The Far-Reaching Tentacles of Toxic Parents

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More than likely, every person you know has been directly or indirectly touched by a toxic parent. Perhaps a friend, acquaintance or co-worker endured cruel insults, threats or criticism from a parent. Maybe you experienced the damaging name-calling or manipulation they yanked from their toolbox of emotional negativity. At its worst, your child could be the victim of a toxic parent.

Toxic parents dish out neglect or verbal, emotional or physical abuse as they judge, disregard, lie, manipulate, demean, disparage or shame. They employ negative behaviors that cause lifelong emotional damage and taint the way a person sees himself or herself. “It’s not so much the person but their behaviors; it’s what they do and how they make the other person feel in a relationship. When you engage with this person, you somehow leave feeling worse,” noted Gregory Nawalanic, PsyD, clinical director of psychology and behavioral sciences, The University of Kansas Health System. “When it serves them, they can be as charming and appealing as they need to be, but as soon as they’re disappointed or something doesn’t work out the way they hoped, the toxicity comes out.”

Learning You
As a child, you form much of your sense of self based on feedback from others. Shaming, scary, threatening or controlling messages from our parents, especially in our formative years, are internalized and our sense of self is damaged. Toxic parents place their own needs before those of their children. Many are narcissists, which means pleasing themselves is their focus, and psychological abuse is one of the weapons they use, especially shame.

“Shaming is the lowest human emotion that we have. It’s not about the behavior; it’s about the person,” noted Dr. Nawalanic. “It’s important to recognize the distinction between correcting and shaping behavior in a child as opposed to shaming the person. That’s a hallmark of toxic parenting.”

Many times, toxic parents learn their behaviors from their parents. It’s often multi-generational; great-grandparents did this to a grandparent who repeats the cycle with their children. But what enables adult children to break that sequence?

“At times, parents see the brake lights go on and realize they’re doing the things they said they would never do with their children,” said Dr. Nawalanic. “Many folks are on autopilot and this is what they do and how they act. It’s a reenactment of the same circumstances they grew up in because that’s what they learned and saw. It’s not a conscious decision to be this way; it becomes automatic.”

Protecting Children
Some toxic parents have installed a sense of obligation and guilt into their children with the idea that more needs to be done for them. When the child has children, they find themselves in the middle, raising their own children and interacting with the grandparents. “The child of the toxic parent is trying to insulate their children from the grandparent,” he noted. “Now, it’s compounded because they’re having to tread between their toxic parent demanding attention and their child and that’s a great deal of stress.”

Some adult children control the situation by removing the parent from their lives, a very drastic action. “Toxic parents can be cut out by the adult child because they have the awareness that, ‘You’re not good for me.’ That isolation and seeing the loss of a relationship can be very powerful for the toxic parent. Perhaps for the first time, they have a consequence to their behaviors and sometimes it can be difficult to get that door to open again,” said Dr. Nawalanic. “So the toxic parent works to make changes and may be able to get back into their adult child’s life. But it may fail because the motivation wasn’t about being a better person but reestablishing the connection. Ultimately, it goes back to being more about the parent than the child. It’s so complex with so many levels and also with a lot of tears.”

Even though they endured years of this torment, adults can find it difficult to realize or admit that he or she has grown up in a toxic household because of embarrassment. “No one wants to admit that’s how they grew up or to shame their parents. For many toxic parents, they weren’t bad all the time. There are good memories, and it doesn’t serve us well to solely focus on the negatives,” said Dr. Nawalanic. “However, you want to identify the flaws of your parents to better the chances you’ll improve yourself. It allows us to separate from that experience–bit of forgiveness–a ray of light in the darkness of their childhood. If you have awareness, and acknowledging it is important, then you can stop the process of repeating it.”

Next month, Dr. Nawalanic shares strategies to enable healing.

Sources: If you need a qualified mental health professional, visit,, or