So you've figured out that you may have had toxic parents, parental figures who were in some way incapable or unwilling to give you the love, support, and safe environment you deserved as a child and the boundaries and respect you deserve as an adult. Now what? The recognition of toxicity is just the start; it's a powerful step, but while it's tempting to run around declaring your newfound understanding (or to call your parents and yell that you finally know what's wrong with them), the emphasis has to be on healing, understanding, and trying to give you the right tools to move forward. Having a toxic parent can mess you up, even if you don't know it.
I'm not about to dictate what you should or shouldn't feel in the wake of a toxic parental "diagnosis". Many of us feel grief for the parents and childhood that we wish we had; others feel anger or distress. Some never want to talk about it again, or wonder if it's really valid because, hey, we survived OK and nobody died! (Heads up: that's not a normal measure of a happy childhood.) But I do like to be practical, and there are, in the journey I've had since I first determined the toxicity of my parental relationship, certain concrete steps that seem to have worth for many people in a similar situation.
Here are five things that you should explore if you're a child of toxic parents. Be kind to yourself and respect your own emotional needs above all things.
1. Get Professional Help, In Person Or Otherwise
The best thing for anybody with a toxic parent, or the suspicion of one, to do is to find professional help, but we all know that's not an option for everybody. If you can't get hold of a regular therapist or counsellor, however, there's another option that's available to you: researching what being a child of toxic parents means, and how you can support yourself through it.
Research is, for some people, not a natural habit; I understand this. But in the case of toxicity in parents, actually understanding what's happening can be one of the most valuable things that you ever do. The classic place to start, and the one text I recommend to every person who is concerned that their parent is toxic, is Susan Forward's Toxic Parents, which outlines many different ways in which toxicity can affect parent-child dynamics. It's an overview from which you can glean the details of your specific situation.
What you recognize in it can determine how you move forward. See traces of a narcissistic parent? Try Nina Brown's Children of The Self-Absorbed. Observe that your mother was neglectful or absent? Pick up Jasmin Lee Cori's The Emotionally Absent Mother. Terri Apter's Difficult Mothers is a good overview of toxic mothers in general. Finding a category or definition that really resounds with your situation, and pushing as far into that as possible, even if what you discover doesn't always cohere or present a uniform picture, gives validation and a sense of clarity. Many children of toxic parents spend a lot of their childhoods, and indeed adulthoods, feeling confused or disconnected from their emotional situation; giving this a name is a powerful thing.
2. Connect With Siblings (If You Have Them)
Depending on your type of toxicity, your relationship with your siblings may be abnormally strong (in that you had to shelter and bond together to survive), or fractured; children of narcissistic parents, in particular, often find that their parents maneuver and manipulate them into competition with one another for the "prize" of love. There can also be significant patterns of resentment or dysfunction between you, as you may have been expected to take on various "roles" that weren't childlike; neglectful parents of big families, Psychology Today points out, often create mini-adults out of their eldest children, who then have to take care of the rest of the brood. There are, in other words, many potential obstacles to discussing your toxic childhood realistically with your siblings, but it's important that you try.
Children are, by definition, passive; they usually have no say and no physical power over their environment or situations. Toxic parenting often exacerbates that sense of powerlessness, as well as a kind of disconnection from their own memories and reactions (we'll get onto that in a minute). Forming a bond with a sibling in which you share your experiences of toxicity, however painful, gives weight to what really happened. It's entirely possible that they won't want to participate; things may be too painful, they may not see it the same way you do, or they may not want to rock the boat. But it can be a very useful way to help you both out.
3. Remember, With Details, If You Can
"Did that really happen? I was just a kid." Particularly for children of narcissistic parents, this is a common reaction to memories of childhood distress; it's something called "gas lighting," in which vulnerable people are told that their memory is flawed and their perspective is not to be trusted. Carol Ann Duffy has a powerful poem, called "We Remember Your Childhood Well," in which the toxic pattern of negating a child's memories is enacted:
"Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You chose
the dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,
smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head."
Children of toxic parents may recognize this behavior intimately. Others may not; toxicity takes all forms, and denial may not have been part of your equation. For some, recalling the details of a dangerous or destructive childhood can be a powerful reclaiming of what actually happened; for others, it's a tumultuous and painful experience that causes more trauma than it's worth. In your pursuit of healing, intimate recall is a tricky thing, but if your own feelings and experiences have frequently been denied, it may be worth giving your memories the weight they deserve.
4. Recognize That Forgiveness Is Not Always Necessary
As Psychology Today puts it, succinctly, "forgiveness is impossible if somebody is still hurting you". Forgiveness is a much-hyped virtue, but it's also not automatically deserved by the people you love purely because you love them; toxicity can wreak utter havoc, and to deserve forgiveness, it's fair to ask that parents show some recognition, even if it's not remorse. How we react towards toxic parents who haven't changed their ways, even if they've said they're trying, is a matter of debate; NPR, in a discussion of the issue, explored the fact that the pressure for forgiveness on a child of toxic parents can be, in many ways, another toxic demand.
How do you forgive what's still going on, and what may never be resolved? There is, Dr. Richard Friedman wrote famously in the New York Times, a bias towards trying to "salvage" relationships and repair the precious parent-child bond; but in situations of ongoing abuse, denial, anger or repeating toxic patterns, forgiveness does not need to be on the table.
5. Find Other People Who've Had Similar Experiences
One of the most powerful things about a toxic parenting experience is that it can seem both completely inescapable and extremely isolating; shame, guilt, the "family secret," monetary control, and other adult forces often keep the child a silent part of the dynamic. There's a lot of power in stepping out and realizing that you're not alone in your situation. Consider being open about what happened to you, and listen when people share their own stories.
There's a downside to this. If you start to meet people and read about other toxic childhoods, you may start to deny the destructive power of your own; maybe yours seems "not that bad" in comparison. (My reaction to Ariel Leve's hypnotically horrible narcissist of a mother in her new memoir, An Abbreviated Life , was both horror and self-punishment for feeling my childhood was half that bad. It was, of course, but in its own bizarre way.) After all, many of us grow through our entire childhoods with toxic parents without realizing that they're inherently toxic, only coming to terms with it in adulthood. What happened to you was real and harmful; the function of other narratives is to bolster your sensation of community, not take away from your own life.
Images: Pixabay; Giphy