The parenting gig is tough, and there's no one-size-fits all manual for how to do it; we all have to figure things out as we go along. So we do the best we can — and we all screw up at one point or another. That's totally normal. The problem? When our screw-ups turn into the status quo. It's surprisingly easy to fall into bad habits and patterns without even realizing our child-rearing style has taken a turn for the toxic.
Of course we'd never intentionally hurt our kids, but many of us may be projecting our own insecurities and issues onto them in a way that is damaging. The good news: Recognizing toxic parenting patterns is the first step to ditching them for good.
We spoke to four mental health and relationship experts to find out which parental behaviors have the potential to damage the relationship parents have with their children.
First, it helps to have a definition of "toxicity" to work with since the term has come to encompass a whole slew of less-than-healthy relationship tactics. "Toxicity within this context would mean behaviors that are transmitted unto children that could potentially cause them direct or indirect harm," says licensed marriage and family specialist Kingsley Grant.
Modeling healthy relationship dynamics is absolutely vital. "[Our children] are a reflection of us," Grant notes. "Remember, their actions are learned, and they are mostly learned from those who are most influential in their lives — namely, parents."
So what kinds of actions could cause a child direct or indirect harm? "If you curse at your children or yell at them in a way that when you're done, you suddenly realize you lost your temper... this is a sign that you’re overwhelmed, out of control and don’t have an appropriate outlet for your feelings." says April Masini, relationship expert and author. Masini warns that extreme displays of emotion are one of the more obvious signs that a parent may have a toxic relationship with their child.
Even if you aren't flying off the handle at your children as a conflict-resolution technique, they're still learning from you. Translation: When parents have knock-down drag-outs, kids notice.
"These children will not know that there are alternative ways to manage conflicts because this is all they know and have learned," says Grant. "Their use of this approach in conflictual situations could lead to being hurt physically, emotionally or mentally. It could also lead to disciplinary issues in school."
Anger might seem like an obvious sign of toxicity, but it isn't just screaming that parents should avoid. Turning your kids into a shoulder to lean on is another problematic sign of toxic parenting.
"If you weep in front of your children, regularly, as a victim, you’re in a toxic relationship with them," Masini notes. "Learn to ask for help [from adults] so you don’t act out. You shouldn’t suppress your feelings, but you do need to find an appropriate outlet and support for them. Your kids should not be that."
In fact, recognizing what is and isn't part of a healthy parent-child relationship is key to eliminating toxic behavior. If you find yourself habitually confiding in your kids or hoping they'll alleviate your stress, that's not a good sign, says licensed marriage and family therapist Meredith Silversmith.
"For example, a parent has a fear of flying, and when their child talks about taking a trip on a plane, [a toxic parent will] share their concerns and anxieties because it's too uncomfortable to think about their child being on a plane," says Silversmith. "Over time, the child can take on these worries as their own and carry them for their parent."
Expecting a child to take on an adult role like that is unhealthy and will likely cause more problems down the road. So too will the common — and often well-meaning — mistake that parents make when they project their own aspirations and shortcomings onto kids instead of allowing them to be individuals.
"When a baby is born, parents have so many hopes and wishes for their future and for their life. As this child gets older, becomes more independent... it can be challenging for some parents to adapt," Silversmith explains. "In these situations, a parent may continually push a child to follow his or her (the parent's) dreams or a parent may speak and act as if his or her wishes and interests are the child's, even in the face of other information. Under these circumstances, the child may begin to feel their needs and desires are not important."
These are all great examples of broader toxic behaviors, but let's get even more specific. Since a lot of parents are only doing or saying what they think is best for their kids, it can be hard to check yourself — especially if nothing seems out of the ordinary.
Originally published February 2016. Updated October 2017.
Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a parent coach and co-founder at Impact ADHD, says the following phrases and behaviors are good indicators that all is not well:
- If your kid says, “You never listen to me," you need to ask yourself if you’re really listening.
- Your kids complain about the same thing repeatedly. Hearing this means you might want to ask yourself if you’re responding to their concerns.
- If you find yourself constantly identifying the ways in which other people are responsible for the upsets in your home — or if you're convinced family drama is always someone else’s fault — you may be part of the problem.
- If you’re screaming or yelling more than you’d like, you’re part of the problem.
So if you suspect that you're exhibiting toxic behaviors as a parent, what can you do to rectify that? A great place to start, suggests Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, author of Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up, is to determine whether or not you have a bonded or binding relationship with your child.
"Binding is created by nothing other than circumstance. For example, 'I am your mother and because you were born to me, we are bound together. And because in this binding I am the big person, you will do as I say.'" On the other hand, she continues, "Bonding is created by a relationship cultivated through enduring experience. In other words, 'I am your mother, and I adore you. I will always take care of you and have your best interests at heart."
Masini concludes that toxicity is "usually a sign that you’re passing on learned behavior and your toxicity in relationships is historical. Recognizing the patterns in your personal [life] is a way to see that you’re replicating bad behavior, and this is a step towards changing it."