Having toxic parents has profound effects on your development, perceptions, world view, belief system, decision making and behaviors. Having normal parents affects these things, too, obviously, but toxic parents affect these things in very particular and detrimental ways.
Low self esteem, inability to make decisions, poor personal boundaries, much self criticism, putting others needs before one's own, inability to say no, feeling bad about oneself, difficulty expressing emotions, excessive anxiety, a fear of making mistakes that leads to paralysis, ending up in abusive relationships as a teen/adult, identity issues, a feeling of never being enough, sleep disturbances, memory and concentration difficulties, and many physical problems later in life are common in children of toxic parents.
What I am going to do here is to look at how some of the typical behaviors of the toxic parents translates into these problems.
But before we get there, a word about the nature of toxic parents.
There is a spectrum of toxic parents, from those who are slightly toxic to those who are very abusive. I am not going to get into the various reasons why a parent may be toxic but I do want to single out a particular group because if your toxic parents are in this group then you need to recognize it.
I am, of course, talking about people with personality disorders such as psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists. If your toxic parents are in this category, it's vital that you learn to deal with this. First of all, the rules they live by are different. Secondly, much of the usual advice about toxic parents does not apply. Thirdly, the way you deal with your situation has to be radically different than if your parents are toxic for another reason.
I have outlined in detail what having a psychopath in the family means in this article on toxic families.What you need to keep in mind for the moment are the following points:
This list gives you an indication as to why it's important to know if your toxic parents are psychopaths or narcissists. It changes everything. If your parents are deliberately abusing you and they are not going to stop, it changes how you have to think about your situation!
Because psychopaths and narcissists are some of the most toxic parents, I am going to write about how they function and about how they influence and manipulate their children.
Toxic parents control the thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors of their children in one way or another from the very start.
Children are very dependent on their parents for many years and the narcissists and psychopaths take advantage of this. They tend to keep the children very dependent on them, even into adulthood. This occurs through several mechanisms.
Children naturally want the care, attention, praise and love of their caregivers. Toxic parents usually only provide these things on their own terms. Their attention is conditional, conditional on the child thinking and acting a certain way.
Whenever a child has been successful or has done something they are pleased with, it's natural to tell the parents and for the parents to share the pleasure and praise the child. With toxic parents, the giving of praise can be unpredictable. Sometimes there is praise, sometimes not. Many times the child is made to feel like their achievements are irrelevant or that the parent remains unimpressed. This typically leads the child to believe that they are 'not enough' or inadequate in some way. A common effect of this is that the child tries harder to please the parents. They want the approval of these adults that they love and they set out to do more and to do better in order to earn compliments.
At the same time, toxic parents have no problem criticizing their children. In fact, they typically criticize everyone, even if it is behind their backs. This alternation of criticism and compliments creates and augments dependency in the abuser. What happens is the abused person knows that the abuser may make them feel good (with compliments) or make them feel bad (with criticisms). The victim then begins to make decisions based on trying to avoid upsetting the abuser and doing what will hopefully please the abuser. Of course, it doesn't matter how much the child does, or how much time they spend, or how hard they try, it's never enough for the toxic parents. This pattern continues into adulthood and the adult child often continues to remain hopeful that at some stage they will get the recognition they crave and deserve.
Toxic parents will usually criticize a child for having their own opinions, wanting something for themselves, making their own decisions and even for doing things without asking for permission. In this way, the child becomes afraid to do pretty much anything without checking with the parents first. These parental behaviors invariably keeps the dependency in place. But there is more...
Abusive parents will also make the children doubt themselves. The parents will tell outright lies. There is gaslighting where the parents straight up deny they said or did things. They will also use vague language to threaten and cause confusion. For example, a child is expecting a bike for his birthday. An episode occurs where he is answering with yes and no to his psychopathic father’s questioning. The father then says, ‘If you don’t change your attitude, we will have to rethink the bike’. The child then says ‘So if I don’t answer your questions differently, you won’t buy me the bike?’ The psychopath replies ‘I didn’t say that’. Strictly speaking, the father is right, he did not say those exact words, but the message he was conveying was exactly what the child was saying.
This patterns leave the listener unsure of themselves and they are more or less forced to go back to the abuser to verify exactly what is going on.
In many toxic families, as in cults, the children are led to believe that the outside world is dangerous in some way and that they are only truly safe within the family. The messages include the idea that outsiders are not to be trusted, they are dangerous, the child is unsafe outside unless supervised by the parents and so on. This, of course, adds another dimension to the dependency.
Many toxic parents also use financial dependency to keep their children close. They will offer financial support if the child needs it at any time, but unlike in healthy family situations, this support comes with many strings attached. The child is made to feel that they owe the parents big time, they will be reminded over and over again about all the things the parents have done for them, and they will be expected to pay back more than they got as well as repay over and over again. This abuse of reciprocity is typical in situations like this.
All the above tactics mean that the child is kept dependent on the parents and the natural drive to establish independence is thwarted. These drives are often very strong at the age of 2 or 3 and at puberty. It is common at these times that there are problems or changes in the relationship between children and their toxic parents.
Some adult children report that things seemed to be ok until they were 10 or 12 but that their parents showed little interest in them after that. Others say that at this age there were tremendous arguments and disagreements with their parents.
Toxic parents typically want complete control over their children. As soon as the little ones start to try and establish their independence the manipulator steps up the controlling behavior to maintain their dominance. In some cases, however, the parents seem to consider it too much trouble to try and continue the control and give up and have little interest in the children from then on.
Most do continue to push to maintain control, they will do whatever it takes and they can be vicious about it. After all, for psychopaths the end justifies the means and, once in a power struggle, they play to win or even destroy. They will use whatever tactic, as often as they need to, in order to keep the children subservient.
This dependence on the toxic parents obviously has all sorts of ramifications for the children. It distorts their world-view, their perceptions, their thinking and their decision making.
Children may believe, through various mechanisms, that the abusive behavior is done to take care of them, that their parents love them the best they can, that what is happening is not really the fault of the parents and a whole host of other mistaken beliefs.
It obviously makes it very hard for the children to separate from the parents and this can persist for the whole of the child's life and even after the death of the parents! Children are obviously upset at the loss of their parents but children of psychopathic or narcissistic parents are often hit particularly hard because their purpose in life has been taken away. And these manipulators have a way of causing chaos even after they die such that the grieving children may have to deal with incomprehensible wills, unpaid debts and warring relatives.
The dependent children of toxic parents spend most of their lives running around after those toxic parents, made to feel that they have to take care of the parents, not do anything to upset them, and, as I mentioned, the parents remain the purpose of the child's life. Even the child's marriage, children, friends etc are often organized around the controlling parents.
This is all the same stuff that happens in destructive cults, by the way. It's useful to think of toxic parents as cult leaders because the same patterns of behavior and the same mind control methods that are used in cults are also used in toxic families. The difference is the size of the group. Cults may have hundreds or thousands, a family has three, four or even ten. The leader in the family has more time for each 'cult' member which often means the damage done may be worse than in a larger group.
Another effect of the dependency is the influence on how a person thinks of themselves. The child not only relies on the toxic parents to know what to do (as outlined above) but they even need the parents to know who they are. The child hears criticism and feels bad and believes they are bad. The child hears compliments and feels good and believes they are good. In this way they need their parents to know they are ok.
There are other factors in play here in this particular scenario. First of all, the identity of the child is interwoven with that of the toxic parents. The child is forced to think and act the way the parents want, sometimes for most of their lives.
The child is punished regularly for mistakes, errors, sins and other wrong doings. There are two very significant aspects to this when the parents are toxic. The first control mechanism is that the manipulators decide what is a mistake or a sin. It can be something as benign as asking for something or having an opinion, neither of which is inherently wrong. However, the controlling parents label it as such. In determining if something is a 'sin' or not, the parents will frequently move the goalposts. One day something is not a problem, the next day it's a 'sin'. This unpredictability keeps the child off balance, not knowing what is going to happen next. The child lives in a state of hyper vigilance, constantly watching the parents to avoid getting into trouble.
The second aspect is that these 'sins' are never forgiven. They are trotted out on a regular basis to remind the child how defective they are. The child is made to feel guilty and ashamed about themselves.
Self guilt is reinforced in another way, too. When toxic parents criticize their victims, they do it in a particular way. They attack the person at the level of identity, rather than go after the belief or the behavior.
Many parents will point out to the child that a behavior, for example, is not acceptable, the idea being that the parent wants to let the child know that they themselves are ok but the action is not. For example, the parent says, 'We don't do that (slap, scream, throw food, write on walls) in this house."
Toxic parents, however, typically have the opposite approach. "You are bad!" say the parents because the child hit his sister. After asking a question the child is told, "Don't be so stupid!" A child accidentally drops food on the floor and hears "You clumsy fool!"
You can read more details about this idea in this article about abusive wives.
The child is told that who they are is the problem. They are led to believe they are useless, stupid, worthless and they are often told that they are nothing without the parents.
In such situations, the child's personality is constantly being attacked, their self esteem is destroyed and the child made to feel sufficiently bad about themselves that he or she is motivated to change to be more the way the parents want them to be. After all, they want to be pleasing to their parents to earn whatever approval they can.
In addition, any individuality is repressed or squashed as soon as it appears. Only good thoughts are allowed, 'good', of course, being defined by the toxic parents. Only good behaviors are allowed. Only good emotions are allowed. The child is not allowed to get angry or upset at the parents. Nor are they allowed to criticize, disagree or argue. This is a lot of control. In fact, the toxic parents are fashioning the children in their own image.
The toxic parents are basically inhibiting the child's personality from developing and are forcing a false personality on the child instead. This false personality, or pseudopersonality, is programmed to believe the parents, to follow instructions, to put the wants and needs of the parents before it's own and to be dependent on the parents.
The pseudopersonality is trained to be subservient and submissive. It is trained not to think for itself, but to rely on authority figures.
First of all, there was so much abuse that it has become normalized for the child and they don't recognize much of what was done to them as overly controlling and abusive. This is why it is often not until adulthood that a person realizes that they had toxic parents.
Secondly, their way of perceiving the world has been very much tainted by their parents and the double binds and contradictions often mean that the child, even as an adult, may have various difficulties in thinking and communication. For example, they may take things at face value and miss more subtle communication cues or they may over analyze everything or read more things into a situation than are actually there. These patterns of behavior can obviously lead to difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships.
In terms of relationships, children from toxic families often end up as adults in relationships with abusive partners. A common myth is that the child seeks out partners like their parents because they are comfortable with that or, even more new agey, they need to 'learn some lesson' from the abusive partner. This latter idea is cruel. It blames the victim and it was probably propagated by some psychopath to make the victim think that it's their own fault and to absolve the abuser. Either way it's not true. Nobody goes looking for an abusive relationship. They are tricked into it. The way it happens is the person with a pseudopersonality crosses paths with a psychopath. The psychopath recognizes that the person has been in an abusive situation before and targets them. Remember that psychopaths and narcissists are called predators for a reason.
This pseudopersonality idea is a really nice description of what happens with toxic parents. It was first described in the 1950s by Edgar Schein who studied the prisoners of war returning home from Korea.
The pseudopersonality is often terrified of making mistakes because it knows that there may be severe consequences. The inability to say no to requests comes from a long history of being forced to put the wants and needs of a controlling mother or father ahead of its own. The pseudopersonality will often not even feel comfortable or relaxed until it has made sure everyone around is comfortable and relaxed first.
The pseudopersonality has identity issues, the person often not having a sense of who they really are. They don't know what they like or what they want. They may not have their own hobbies or interests. There is difficulty in making decisions. The person relies heavily on others and is often easily persuaded. Others think that the individual is easy going, or 'goes with the flow', but the person themselves finds life easier to just go along with those around them. It means they don't have to make decisions! The person is also very sensitive to what other people think of them.
This pseudopersonality is put in place with very strong influence tactics, repeated over and over for years, by very influential people in your life. It's not just a few behavior patterns or a few beliefs. It's the whole personality, the whole identity. The pseudopersonality doesn’t disappear simply because a person moves out of the family home or leaves their family behind. It persists. And all those beliefs, ideas and ways of thinking and behaving that were installed for the benefit of the toxic parents persist. And they will continue to cause problems for you until you get rid of them. So how do you do that?
Some children of toxic parents reach a point where they can't take any more and they break away from their parents. They may decide that they can't have a relationship with their parents any more and they cut off contact. While some manage to stay away, many of this group end up going back because of the dependency of the pseudopersonality.
Most people cannot separate on their own. The hold their parents have on them is too strong. And besides, they don't actually recognize the extent of the damage their parents are doing to them. This, along with society's rules about how we should treat our parents means that getting away from toxic parents is not considered by many as a viable option. They may think about it but they dismiss it as an impossible task.
However, it needs to become an option. At least while you are recovering and getting rid of the pseudopersonality. As long as you are in the family environment, the toxic parents will be reinforcing the pseudopersonality. And they are much better at pressing your buttons then you are at resisting. You will need a break from them.
I have written more extensively here about this idea in dealing with a toxic family.
Getting outside help is worth it. As you can see the effects toxic parents have are profound. Trying to unravel them on your own with the particular beliefs that these people impose on you is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. A common belief, for example, is that anything that is wrong with your life is your fault and you should be able to sort it out yourself. This obviously stops you from seeking outside help but it also means that you end up blaming yourself for things that were absolutely not your fault. As long as you think that you were responsible for these things, you cannot hope to fully recover.
Working with an expert in the field to deal with this complex trauma will actually save you time, effort, money and a lot of heartache. It also means you avoid the most common pitfalls involved in dealing with toxic parents.
Read more about toxic families, narcissistic parents, dealing with a toxic family, why its difficult to see the signs of controlling relationships, how to leave an abusive relationship and recovery from a psychopathic relationship.
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If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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