What is toxic parenting?

Everyone makes mistakes, so it’s wrong to expect parents to be perfect. However, some children can be particularly unfortunate – they must deal with toxic parenting.


The term “toxic parent” was popularised many years ago ago in Dr Susan Forward’s classic book Toxic Parents. I’m somewhat wary about using the term. Labels can be reductive, and many apparently “toxic” parents may be deeply regretful over mistakes they made years earlier, when they were in emotional pain and dealing with their own psychological issues.


At the same time, the term resonates with many who endured a dysfunctional upbringing. Additionally, some parents don’t try to make amends; instead, they continue to mistreat their adult children, playing games that are, well, toxic.


So what is toxic parenting? In her book, Susan Forward refers to six different types. These include some obvious categories, like sexual abusers, physically abusive parents, as well as alcoholics who are in denial and whose addiction leaves them little energy for parenthood.


More common, perhaps, are the other types listed in the book. These include the controllers, ‘who use guilt, manipulation, and even over-helpfulness to direct their children’s lives’; inadequate parents, who are focused on their own problems and who turn their kids into ‘mini-adults’ who take care of them; and verbal abusers, who may be overtly abusive or subtly sarcastic, but who invariably ‘demoralize their children with constant putdowns and rob them of their self-confidence’.



Whatever about Susan Forward’s categories, there are a number of common signs indicating you may have grown up in a toxic environment. These include:  

  • Routine criticism which left you feeling bad about yourself; feeling nothing you do will be good enough.
  • Being negatively compared with siblings (“why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?”).
  • Parental splitting behaviours, where siblings are turned against each other.
  • Parents not respecting your boundaries (for example, reading your diary, text messages or emails; routinely walking into your bedroom without knocking, despite you asking them not to do so).
  • Being isolated or ignored.
  • Routinely hearing your parents bond by complaining about you.
  • Being routinely invalidated. Your concerns and experiences are trivialised or denied. You get the message your emotions are weird or wrong.
  • Volatile, reactive and poor at regulating their feelings, the parent is an emotional loose cannon. You feel nervous around them.
  • There is a culture of blaming and scapegoating in the house. Instead of recognising the dysfunctional family environment, one or both parents take their unhappiness out on you.
  • Controlling behaviours, whether by routinely telling you what to do or by using guilt to control you. You may be rewarded when you do what the parent wants, but affection is withdrawn if you make independent decisions.
  • Parental anger, whether in the form of aggression or sarcasm, or in a more passive-aggressive way (getting the silent treatment, not replying to messages, deliberately “forgetting” something important to you, and so on).
  • Some parents offer support in tough times but are not there for you in joyful moments. Instead, they dampen your experience, whether by not congratulating you on a personal achievement or findings reasons why your great news isn’t really that great. They may compete with you and get jealous when things are going well for you. Often, you don’t tell them good news for fear it will prompt a negative reaction. There is an unwritten rule, “Don’t be too happy”.
  • The parent habitually engages in manipulative behaviour, twisting facts or omitting key details in order to get sympathy from others and to make you look bad.
  • A demanding parent may show little regard for what you want and expect you to change plans at short notice.
  • They may seek to alienate you from your other parent. You may feel guilty or nervous if you are seen to be too close to the other parent.
  • Finally, and most commonly, you feel worse after spending time with your parent(s). An adult child may feel emotional and guilty for days after such encounters, even when they can’t pinpoint what, if anything, went wrong.

In my next column – the second in a three-part series examining toxic parenting – I will explore reasons why a parent might choose to act in such damaging ways.


(First published in Southern Star on 23/06/2022)