14 Subtle Ways Having A Toxic Parent Affects You As An Adult
#8: You apologize all. The. Time.
You try to be a good friend, you pay rent mostly on time, and you spoil the heck out of your dog — in other words, you’re crushing the whole adulting thing. But you also can’t have your weekly parental FaceTime without a beer and a panic attack, and you apologize for literally everything. So, even when you’re winning at your career, you might already be staring in the mirror at some signs that you grew up in a toxic family — specifically with toxic parents.
“It’s normal for parents to make mistakes (they are human, after all),” says Aude Henin, Ph.D., the co-director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program. “However, when parents consistently engage in behaviors that disregard their children’s needs, that are abusive or neglectful, that are unrealistic or perfectionistic, or that are overprotective and controlling, these patterns of behavior may negatively impact children’s psychological growth.” In other words, that breakdown you had “for no reason” last weekend might go back further than you thought.
Plus, toxic parents can take many shapes, according to Dr. Carolina Castaños, PhD., LMFT. “Some are explosive, stressed, and angry,” Castaños tells Bustle. “Others are dismissive, cold, and distant. They might be physically or emotionally abusive.”
And when it comes to toxic parent signs, it can often be incredibly difficult to identify it in the moment, as opposed to reflecting on it later. “People often don't grow to realize the severity of the toxicity they potentially grow up with,” notes Liz Higgins, LMFT-S, founder of Millennial Life Counseling. Sometimes even when children are abused, they still idolize their caregivers. “Children have idealistic views of the adults around them; adults have clearer vision and sense of reality. But it would make a lot of sense to me if someone doesn't necessarily have a cognitive awareness that their family of origin experience was toxic, because there were many years where the pain or discomfort of it all was ‘their normal,’” she tells Bustle.
Of course, not everyone with major trust issues has toxic parents, and Henin stresses that “toxic” isn’t a clinical term in the way “abuse” is. The best way to truly learn about your family dynamic is by going to therapy. But if your boss giving you some constructive feedback feels just like getting sent to your room when you were a kid, you might want to check out these 14 signs that you had a toxic parent and it’s affecting you now.
You Find Trusting Relationships Difficult
Your bestie has literally never lied to you, and your new partner is giving you nothing but green flags. But you still can’t seem to believe them when they say they’re here for you. Not feeling like you can count on relationships is a potential sign of toxic parenting. “Negative parent-child interactions can make it difficult to learn to trust in relationships as an adult by undermining the person’s sense that the world is a safe place and that people can respond appropriately to your needs,” Henin explains. When you weren’t taught to believe that people will have your back, it can be extra hard to believe you can trust in the real thing as an adult.
You Take Rejection And Failure Very Hard
Do you panic when you miss a deadline or have your novel gently turned down by an agent? Children of toxic parents may experience more extreme shame and hurt than people whose parents were more outwardly loving. “Emotional abuse is the hardest to recognize, especially when we grow up seeing it and believing it is normal — when our intentions, feelings, [and] thoughts are completely twisted, when we are put down and given the message that we are never enough,” Castaños says. “Unless we work on this, we will tend to repeat [it], either by becoming the abuser or by continuing to be in a place or powerlessness.”
Rejection or constantly being put down as a child can seriously impact your view of yourself as you grow older. “You are striving to do something well because you are attempting to avoid a consequence,” says Sherese Ezelle, LMHC, a licensed behavioral therapist. “Therefore, the feeling of failure or rejection can lead to fear of punishment and associated feelings of guilt, sadness, and shame.” Even if your boss assures you that double-booking important meetings happens to the best of us, growing up with toxic parents can convince you that you’re the worst employee to ever exist.
You Have Extreme Reactions That Confuse You
Those seemingly random moments of bursting into tears when your partner asks you to meet them at the restaurant instead of the movie theater may not be so random. According to a 2013 study published in the journal Canadian Family Physician, being surrounded by abuse as a child can make adults very prone to disproportionately intense emotional responses. Though toxicity and abuse aren’t the same thing, they can overlap, and parents don’t have to be consistently abusive to have long-lasting impacts on how their children respond to the world, Henin says.
“If a parent dismisses (‘stop being a baby’) or over-indulges the child’s emotions (‘you don’t have to go to school if you’re scared’), the child doesn’t have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills to manage them,” Henin explains. “These can translate into difficulties regulating negative emotions as an adult.” That can definitely cause things as “little” as last-minute changes of plan to spiral you over the anxiety edge.
You Keep Ending Up In Harmful Relationships
We tend to learn about love and relationships through our family. “We repeat relational patterns, thus, most likely, if we grew up in a toxic family, we will end up in unhealthy relationships unless we realize how we relate with others, how we relate with our own emotions/needs, [and] how we express them,” Castaños says. “If you find yourself with difficulties in your relationships, constantly ending up with someone that hurts you, feeling abandoned or rejected constantly, you are most likely in a toxic relationship, and, most likely, you learned about that in your family of origin.”
This can also mean you’re constantly chasing emotionally unavailable partners, according to Anita Chlipala, LMFT. “A toxic parent didn’t provide consistent safety and security, and so now as an adult, you subconsciously chase partners who also don’t provide that for you,” she tells Bustle. “You don’t know what it feels like to be consistently loved, since you experienced ups and downs with your relationship with your parent(s). Now as an adult, you gravitate towards a similar roller coaster with a romantic partner, instead of choosing secure partners who can provide you with stability.”
You Tend To Put Your Own Emotional Needs Last
Whether you grew up with a verbally or physically abusive parent, a manipulative one, or a parent who otherwise made you feel like they didn’t love you, your own emotional life may have always come last in the hierarchy of the household. “Children may learn that the ‘best’ way to act is to prioritize other people’s needs and emotions over their own,” Henin says. “In the short run, doing so may help decrease conflict or anxiety and give them a sense of being in control. However, in the long run, it teaches them to consistently disregard their own needs.” You might force yourself to go to that party with your partner instead of doing your work, no matter how much it’ll stress you out — but, Henin explains, ignoring your needs now can build a lot of resentment long-term.
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. “You feel like you are never going to be your authentic self, because if people knew the real you, they wouldn’t like you,” Ezelle says. “You begin to become a perfectionist because you don’t want to let anyone down.” Sometimes that can mean denying the core of who you are.
“My house growing up was very violent, physically and emotionally,” says Jared, 34. “One of the things my parents always told me was that I was ‘overdramatic.’ They never treated anything I felt as real, so I kind of started believing I was actually faking everything.” Jared tells Bustle that this treatment from his parents is the biggest reason it took him so long to come out as trans. “If I couldn’t believe my own emotions, how could I believe I’m really a guy?” He explains that it took years of therapy and attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings to accept that his feelings, and his transness, are real.
Your Inner Voice Is Incredibly Critical
Another sign that your parents didn’t care for you in the ways kids are supposed to be cared for is that your self-esteem always seems to be very low. Emotional and verbal abuse as a child can look a lot of ways — think, those times when people’s parents compare them to “superior” older siblings, tell them they’ll never amount to anything, or hold them to impossibly high standards. “If a child grows up in a highly critical family where anything less than perfection isn’t tolerated, they may develop a harsh internal critic that tells them that they are a failure if they make any mistake, even small ones,” Henin tells Bustle.
All of this can make it hard to find your self-worth as an adult. According to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, children whose parents berated them are more prone to be hypercritical of themselves and have very low self-esteem. They’re also more likely to feel stressed out all the time, which can translate into being extra hard on yourself for always “messing up.”
You've Often Felt Responsible For Your Parents' Behavior
One feature that seems to bring the adult children of toxic parents together is that their family dynamic is so entrenched that they don't think of it as abnormal; it's just “the way things are.” Benin says that in some households, “the parent may consistently put their own needs ahead of the child or react to the child in an unpredictable or inconsistent manner.” That can leave you feeling like you need to control your behavior as much as possible to try and regulate their reactions — which leaves you thinking you’re responsible for a lot of things that are actually out of your control. “You believe that every circumstance or interpersonal relationship challenge is your fault,” Ezelle explains.
You Apologize All The Time
If your friends are always begging you to stop apologizing — because no, the bad weather on your beach day is not in fact your fault — that might be a sign of growing up with toxic parents. Children of toxic parents “may be especially vigilant to others’ needs and emotions to maintain their emotional safety,” Henin tells Bustle. It can help to check in with yourself about whether you’re apologizing because you actually screwed up, or because something went wrong that you can’t control — and you want to make sure no one is mad at you for it.
You Constantly Need Validation
When you grew up in a toxic or abusive household, it can feel impossible to soothe yourself when you need comfort. Instead, you might rely on other people to tell you you’re doing a great job, or even that you’re making the “right choice” by ordering waffles instead of pancakes.
“Your view of yourself and your needs is hinged on your need for approval,” Ezelle explains. “Therefore, if a toxic parent speaks to a child in a demeaning way, that child will transition into adulthood wanting continuous external validation.” When someone has grown up with toxic parents, Ezelle says that working with a therapist can help them learn to value themselves outside of what other people might think.
You're Extra Avoidant In Relationships
You might find it super easy to get physically intimate casually, date around, or have an active surface-level social life. But when things start to turn deeper, you feel uncomfortable and retreat. “This indicates potential challenges in your parental relationships growing up,” Higgins tells Bustle. “Avoidance is indicative of enmeshment in childhood and may mean that you weren't able to receive nurturing that helped you identify your sense of self, or your own needs and wants.” Having experienced a lack of nurturing, Higgins says you may have instead assumed the role of caretaker, family hero, or had to emotionally “rescue” others.
You Avoid Your Parents
Some “toxic parent” signs are a lot easier to spot than others, and if you’re avoiding your parents at all costs, it’s a pretty clear indicator that something was amiss while growing up. “This may indicate unresolved issues, or a sense of feeling unable to address historical dynamics with them that have been unsatisfying for you, and [it’s] therefore easier to just cut them off,” explains Higgins. “If you're finding yourself just flat-out avoiding your own parents or not caring about them being in your life at all, I believe this could connect to relational discord that originated earlier in life.”
You’re Overly Dependent On Others
Feeling like a needy friend, requiring excessive approval at work, or lacking boundaries when it comes to your relationships could all be indicators of toxic parents while growing up. “This would indicate that a child possibly felt neglected, ignored, unseen, or rejected in childhood,” Higgins tells Bustle. “The drive for connection and being seen, loved, and needed by others goes into overdrive in adulthood. This can lead to a dependence that feels insatiable.”
Higgins notes that wanting and needing your partner is normal and healthy, but in extreme cases where it feels like “a scratch that has never been itched enough,” it’s likely indicative of wounds from childhood.
You’re Competitive With Everybody
Growing up feeling like you’re not enough can really do a number on the psyche. “Whether you think you’re not thin enough, handsome enough, rich enough, or funny enough, there’s always an ‘I’m not enough’ thought that runs through your head,” explains Chlipala.“Your parent may have pitted you against a sibling, or a best friend’s child, or the neighbor’s kid … or maybe they just made you feel like you weren’t a good enough child, period.” When you were raised to believe you’re not good enough, life becomes a competition, and you feel like you have to be better than everyone in order to prove yourself.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.
Al Odhayani, A., Watson, W. J., & Watson, L. (2013). Behavioural consequences of child abuse. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 59(8), 831–836.
Ryan, R., O'Farrelly, C., & Ramchandani, P. (2017). Parenting and child mental health. London journal of primary care, 9(6), 86–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/17571472.2017.1361630
Post, R. M., Altshuler, L. L., Kupka, R., McElroy, S. L., Frye, M. A., Rowe, M., Leverich, G. S., Grunze, H., Suppes, T., Keck, P. E., Jr, & Nolen, W. A. (2015). Verbal abuse, like physical and sexual abuse, in childhood is associated with an earlier onset and more difficult course of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorders, 17(3), 323–330. https://doi.org/10.1111/bdi.12268
Miano, A., Weber, T., Roepke, S., & Dziobek, I. (2018). Childhood maltreatment and context dependent empathic accuracy in adult romantic relationships. Psychological trauma : theory, research, practice and policy, 10(3), 309–318. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000296
Dereboy, Ç., Şahin Demirkapı, E., Şakiroğlu, M., & Şafak Öztürk, C. (2018). Çocukluk Çağı Travmalarının, Kimlik Gelişimi, Duygu Düzenleme Güçlüğü ve Psikopatoloji ile İlişkisi [The Relationship Between Childhood Traumas, Identity Development, Difficulties in Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology]. Turk psikiyatri dergisi = Turkish journal of psychiatry, 29(4), 269–278.
Salwen, J. K., Hymowitz, G. F., O'Leary, K. D., Pryor, A. D., & Vivian, D. (2014). Childhood verbal abuse: a risk factor for depression in pre-bariatric surgery psychological evaluations. Obesity surgery, 24(9), 1572–1575. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11695-014-1281-3
Berber Çelik, Ç., & Odacı, H. (2020). Does child abuse have an impact on self-esteem, depression, anxiety and stress conditions of individuals?. The International journal of social psychiatry, 66(2), 171–178. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764019894618
Coe, J. L., Davies, P. T., & Sturge-Apple, M. L. (2018). Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children's externalizing problems. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 32(3), 289–298. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000346
Kivisto, K. L., Welsh, D. P., Darling, N., & Culpepper, C. L. (2015). Family enmeshment, adolescent emotional dysregulation, and the moderating role of gender. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 29(4), 604–613. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000118
Gonzalez D, Bethencourt Mirabal A, McCall JD. Child Abuse and Neglect. [Updated 2021 Jul 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459146/
Lewis, S. P., Rosenrot, S. A., & Messner, M. A. (2012). Seeking validation in unlikely places: the nature of online questions about non-suicidal self-injury. Archives of suicide research : official journal of the International Academy for Suicide Research, 16(3), 263–272.
Aude Henin, Ph.D., co-director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program
Sherese Ezelle, LMHC, licensed behavioral therapist at One Medical
Dr. Carolina Castaños, PhD., LMFT
Liz Higgins, LMFT-S, founder of Millennial Life Counseling
Anita Chlipala, LMFT, author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love
This article was originally published on