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 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 longer than you thought.
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. 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 nine signs that you have toxic parents.
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, Henin says that it can be extra hard to believe that you can trust in the real thing as an adult.
You Take Rejection & Failure Very Hard
Freak out 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. “You are striving to do something well because you are attempting to avoid a consequence,” says Sherese Ezelle, L.M.H.C., a licensed behavioral therapist at One Medical. “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 make things as “little” as last-minute plan changes spiral you over the anxiety edge.
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.” So 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 even holding children 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 voice 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 of the features that seem 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.
Aude Henin, Ph.D., co-director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program
Sherese Ezelle, L.M.H.C., licensed behavioral therapist at One Medical
Al Odhayani, A. (2013) Behavioural consquences of child abuse. Canadian Family Physician, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3743691/.
Çelik, Ç.B. (2020) Does child abuse have an impact on self-esteem, depression, anxiety and stress conditions of individuals? International Journal of Social Psychiatry, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31856622/.
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