Why do some parents hurt their children?

My last column explored toxic parenting styles. Toxic parenting can be manipulative and cruel, resulting in damaging emotional consequences. Why would a parent behave like this?


Some parents are deliberately cruel – more of which anon – but others know no better. Celebrated psychologist Dr Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), has written about her own ‘toxic home environment’ and how she was constantly invalidated by her disapproving mother.


The consequences were severe. As a teenager, Marsha ‘wanted to be dead’, feeling she was ‘an unacceptable human being’. However, her mother didn’t intend to be cruel.


‘I don’t blame her for what she did to me as a young girl’, writes Dr Linehan. ‘She did her best, thinking she was helping me.’



Other times, parents manipulate children to maintain control of their lives. Toxic Parents author Dr Susan Forward describes how one of her clients, Fred (27), won a free trip to skiing resort Aspen at Christmas. He was excited to be going with his girlfriend, but when he told his mother, she ‘looked like somebody just died’. Her eyes glazed up, her lip trembled and then she said, ‘It’s okay, honey. You have a good time. Maybe we just won’t have Christmas dinner this year’.


Well, the family had Christmas dinner without Fred, but his emotional mother burnt the turkey for the first time in 40 years. Fred’s sister told him he’d killed the family tradition. His oldest brother told him everyone was ‘bummed out’. Another older brother said the kids were all his mother had, adding ‘How many more Christmases do you think Mom has left?’ (Fred’s mother was under 60 and in perfect health).


Unsurprisingly, Fred’s trip was a disaster. He fought with his girlfriend and spent half the trip on the phone to his family, apologising.


‘Instead of expressing her feelings directly to Fred, Fred’s mother enlisted her other children to do it for her’, writes Dr Forward. ‘This is an extremely effective tactic for many manipulative parents.’ Instead of accusing Fred herself, she ‘played the role of martyr at Christmas dinner. She couldn’t have made a more forceful condemnation of Fred if she’d taken an ad out in the paper.’


Fred’s mother behaves this way to maintain her central role in the family; she controls her children’s lives by using guilt; she receives support and sympathy.



One especially common strategy used by unhappy parents is scapegoating. Instead of taking responsibility for their own life and happiness, a parent may target one child and blame them for the family’s problems. In a classic divide-and-conquer game, the parent contrasts the scapegoat with a sibling, the so-called golden child – “Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?”.


Scapegoating damages sibling relationships. It hurts all family members, not just the scapegoat. Indeed, family roles can change over time – different people may be scapegoated at different times, with even the golden child potentially falling out of favour if they become more independent or don’t do what is expected of them.


Scapegoating allows parents to pretend the family is healthier than it really is. Instead of questioning their own beliefs and behaviours, the parent gets to blame someone else. “If XYZ didn’t behave the way s/he does, everything would be perfect”. Adult children, too, may embrace this narrative – blaming one sibling may be easier than accepting you grew up in an emotionally abusive family.


Scapegoating is also an effective control tool. Children don’t like to be punished or to fall out of favour, so they are more likely to toe the line.


Some parents go further. Personalised mocking and criticism, judging, shaming, ignoring, isolating, humiliating – the inexcusable may become routine. Why? Factors include poor impulse control, emotional immaturity, unresolved trauma, and attempting to alleviate their own sense of low self-worth by feeling more powerful. Above all, the child is an outlet for the parent’s negative emotions, a convenient figure to blame for their anger and unhappiness.


Dysfunctional parenting breeds negative core beliefs (“I’m useless”, “People can’t be trusted”, “I must be prepared in case something bad happens”) that drive anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.


However, change is possible. You can change your beliefs and behaviours. In my next column, I’ll explore how to manage and respond to a dysfunctional parent.