They create a poison that the child has to swallow each day – a poison that contaminates their mind, body, behaviours and future expectations in life.

The relationship dynamics between a toxic parent and their child(ren) creates chronic emotional distress in the child. This leads to high levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol in the child's blood stream.

This regularly high level of cortisol results in changes to the child's brain – especially their memory and emotional arousal systems, and their ability to cope with later stressful or traumatic events. Their immune system is also impaired and inflammation can occur.

Research into Adverse Childhood Experiences since the 1990s shows the extent to which childhood trauma impacts mental and physical health and even social skills, career prospects and lifespan!

We are shaped by our early experiences and the sense we made of them at that time - when we had only limited brain capacity.

The decisions we made back then about how we should behave, and what we must and must not do, are still running below the surface and directing our lives.

Which types of parenting is toxic?

I have created a short video called The 5 types Of Parenting – (which you can see by either clicking that link) these are:-

Terrible & Terrifying – the child fears for their life

Nowhere near good enough – the child fears for their safety

Not good enough – the child fears for their sanity

Good enough – the child feels safe and supported

Optimum Parenting – the child feels understood, nurtured and guided to be the best they can be.

In another short video - CLICK HERE I explain about how toxic parents Use Confuse & Abuse their children and how to deal with such parents.

How can we recover and heal from a toxic parent?

I have created a six-step process called S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life (c) – which underpins the different levels of my work as a Mind Healer & Therapeutic Mentor.

This acronym stands for:-

Self Awareness of how your parent's behaviour has shaped your perceptions, and your expectations of future relationships; and the decisions you made from your child brain to keep you safe – which can now get in your way as an adult

Education about what good parenting is and the ways it differs from what you experienced. Understanding why and how you have been reacting to old emotional triggers which have opened up your emotional wounds

Learning new skills - including how to self regulate and self-soothe, how to create safe boundaries, and how to protect, heal and re-parent your wounded inner-child

Emotional balance and intelligence

Control – of self, boundaries and behaviours; and Clarity and Choice in your relationship with your toxic parent (whether they are alive or dead) - and how you will behave differently in future

Transformation and empowerment.... having a calmer mind, at peace with the past... healed and you are now better able to empathise and support others still working their way through the dark maze

This process of S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life (c) transformation underpins my way of working with you, and helping you to heal and recover from your past so that it stops messing up your present and future life... to bring you peace of mind.

Maxine Harley (MSc Integrative Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR

You can find out more about the ways I can help you by looking at my websites:-


There is a page of FREE resources page on my website (e-booklets, videos, podcasts, articles) www.maxineharley.com/free-reso...

You will also find your FREE e-booklet called How To S.H.I.E.L.D. Yourself From Your Toxic Mother/Father, as well as an e-booklet about How To Detox From Your Toxic Mother/Father.

You will also notice my two toxic parent recovery programmes - Recover From Your Mother, and Cast Off Your Father's Shadow - you can find out more about them HERE

www.maxineharleymentoring.com - helping women to understand and manage their emotions, boundaries and behaviours – to FEEL better so they can BE, DO and HAVE better

www.the-ripple-effect.co.uk - a selection of 10 online self-help workshops to help you to understand and manage the consequences of having experienced emotional disharmony. The workshops cover anxiety, depression, anger, stress, body image and weight problems, self esteem and confidence, your self-development, your relationship and how to live a happier life and how to live in a mindful way

www.qpp.uk.com - changing the sub-conscious belief system and S.C.R.I.P.T. (c) Sub-Conscious-Rules-Influencing-Present-Time

Maxine Harley

MIND HEALER & MENTOR - Psychotherapist (MSc), Author, Columnist & Blogger. Please see www.maxineharley.com and www.maxineharleymentoring.com, S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life Company Ltd.

I help women to FEEL better - so they can BE, DO and HAVE better! As a MIND HEALER I specialise in helping women to recover from a troubled childhood and toxic parents, to heal and transcend their emotional wounds, re-parent their inner child, and make peace with their past. This enables and empowers them to become better parents, partners, professionals - and all round happier calmer people :-) As a MENTOR I offer different levels of therapeutic self development - including MINDING YOUR BUSINESS, MINDING THE GAP, and MIND MASTERY...please discover more at www.maxineharleymentoring.com


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about 3 years ago

I agree with everything here, however, I would also add that there are only toxic parents rather than difficult ones as well although to different degrees (including to not be vulnerable to self-deception) although thanks for the article still.