by Susan Forward Ph.D with Craig Buck
Children have basic inalienable rights—to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and protected. But along with these physical rights, they have the right to be nurtured emotionally, to have their feelings respected, and to be treated in ways that allow them to develop a sense of self-worth.
Children also have the right to be guided by appropriate parental limits on their behavior, to make mistakes, and to be disciplined without being physically or emotionally abused.
Finally, children have a right to be children. They have a right to spend their early years being playful, spontaneous, and irresponsible. Naturally, as children grow older, loving parents will nourish their maturity by giving them certain responsibilities and household duties, but never at the expense of childhood.
The Inadequate Parents: Constantly focusing on their own problems, they turn their children into “mini-adults” who take care of them.
The Controllers: They use guilt, manipulation, and even overhelpfulness to direct their children’s lives.
The Alcoholics: Mired in denial and chaotic mood swings, their addiction leaves little time or energy for the demands of parenthood.
The Verbal Abusers: Whether overtly abusive or subtly sarcastic, they demoralize their children with constant put-downs and rob them of their selfconfidence.
The Physical Abusers: Incapable of controlling their own deep-seated rage, they often blame their children for their own ungovernable behavior.
The Sexual Abusers: Whether flagrantly sexual or covertly seductive, they are the ultimate betrayers, destroying the very heart of childhood—its
All parents are deficient from time to time. Parents are only human, and have plenty of problems of their own. And most children can deal with an occasional outburst of anger as long as they have plenty of love and understanding to counter it. But there are many parents whose negative patterns of behavior are consistent and dominant in a child’s life. These are the parents who do the harm.
Like a chemical toxin, the emotional damage inflicted by these parents spreads throughout a child’s being, and as the child grows, so does the pain. What better word than toxic to describe parents who inflict ongoing trauma, abuse, and denigration on their children, and in most cases continue to do so even after their children are grown?
Whether adult children of toxic parents were beaten when little or left alone too much, sexually abused or treated like fools, overprotected or overburdened by guilt, they almost all suffer surprisingly similar symptoms: damaged self-esteem, leading to self-destructive behavior. In one way or another, they almost all feel worthless, unlovable, and inadequate. When these children become adults, they continue to bear these burdens of guilt and inadequacy, making it extremely difficult for them to develop a positive selfimage.
The resulting lack of confidence and self-worth can in turn color every aspect of their lives.
A lot of people have difficult relationships with their parents. That alone doesn’t mean
your parents are emotionally destructive. Many people find themselves struggling on the cusp, questioning whether they were mistreated or whether they’re being “oversensitive.”
When we’re very young, our godlike parents are everything to us. Without them, we would be unloved, unprotected, unhoused, and unfed, living in a constant state of terror, knowing we were unable to survive alone. They are our all-powerful providers. We need, they supply.
The process of separating from parents reaches its peak during puberty and adolescence, when we actively confront parental values, tastes, and authority. In a reasonably stable family, parents are able to withstand much of the anxiety that these changes create. The expression “it’s just a phase” becomes a standard assurance for understanding parents, who remember their own teenage years and appreciate rebellion as a normal stage of emotional development. Toxic parents aren’t so understanding. From toilet training through adolescence, they tend to see rebellion or even individual differences as a personal attack. They defend themselves by reinforcing their child’s dependence and helplessness. They may use phrases such as “it builds character” or “she needs to learn right from wrong,” but their arsenals of negativity really harm their child’s self-esteem, sabotaging any budding independence. No matter how much these parents believe they’re right, such assaults are confusing to a child, bewildering in their animosity, their vehemence, and their suddenness.
Toxic parents resist any external reality that challenges their beliefs. Rather than change, they develop a distorted view of reality to support the beliefs they already have. Unfortunately, children lack the sophistication to discriminate between true reality and distorted reality. As children of toxic parents grow up, they carry their parents’ distorted beliefs unchallenged into their own adult lives.
There are two types of beliefs: spoken and unspoken. Spoken beliefs are expressed or communicated directly. They are out there. You can hear them. Spoken beliefs are often disguised as words of advice, expressed in terms of “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “supposed to’s.”
These overtly expressed beliefs have the advantage of giving us something tangible to wrestle with as we become adults. Although these beliefs may have become a part of us, the fact that they are stated makes them easy to examine, and perhaps to discard in favor of beliefs that are more relevant to our lives. When you look at toxic parents from the perspective of the family system—their beliefs, their rules, and your obedience to those rules—a lot of your selfdestructive behavior comes into focus. You come closer to understanding the powerful forces that drive so much of your parents’ behavior and ultimately your own.
Godlike parents make rules, make judgments, and make pain. When you deify your parents, living or dead, you are agreeing to live by their version of reality.
You are accepting painful feelings as a part of your life, perhaps even rationalizing them as being good for you. It’s time to stop.
When you bring your toxic parents down to earth, when you find the courage to look at them realistically, you can begin to equalize the power in your relationship with them.
Understanding is the beginning of change. It opens new options and choices. But seeing things differently is not enough. True freedom can come only from doing things differently.
When a parent forces parental responsibilities on a child, family roles become indistinct, distorted, or reversed. A child who is compelled to become his own parent, or even become a parent to his own parent, has no one to emulate, learn from, and look up to. Without a parental role model at this critical state of emotional development, a child’s personal identity is set adrift in a hostile sea of confusion.
Parents who focus their energies on their own physical and emotional survival send a very powerful message to their children: “Your feelings are not important.
I’m the only one who counts.” Many of these children, deprived of adequate time, attention, and care, begin to feel invisible—as if they don’t even exist.
In order for children to develop a sense of self-worth—a sense that they do more than occupy space, that they matter and are important—they need their parents to validate their needs and feelings.
So far we’ve been talking about emotionally absent parents. Physical absence creates its own set of problems. There is no such thing as a happy divorce. Divorce is invariably traumatic for everyone in the family, even though it may well be the healthiest course of action under the circumstances. But it is essential for parents to realize that they are divorcing a spouse, not a family. Both parents have a responsibility to maintain a connection to their children despite the disruption in their own lives. A divorce decree is not a license for an inadequate parent to abandon his or her children.
A parent’s departure creates a particularly painful deprivation and emptiness within a child. Remember, children almost always conclude that if something negative happens within the family, it’s their fault. Children of divorced parents are particularly prone to this belief. A parent who vanishes from his children’s lives reinforces their feelings of invisibility, creating damage to their self-esteem that they’ll drag into adulthood like a ball and chain.
It’s easy to recognize abuse when a parent beats a child or subjects a child to continual tirades. But the toxicity of inadequate or deficient parents can be elusive,difficult to define. When a parent creates damage through omission rather than commission—through what they don’t do rather than what they do do—the connections of adult problems to this sort of toxic parenting become very hard to see. Compounding the problem is the fact that many of these parents are so troubled themselves that they evoke pity. Because these parents so often behave like helpless or irresponsible children, their adult children feel protective. They jump to their parents’ defense, like a crime victim apologizing for the perpetrator.
Whether it’s “they didn’t mean to do any harm,” or “they did the best they could,” these apologies obscure the fact that these parents abdicated their responsibilities to their children. Through this abdication, these toxic parents robbed their children of positive role models, without which healthy emotional development is extremely difficult. If you are the adult child of a deficient or inadequate parent, you probably grew up without realizing that there was an alternative to feeling responsible for them.
Dancing at the end of their emotional string seemed a way of life, not a choice.
But you do have a choice. You can begin the process of understanding that you were wrongly forced to grow up too soon, that you were robbed of your rightful childhood. You can work on accepting how much of your life’s energy has gone down the drain of misplaced responsibility. Take this first step and you’ll find a new reserve of energy that is suddenly available to you for the first time—energy that you’ve exhausted on your toxic parents much of your life, but which can finally be used to help you become more loving and responsible to yourself.
Control is not necessarily a dirty word. If a mother restrains her toddler instead of letting him wander into the street, we don’t call her a controller, we call her prudent. She is exercising control that is in tune with reality, motivated by her child’s need for protection and guidance.
Appropriate control becomes overcontrol when the mother restrains her child ten years later, long after the child is perfectly able to cross the street alone.
Children who are not encouraged to do, to try, to explore, to master, and to risk failure, often feel helpless and inadequate. Over-controlled by anxious, fearful parents, these children often become anxious and fearful themselves. This makes it difficult for them to mature. When they develop through adolescence and adulthood, many of them never outgrow the need for ongoing parental guidance and control. As a result, their parents continue to invade, manipulate, and frequently dominate their lives. The fear of not being needed motivates many controlling parents to perpetuate this sense of powerlessness in their children. These parents have an unhealthy fear
of the “empty nest syndrome,” the inevitable sense of loss that all parents experience when their children finally leave home. So much of a controlling parent’s identity is tied up in the parental role that he or she feels betrayed and abandoned when the child becomes independent.
What makes a controlling parent so insidious is that the domination usually comes in the guise of concern. Phrases such as, “this is for your own good,” “I’m only doing this for you,” and, “only because I love you so much,” all mean the same thing: “I’m doing this because I’m so afraid of losing you that I’m willing to make you miserable.”
There’s nothing fancy about direct control. It’s overt, tangible, right out in the open. “Do as I say or I’ll never speak to you again”; “Do as I say or I’ll cut off your money”; “If you don’t do as I say you’ll no longer be a member of this family”; “If you go against my wishes you’ll give me a heart attack.” There’s nothing subtle about it.
Direct control usually involves intimidation and is frequently humiliating. Your feelings and needs must be subordinated to those of your parents. You are dragged into a bottomless pit of ultimatums. Your opinion is worthless; your needs and desires are irrelevant. The imbalance of power is tremendous. Some parents will attack the new relationship with criticism, sarcasm, and predictions of failure. Many people believe that once the controlling parent dies they will be free, but the psychological umbilical cord reaches not only across continents but out of the grave.
When toxic parents control us in intense, intimidating, guilt-producing, or emotionally crippling ways, we usually react in one of two ways: we capitulate or we rebel. Both of these reactions inhibit psychological separation, even though rebellion would seem to do just the opposite. The truth is, if we rebel in reaction to our parents, we are being controlled just as surely as if we submit. Healthy rebellion is an active exercise of free choice. It enhances personal growth and individuality. Self-defeating rebellion is a reaction against a controlling parent, an exercise in which the means attempt to justify an unsatisfactory end. This is rarely in our best interests. Parents who feel good about themselves do not have to control their adult children. But the toxic parents operate from a deep sense of dissatisfaction with their lives and a fear of abandonment. Their child’s independence is like the loss of a limb to them. As the child grows older, it becomes ever more important for the parent to pull the strings that keep the child dependent. As long as toxic parents can make their son or daughter feel like a child, they can maintain control.
As a result, adult children of controlling parents often have a very blurred sense of identity. They have trouble seeing themselves as separate beings from their parents. They can’t distinguish their own needs from their parents’ needs. They feel powerless. All parents control their children until those children gain control of their own lives. In normal families, the transition occurs soon after adolescence. In toxic families, this healthy separation is delayed for years—or forever. It can only occur after you have made the changes that will enable you to gain mastery over your own life. Most parents will occasionally say something derogatory to their children. This is not necessarily verbal abuse. But it is abusive to launch frequent verbal attacks on a child’s appearance, intelligence, competence, or value as a human being.
Many toxic parents use money to keep their children dependent. Money has always been the primary language of power, making it a logical tool for controlling parents.
There is another powerful form of control that, while more subtle and covert than direct control, is every bit as damaging: manipulation. Manipulators get what they want without ever having to ask for it, without ever having to risk rejection by being open about their desires. Spouses, friends, and relatives all manipulate one another. Children manipulate parents as much as parents do children. But when it becomes a tool for consistent control, manipulation can be exceedingly destructive, especially in a parent-child relationship. Because manipulative parents are so adept at hiding their true motives, their children live in a world of confusion. They know they’re being had, but they can’t figure out how. One of the most common types of toxic manipulators is the “helper.” Instead of letting go, the helper creates situations to make him- or herself “needed” in the adult child’s life. This manipulation often comes packaged as well-meaning but unwanted assistance.
Many toxic parents compare one sibling unfavorably with another to make the target child feel that he’s not doing enough to gain parental affection. This motivates the child to do whatever the parents want in order to regain their favor. This divide-and-conquer technique is often unleashed against children who become a little too independent, threatening the balance of the family system.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, these parents manipulate an otherwise normal sibling rivalry into a cruel competition that inhibits the growth of healthy sibling bonds. The effects are far-reaching. In addition to the obvious damage to the child’s self-image, negative comparisons create resentments and jealousies between siblings that can color their relationship for a lifetime.
Like controlling parents, verbal abusers have two distinct styles. There are those who attack directly, openly, viciously degrading their children. They may call their children stupid, worthless, or ugly. They may say that they wish their child had never been born. They are oblivious to their child’s feelings and to the long-term effects of their constant assaults on their child’s developing self-image.
Other verbal abusers are more indirect, assailing the child with a constant barrage of teasing, sarcasm, insulting nicknames, and subtle put-downs. These parents often hide their abuse behind the facade of humor. They make little jokes like, “The last time I saw a nose that big was on Mount Rushmore,” or, “That’s a goodlooking jacket—for a clown,” or, “You must have been home sick the day they passed out brains.”
If the child, or any other family member, complains, the abuser invariably accuses him or her of lacking a sense of humor. “She knows I’m only kidding,” he’ll say, as if the victim of his abuse were a co-conspirator.
Some verbally abusive parents don’t bother to hide behind rationalizations. Instead, they bombard their children with cruel insults, harangues, denunciations, and derogatory names. These parents are extraordinarily insensitive to both the pain they are inflicting and the lasting damage they are doing. Such blatant verbal abuse can sear into a child’s self-worth like a cattle brand, leaving deep psychological scars.
The impossible expectation that children be perfect is another common trigger for severe verbal attacks. Many verbally abusive parents are themselves high achievers, but all too often their homes become dumping grounds for career stress.
Competitive parents have often been victims of deprivation in their own childhoods, whether from shortages of food, clothing, or love. No matter how much they have, they still live in fear of not having enough. Many of these parents reenact with their children the competition they experienced with their own parents or siblings.
This unfair competition puts enormous pressure on a child.
Perfectionist parents seem to operate under the illusion that if they can just get their children to be perfect, they will be a perfect family. They put the burden of stability on the child to avoid facing the fact that they, as parents, cannot provide it. The child fails and becomes the scapegoat for family problems. Once again, the child is saddled with the blame.
Children need to make mistakes and discover that it’s not the end of the world. That’s how they gain the confidence to try new things in life. Toxic parents impose unobtainable goals, impossible expectations, and ever-changing rules on their children. They expect their children to respond with a degree of maturity that can come only from life experiences that are inaccessible to a child. Children are not miniature adults, but toxic parents expect them to act as if they are. Adult children of perfectionist parents have usually taken one of two paths. They’ve either driven themselves relentlessly to win parental love and approval, or they’ve rebelled to the point where they develop a fear of success.
In some cases, the abused child unconsciously identifies with his abusive parent. After all, the abuser looks powerful and invulnerable. Victimized children fantasize that if they possessed these qualities, they would be able to protect themselves. So, as an unconscious defense, they develop some of the very personality traits that they most hate in their toxic parent. Despite fervent promises to themselves to be different, under stress they may behave exactly like their abusers. But this syndrome is not as widespread as most people assume.
For many years it was commonly believed that almost all battered children became battering parents. After all, this was the only role model they’d had. But current
studies challenge these assumptions. In fact, not only have a good many formerly abused children grown into nonabusing adults, but a number of these parents have great difficulty with even modest, nonphysical methods of disciplining their children. In rebellion against the pain of their own childhoods, these parents shy away both from setting limits and from enforcing them. This, too, can have a negative impact on a child’s development, because children need the security of boundaries. But the harm done by overpermissiveness is usually far less significant than the damage done by a batterer.
The good news is that the adult victims of abusive parents can overcome their self-loathing, fusion to their parents, unresolved anger, overwhelming fears, and inability to trust or to feel safe.
Remember, your parents had parents too. A toxic family system is like a multicar pile-up on the freeway, causing damage generation after generation after generation. This system is not something that your parents invented; it is the result of the accumulated feelings, rules, interactions, and beliefs that have been handed down from your ancestors.
Reasonably mature and caring parents will have beliefs that take into consideration the feelings and needs of all family members. They will provide a solid basis for a child’s development and subsequent independence. Such beliefs might be: “children are entitled to disagree”; “it’s wrong to deliberately hurt your child”; or,“children should feel free to make mistakes.”
A toxic parent’s beliefs about children, on the other hand, are almost always self-centered and self-serving. They believe things like, “children should respect their parents no matter what”; “there are only two ways to do things, my way and the wrong way”; or, “children should be seen but not heard.” These types of beliefs form the soil from which toxic parental behavior grows.