It can be excruciatingly difficult to recognize that your parent is toxic. Because here's the rub: Your parents can love you, and you likely love them. To pieces. Familial toxicity is often something that children only realize exists after they reach adulthood. It is such a difficult, hidden, self-blaming psychological situation that it actively resists being uncovered — and you've often got to be grown to untangle the reality of what happened to you. It's a lonely process, because above everything, toxic parents will deny that they're toxic parents.
The key thing to realize about having toxic parents is that there are many different kinds of toxicity, from Judy Garland's pushy stage mother to those who are entirely absent. Dr. Susan Forward, an expert on the topic, identifies several types in her classic book Toxic Parents. They range from alcoholics to inadequate parents to verbal abusers. However, while they may come in stripes of all colors, some of their effects on their children can be the same. Even if you had an alcoholic, chaotic parent while someone else had one who suffocated them, the two of you will likely have some things in common.
I've only recently realized that my parents are toxic (at the age of 27) because of significant therapy, a lot of research, and fellow sufferers offering solidarity. If you feel like this, read up on toxic parents, go to the experts, and good luck. May you have an ultimately fulfilling, if hard, journey of realization.
1. You Find Trusting Relationships Difficult
This is a fairly basic problem. If parents, who are meant to be our main caregivers and providers of structure, are in some way deficient or can't give us real support, then we find it difficult to create supportive attachments when we grow up, or to believe that they're going to last. Because of the particular model we have (whether it's a parent who exploded, was constantly overcritical, vanished, or demanded perfection), we don't have a healthy view of real, caring relationships, and we always subconsciously believe that we'll be treated as our parents treat us.
This can lead to self-sabotage, destructive relationship behavior, neediness, or a variety of other attachment problems. At the root, we're worried that our relationships will fail because we've never really experienced a fully successful one.
2. You Take Rejection And Failure Very Hard
Freak out when you fail a test or have your novel gently turned down by an agent? (I feel you. Find me on Twitter, and let's compare battle scars.) Children of toxic parents often tend to have a thoroughly terrifying reaction to anything that isn't stellar success.
It's thanks to a lack of what therapists sometimes call your "substance" — the part of you that is nourished by self-care, that can take shocks or harsh treatment, because you maintain a certain amount of belief in your innate value and worthiness. It's created by years of affirmation and security, and without it, the smallest knock sends us lurching into misery. We're never good enough, we're worthless, we have no real core, etc.
3. You Often Have Extreme Reactions That Confuse You
Sure, part of this is just the human condition. But if you often lash out peculiarly, or freak out at things that don't seem to be connected to anything, then you may have uncovered something leftover in your head from your toxic upbringing. An example: You may have decided to pursue a career in a nonprofit, fulfilling your dream, but become inexplicably fearful or angry when anybody brings up your salary. You've carried over a parent's violent disapproval about how little you might earn. These feelings could include guilt, irritation, fear of abandonment, or irrational anger.
Tracking these reactions may make you feel as if you're going crazy. They'll often be completely contrary to your conscious decisions, and you likely don't even realize where they're coming from. But if they come from your parents, it's a sign of toxicity.
4. You Tend To Put Your Own Emotional Needs Last
Whether you grew up with a verbally or physically abusive parent, a manipulative one, or any of the other kinds outlined by Dr. Forward, your own emotional life will have always come last in the hierarchy of the household. And it's likely that your emotional decisions are still governed by what they're going to think, rather than what's best for you or your relationships. You're used to pushing your own hurt, anger, or worry to the back of your mind, because expressing it always led to problems.
5. You Feel Out Of Touch With Your Real Self
Many children of toxic parents find it exceptionally difficult to identify who they are once they grow up. Forward identifies three areas in which their self-knowledge falls short: "who you are, what you feel, and what you want." You've spent so much time suppressing your real self, from your emotions to your reactions, to deal with the onslaught of your parents that you haven't had a chance to pay attention to your own development. Your sense of confusion and distance runs very deep indeed.
6. Your Inner Voice Is Incredibly Critical
This is a key one. Psychology Today defines self-esteem as your sense of self-worth or personal value, and children of toxic parents often have a severe deficit in that department. It goes back to the "substance" problem, how you weren't given the support necessary to build a core of self-belief. But it goes further than that. Many children of toxic parents suffer from an "inner critical voice" which tells them (like their parents did) that they are stupid, worthless, unworthy, complete failures, and/or general trash.
Note that your parents do not necessarily have to have told you any of this explicitly. These messages can be conveyed in many ways, from controlling behavior (which says that you're incapable on your own) to pushing relentlessly for perfection (which says that you're never going to be good enough). If your self-esteem constantly feels battered when you're around your parents or thinking about incidents from your childhood, you may have a toxicity problem.
7. You've Often Felt Responsible For Your Parents' Behavior
One of the features that seem to bring the adult children of toxic parents together is that, until they go into therapy, they often don't really acknowledge that their parents did anything wrong. Their family dynamic is so entrenched that they don't think of it as abnormal; it's just "the way things are." If your parents beat you, it was to keep you in line. If they were verbally abusive, you were acting out and deserved it. If they neglected you, you learned to be self-sufficient.
Children of toxic parents could have PhDs in justifying why their parents treated them so badly. Many of us still love our parents, and have been fed a constant narrative that we were the problem. It is extremely hard to move away from this point of view, and to pass through guilt and shame to understanding it wasn't our fault. But it can happen.
Images: AMC; Giphy