Toxic Parenting: How to Survive When Parents Mess You Up

A friend of mine (we’ll call her Fran*) recently had some bad news. Someone they thought they could trust, let them down in a really bad way.

As we talked through how she felt about it, she had this sudden moment of clarity. The person Fran cared for didn’t love her back, at least not in the way she’d hoped.

Whilst on the one hand Fran felt enlightened, on the other you could see the pain in her face at the prospect of this revelation. “But she should love me. She’s my mum”.

Fran’s mother hadn’t been able to provide emotional warmth or kindness, and a lot of the time displayed narcissistic and toxic traits: it was always her mum’s way or no way, indignant when anyone dared to stand up to her (claiming a lack of respect) and playing the injured party if anyone answered back.

This type of mother will see her child as an accessory – a parent was all about making the mum look good – and woe betide if they didn’t.

She was always right. Fran was always “wrong”. And, just to make life more difficult, her mum would play her siblings off against each other – having clear favourites. The punishment for falling short was often silence, that lasted days if not weeks. It was abuse but without the fists. Fran’s mum used guilt as a weapon.

How the narcissist sees himself – Credit: Joe Navarro

Through my therapeutic practice, I know a lot of people can relate to this. It might be a partner that lets us down. Sometimes it’s a friend. It’s always heartbreaking when we realise we’ve been duped, conned or just taken for a ride.

But when it’s a parent, where do you go with that?

For a while, Fran was angry. She focused a lot on the “shoulds” – “she should love me. She should want to change. She should want to make it all right.”

But after a while, Fran realised that her mother’s toxic parenting – the negativity, the bullying, the way her mum would ignore Fran when she didn’t get her own way – was no reflection on who my friend is as a person. That how their mother chose to behave, didn’t make Fran guilty by association.

Fran hadn’t chosen her parents, and how her mother chose to behave was not a measure of how good a child Fran had ever been. Fran felt comforted when she realised she is not under any obligation to meet the needs of her parents, and never was. If anything, it’s the other way around.

But after a while, Fran realised that her mother’s toxic parenting was no reflection on who she is as a person…. She is not under any obligation to meet the needs of her parents, and never was. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Often when a parent lets us down, we immediately assume it must be our fault. If we see them as the authority figure – the one who has it all figured out – we assume they must be right, and we’re the one in the wrong. It can mess us up.

But usually, parents are just winging it. And a child is never to blame for the way their parents choose to parent. And this is where acceptance can help.

Acceptance isn’t about excusing someone for their unkindnesses. It’s about recognising that the person’s choice of behaviour has little to do with you, and usually everything to do with how that person is experiencing the world.

They might give excuses like “that’s just how it was back then” or “my mum did it to me, so that’s how it is for you” – to deflect responsibility. And essentially that’s all that is. Using the past as an excuse does not make a choice of actions today okay. That’s why the #MeToo movement has been so important – men saying “that’s how it was” doesn’t make it alright. It should never have been allowed. And parenting need to change for the right – and compassionate – things to be done.

A parent should never be too proud to say sorry for their mistakes or too stubborn to change where children – and their feelings – are involved.

If a parent can recognise and address their own behaviour then there is opportunity for positive growth and reconciliation.

In my friend’s case, however – despite several attempts by Fran to communicate her concerns, to understand her mum and reconnect – her mother would gaslight and refused to accept Fran’s view (confronting a narcissist rarely goes well).

Fran had to conclude she’d never know or understand why her mother chose to behave the way she did – accepting the reality that “it is what it is” was hugely healing, and helped her get her sparkle back. This is where talking to a friend or a professional can be helpful.

Acceptance isn’t about excusing someone for their unkindnesses. It’s about recognising that person’s choice of behaviour has little to do with you, and usually everything to do with how that person is experiencing the world.

If someone is being unkind to you, remember there are no excuses for that. We all have bad days but pressure – and certainly biology – doesn’t give anyone a free pass to bully, manipulate or control. You can try talking to them assertively, if it’s a healthy enough environment to do that. But ultimately creating some space between you, even if only temporary, can be a healthy thing to do.

If you or someone you know may be in an abusive relationship – including adults and their parents – organisations like Refuge can help.

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*Authors note: Details of the people involved in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

©️ Copyright Delphi Ellis

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