Surviving the Toxic Parent

Healing the loss of self that the toxic parent demands

Posted May 02, 2018

The toxic parent may or may not have been diagnosed with a mental illness or a personality disorder. They may or may not have ever sought treatment for such a disorder. But the poison they spread to others is an infection that can be cured. There are no statistics to reference on this, but anecdotally it might be said that therapists treat more of those impacted by toxic parents than they treat toxic parents. 

The problem with the toxicity of the toxic parent is that the child has been eating this poison since infancy and has, at least for many prior years, believed that eating this poison is normal. Indeed, many children of toxic parents believe that it is the child, not the parent, who is responsible for improving the situation. 

The definition of a healthy parent is one who is emotionally mature enough to own his own psychological material, so that it doesn’t get projected onto the child. Emotional maturity means that the parent can own his own emotions and use emotions as his own internal messaging system—which facilitates self-awareness. Self-awareness means that there is a great deal of Self in conscious awareness. There is an affective or emotional relationship with Self—which includes a great deal of self-empathy, self-love and the creation of behaviors that care for and honor the Self. All of this means that the parent is Self-contained. Therefore, his relationship to others is clear of projection, inappropriate boundaries and toxicity. The healthy parent knows how to love unconditionally, and to mirror the child’s authenticity. The healthy parent can create appropriate boundaries, and appropriately discipline (i.e., teach) a child, while simultaneously honoring the child’s authenticity. 

Andrea Mathews
Source: Andrea Mathews

The toxic parent, on the other hand, is not emotionally mature. Therefore, she will commonly project all of her unmanaged emotions and unconscious material onto her children. She will commonly do things like: rage at her children frequently and even with maliciousness and/or abuse; demand that her children take care of her emotional and/or physical needs; demonstrate an inability to offer guidance or appropriate discipline to her children; play mind games with her children; attempt to split children off from affection from the other parent; attempt to compete with the child for attention, image and approbation; punish the child by withholding affection or presence; abuse the child emotionally, mentally, physically and/or sexually. The child most commonly attempts to stay connected to this parent by wrapping an identity, like bandage for a wound, around the parent’s behavior. In other words, the child will often attempt to please the parent by being whatever it is that the parent needs him to be, in order to feel a sense of safety in his otherwise confusing and confounding world. The child may later become aware of anxiety and depression that are a result of such loss of Self, for the child has had to give up any awareness of Self in order to survive. Sometimes, but more rarely, the child will be very much aware that the parent is wrong and will stew in the juices of rage for years, acting out that rage out in some ways that end up harming himself. Even more rare is the child who truly understands that the parent is wrong and waits patiently for an opportunity to get out of that home.  

Children often attempt to make all things better by literally becoming what the parent needs for the child to become. Perhaps the child will think that if she just is very pleasing, very polite, very quiet, very invisible, the parent will not rage at her. Or, perhaps she takes over the role of parenting, so that not only is she caring for younger siblings, but she is parenting the parent.  

All of these are bargains, in which there is an IF and a THEN: IF I parent my mother, THEN she will do less harm to me—just one example. Ultimately, when the bargaining has run its course, the child of the toxic parent may begin to feel the sorrow of not having the loving parent he wanted. Often, if anger has not already appeared, it will come now. But that anger is an I AM within the child. That I AM says, “I AM here, I AM real, and I matter.” And that’s often how the child will begin to move to acceptance. The child—often now an adult—begins to make decisions to take care of Self. Those decisions begin to solve the problem. Those decisions mean that there is actually someone in the world who cares, cares deeply and can provide for them all of their emotional and physical needs in ways that the parent did not. That someone is Self. 

The ultimate result of good parenting is that the child learns how to care for Self in loving, nurturing and self-disciplining ways. The ultimate result of the healing from having been raised by a toxic parent is the same.