The Lasting Effects of Toxic Parenting

By Mila Koljensic

Toxic parenting creates situations where a child does not get the understanding, nurturing, and care that he or she needs and deserves.

We often think of toxicity in terms of physical or verbal abuse, but it can reveal itself in many more subtle ways. If you were overly criticized, neglected, ignored, manipulated, explicitly controlled, or put in the role of caring for your parents’ emotional needs, you likely have deep-seeded wounds.

The effects of toxic parenting take root in childhood. However, the problems aren’t always identified until well into adulthood. When you are young, you cannot process what is happening to you. As a result, you develop skills to cope with toxicity that do not always serve you well later in life. For example, you might have learned to:

  • please others at the expense of yourself;
  • perform to earn love; or
  • perfect your environment to feel safe.

You were hard-wired to love and trust the people who raised you, so it can feel counter-intuitive to unlearn toxic behavior patterns you absorbed as a child.

The effects of toxic parenting don’t go away simply by realizing what happened. They don’t disappear when you say “no” to the people who hurt you, though it’s important to establish healthy boundaries with them. They are healed as you start saying “yes” to the work of reclaiming your own life, your soul, and the child who was wounded.

Minimize the negative effects of a toxic parent by claiming space for yourself. Start with these proactive steps:

  • Limit communication to email. Respond to any phone calls or texts by email.
  • Interact only in a manner convenient for you. For example, send your mother an email or a letter once a month with news.
  • Use the buddy system. Don’t be alone with a toxic parent.
  • Leave the room if a parent criticizes you or someone you love.
  • Don’t respond to manipulative or guilt-laden emails, phone calls, or texts.
  • If necessary, sever ties altogether.

To heal from the effects of toxic parenting, start by taking small steps. Each one counts. As I mentioned earlier, the power to say “no” to others hinges upon learning to say “yes” to yourself first. As you create space for yourself to heal, notice how each of these suggestions involves addressing the areas where saying “yes” to yourself matters the most:

  1. Claim your voice — If your parents didn’t teach you healthy ways to express your thoughts and feelings, it’s easy to get lost in the strongest voice around you. Rebuild your voice and state your own opinions with simple statements that differentiate you from your toxic parent.
  2. Practice voicing your opinions with a safe person — Start with a trusted friend, counselor, or family member. You might say, “I’m trying to work on understanding what I think. Would you be willing to listen while I process my thoughts on XYZ?”
  3. Assert your preferences in small ways — Instead of agreeing to meet your friends on their side of town or at a place they recommend, practice suggesting where you’d like to meet instead. You might ask “What if we met at this coffee shop near me” or “I’d love to see this movie. Are you open to that?”
  4. Insert more of what you think into conversations — Expressing your preferences doesn’t mean you have to pick a fight. Practice speaking honestly, even when listening to another’s perspective.
  5. Take a class to build new skills — Try taking a class that requires you to express yourself such as acting, writing, drawing, dance, karate, voice lessons, or kickboxing. Sign up for something that appeals to you and teaches you how to use your body and mind to speak up.
  6. Join a support group through your local community — Support groups like CODA, Alcoholics Anonymous, and AL-Anon are safe places where you can speak your mind with no judgment. These options can be a great place to practice rebuilding your voice.

When you express your voice in small ways, it enables you to advocate for yourself in bigger ways. You’ll develop a tolerance for the uncomfortable feelings that surface when you tell others what you need. Rebuilding your voice is a huge step in healing from toxic parents.

Anchor Your Worth.

If you were criticized, ignored, or abused as a child, you probably developed some harsh self-talk in your mind. It’s amazing how we pick up on cruel messages from others and internalize them. You can change negative thought processes by actively establishing an inner voice of compassion, using these techniques:

  1. Journal your self-talk. Awareness is the first step toward change. Start noticing the critical voice in your head. Write what you notice in a journal. Getting curious about this critical voice helps give you a distance from it.
  2. Reframe the critical thoughts. Next to the critical voice that you’ve noticed, write down a full statement that compassionately reframes that voice. For instance:
    • “You should be more like her,” becomes “I want to be my best self.”
    • “Nothing you do matters,” becomes “My work matters. Every email I write, step that I take matters.”
  3. Discover your individuality. The negative effects of toxic parents can lead you to believe that your interests, emotions, and ideas don’t have any merit. Thus, part of the healing process involves reclaiming your autonomy. For example, attentive parents spend time trying to understand who their children are and what they enjoy. If your parents didn’t help you learn these preferences, start with the basics of getting to know yourself better. Some questions to ask yourself:
    • What kind of music do you like?
    • What kind of food or restaurant do you prefer?
    • Do you like to relax by working out or soaking in a hot tub?
    • What makes you feel energetic and alive?
    • What hobbies sound fun to you?
    • What topics do you enjoy discussing with others?
  4. Establish a sense of security. If you didn’t have consistency growing up as a child, you may feel a sense of internal chaos. You can teach yourself what consistency and safety feel like. Start by creating small acts of consistency in your daily routine, such as:
    • Commit to a daily ritual. Wake up at the same time every day or go to bed at the same time every night. It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised how many people struggle in this area. Start with the simplest, easiest task first.
    • Set one daily goal for yourself. A sense of security comes from knowing you can achieve the goals you set out to accomplish. Start with something simple such as “Today, I will eat vegetables” and move toward more complicated goals like “Today, I will finish my résumé.”
    • As you build consistency into your days and weeks, you build up trust in yourself. You can do small things each day to create a sense of order and predictability, even when life feels hectic. You will also learn what types of rhythms work for you and what don’t. Remind yourself that learning to regulate yourself in small and big ways is key to setting reestablishing a sense of security.
  5. Receive Care from Others. Healing from the damage of a toxic parent doesn’t happen in isolation. You need to spend time with someone who can extend compassion and clarity. If you weren’t guided or cared for as a child, find someone who can help you see and care for yourself.
    • For example, make regular appointments with a counselor, mentor, or trusted advisor. Whatever source you choose, make sure your goal is clear: get support from someone who will make that time about you.
    • You might also ask for help from a neighbor or friend. Asking for help is a muscle many of us have to develop. You might feel guilty or ashamed. Or, you don’t want to feel like a burden to someone else. If that is the case, start using baby steps. It could be as simple as asking a friend to keep you company while you organize photos or call you after your first support group meeting. Think of the easiest request you can make, and then challenge yourself to reach out.
    • As you develop your “muscle” of asking for help, notice how it feels to let yourself receive care. Notice what vulnerabilities surface. Keep in mind that caring for yourself by learning to receive care from others is a critical part of healing from past family hurt.

The effects of toxic parenting may start in childhood, but they don’t have to last into adulthood. Healing doesn’t happen simply by saying “no” to your parents. Transformation occurs when you learn how to say “yes” to yourself.

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