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Signs of Toxic Parenting and What to Do

What are the signs to look for and what can you do when you feel toxic parenting is in the mix?
(4 min 10 sec read)

Dave Chartier
A single co-parenting dad, a freelance writer and former syndicated dad blogger with work published in USA Today, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

We all want the best for our children and strive to give them a happy and healthy childhood upbringing but alas, we have all had moments we wish we could recapture. We snap at our kids, we may make unreasonable demands on children, use unkind words, transfer our stressful bad day to them, tell them to do what we say, we make them feel bad, we hurt their tender feelings and we frankly, blow it in the parent of the month award club, unfortunately, the list goes on. But, while these cases are few and far between for most, for some this is simply the way they parent.

What are the signs to look for and what can you do when you feel toxic parenting is in the mix? If you are a teenage child, what are the symptoms and the best course of action? If you’re a co-parent, what are the telltale signs?

Let’s take a moment to unpack what toxic parenting is and where it comes from. Toxic parents do not treat their children with respect, they won’t compromise, or take responsibility for their behavior, or apologize. This is in stark contrast to a non-toxic parent who does not display repetitive negativity, raised voices, anger, cruelty or hostility toward their child at every turn. Toxic parenting is much more than being a tough parent, they are over the top and/or overbearing.

As an example, these parents consistently have difficulty controlling their emotions. They overreact, are “dramatic”, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous whereas a healthy parent is generally quite the opposite. While these toxic parents may be acting out of a significant stress or change of circumstances, or they may be parroting the parenting they received as a child and for others (not most) their parenting is a symptom of bigger issues such as a mental disorder they suffer from some sort of deep emotional trauma (ex. PTSD) or addiction.

Here are some common characteristics:

  1. Master Manipulators – For example, healthy parents don’t hold grudges, they can forgive and move on. Toxic parents may give you the silent treatment after a disagreement or unexpectedly cancel plans as punishment. In essence, they’re putting their feelings first. Or perhaps they are able to convince their kids they deserve the physical/emotional punishment because they’re bad. Or perhaps they use guilt and money to control you– “…after all I’ve done for you…”. These manipulations are consistent and it’s always to their benefit. Healthy parents know that children do not owe them a specific response in exchange for money or gifts, especially when these items were not asked for in the first place.
  2. Toxic Joker – Toxic jokes are commonplace and they’re not funny and probably uncomfortable putdowns. By toxic we mean belittling, inappropriate and downright mean. These chip away at a child’s self-confidence and general sense of self-worth. Imagine growing up with a parent calling you ‘Fatso’ or ‘Ugly Duckling’, or far worse (of course) in front of family and friends.
  3. Tough Love – Whether it is ‘Tiger Mom’ or ‘Drill Sergeant’ Dad, they may have convinced themselves they are preparing their children for the ’Real World’ but what they are doing in most cases is failing to provide their child with normal affirmations and security. Beyond these lack of affirmations, they may use scare tactics to enforce actions or words that damage the child’s sense of safety and wellbeing. This old-world authoritarian approach is setting your child up with high levels of insecurities and petrified of loss and failure when they grow up.
  4. The Shut Downs – These parents do not allow you to express what you need, what you feel is bad or wrong or negative emotions in general. This may include criticism back at the negative parent. This toxic parent will then undercut, co-opt and/or attempt to manipulate the situation or child.

If you are a healthy co-parent and have legitimate concerns consider the following:

  • Open-ended questions with your child to understand how/if they are a victim of toxic parenting
  • Consider therapy for your child  
  • Keep clear records of behaviors you perceive as toxic in order to formulate strategies to cope with it to the benefit of the child
  • If there is clear proof of abuse, report it

If you suspect you have toxic parenting habits consider the following:

  • Do not be ashamed, be proactive, seek help, therapy, coaching, parenting groups, parenting classes, parent education. Change is possible.

If you are an older child of a toxic parent consider the following:

  • If you have toxic parents, remember that it’s not your fault. No matter how much they try to blame you, your parents aren’t ‘difficult’ because of you or anything you did
  • Talk to your ‘healthy’ parent about this, ask to consult a therapist


64 Signs of Mental and Emotional Abuse | Healthline

Emotional Abuse: Facts, Symptoms, How to Handle, and How to Help | Crisis Textline

State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers | U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare and Information Gateway

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