Living with Toxicity: Issues in Parenting


As headlines from the latest example of cultural male toxicity overshadow the Mueller investigation, it's easy to forget that the government continues to govern while we're distracted (see the most recent tax bill passed by the House). True to form, the president will use anything or anyone if it serves his interest. While it appears that Kavanaugh's confirmation has been slightly delayed, it's not beyond reason to wonder whether Trump may cut him loose, thank him for taking the heat away from the Mueller investigation, and nominate an equally distressing partisan judge. As we've discussed in other posts, persons with toxic traits like our president see people as disposable (“You’re Fired!”) and take that utilitarian tact even with their own children.

Think about what a vulnerable position the president put his son in when he likely gave him the green light to have a meeting with Russian officials who were peddling negative information about an opposing political candidate. By having his son do his bidding, Donald, Jr. now faces potentially profound legal consequences for what could be described as one more tragic effort to win his father's love and approval. Our president's relationship to his own father was said to have been quite business-like and lacked the warmth and empathy that marks any healthy parent-child relationship. As we approach the mid-terms, along with the uncertain terrain of the Supreme Court judicial selection process, we are likely only months away from the conclusion of Mueller's investigation (provided he is not removed prematurely) wherein most expect Don, Jr. to have some culpability and legal vulnerability. If and when that happens, you can be certain that the president will offer some general word salad comments about his son and how sad (So Sad!) he is that he got tangled up in this Russia thing, but the public will see the reality that afflicts all toxic persons' relationships with their children. Standing at the symbolic train station of life, the toxic parent will often throw the child in front of the train if it means protecting his or her ego.

To be clear, not all toxic parents' pathology approaches this level of disregard, but most toxic parents fail to act in ways that are truly in their children's best interests. Among the most common behaviors of parents who fit this bill include:

  • Pinterest Perfect Parents: These are parents who are so obsessed with their image as peerless mothers and fathers that they simply *had* to share the latest selfie or carefully curated image on social media. For these parents, their lack of object permanence is so profound, the phrase "pics or it didn't happen" is tragically accurate to them. Thus, everything is documented, especially when it sustains an image particularly supportive of their view of themselves as ideal parents. Some covertly toxic parents will even go so far as to capture "messy" moments for their followers to communicate, "Hey, I'm just like you, see?" These parents are given to highlighting a golden child who is especially smart, wise, athletic, or good looking while giving less attention to their other children. Children experience this obsession with perfection as unnecessarily controlling and constricting, though they go along with the pomp and circumstance because it is all they know. Not until they grow up and find themselves unconsciously perseverating about hosting the perfect party will they begin to recognize the depth of dysfunction to which they had been exposed.

  • Vicarious Victimizing Parents: These are parents who miss their glory days as the quarterback for their football team or as the popular cheerleader and therefore strongly encourage their interests in those (or other similarly mirrored choices) areas so that they can live through their children and experience the competition and/or drama one more time. They are the fathers who are just a little too into the game. They are the mothers who are constantly applying and re-applying makeup to their daughters before they go back on stage or in front of an audience. Both parents feel like their children's appearance and performance reflects upon them personally as parents, so when they perform poorly or look disheveled in some way, it's an affront to fragile ego of the parent. Any of these approaches results in the child becoming a salve for the unmet needs and unlived life of the parent.

  • Nurture-Needy Neglectful Parents: These are parents who didn't get the empathic attunement and nurture they needed growing up. In response, they neglect the unique soulful needs of their children by using their children to meet those unmet needs in themselves. By using their children to receive nurture, admiration, and love, these parents contribute to the development of emotional hunger pains in their children that are often life long.

  • Role Reifying Parents: These toxic parents have a tendency to assign roles to their children based on how they bolster their personal self-image. Roles include the golden child, which is usually bestowed on the child with whom the disordered parent most readily identifies; the scapegoat, which is usually given to the child who both challenges the disordered parent and becomes the child blamed for anything that doesn't align with the disordered parent's need for perfection; and finally the ignored or lost child, which is unofficially laid in the lap of the child who is made to feel as if he or she doesn't exist in the mind of the disordered parent. These kids are usually quiet and perfectly satisfied staying away from the manipulative parent's penchant for drama.

  • Incessant Infantilizing Parents: Emotionally manipulative parents in this category are preoccupied with keeping their children in a one down position and are deeply threatened by the fact that their children will one day grow up and no longer need them. In line with this, adolescence becomes the great line beyond which many toxic parents cannot advance with their children, for as their children begin to move away from them and toward their peers, the toxic parent suffers a significant narcissistic injury because of their profound need to be needed. So identified are they with their role as controlling parent, they will go to rather extreme measures to maintain an inappropriate and often unsolicited consultative role as their children grow into adulthood. And God help these kids if they refuse the "help," because these parents tend to be masters at guilt trips.

  • Subtly Sabotaging Parents: These are some of the most covertly manipulative parents who quietly undermine their children while wanting to appear as loving and supportive. Examples of their behavior includes introducing known allergens into their children's diets because their magical thinking convinces them that they can do so without consequence. When the child has an allergic reaction to the known allergen, the toxic parent is forced to engage in mental gymnastics (usually with little regard for the truth) to avoid responsibility for their unwise choice, but usually not before they can come across to others as caring mothers/fathers who are good caretakers as their child recovers. Many persons who fall into this parental pathology are prone to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Less severe forms of sabotage are grounded in the toxic parent feeling threatened by the child in some way, so they do something to keep them in a one down position and, therefore, reliant and respectful of their power over them.

  • Antagonistic Alienating Parents: Most often utilized during a separation and/or divorce between parents (though it often happens during a marriage as well), the toxic parent will attempt to paint his or her spouse in a negative light in front of the children in order to create a clear distinction of who is good and who is bad in the dissolution of the relationship. As will come as no surprise, the parent engaging in alienation against the other parent cannot accept any responsibility for any failures on their part and therefore must direct all blame toward the other parent. Doing this within earshot of the children or directly to them creates a terribly confusing narrative for the children who have loved both parents equally and have no context for the sudden change of heart in the alienating parent. As has been described in earlier posts, many alienating parents will have others in their family and friend groups do this alienation work for them so as to avoid direct culpability. In especially high conflict divorces, it is common for these parents to feed their children storylines and false memories so as to craft a cohesive, yet fundamentally baseless, narrative that will result in their being seen as the perfect parent while the other parent takes on the toxic parent's negative projections in the eyes of the children. The younger the child, the more likely they are to take on such explanations from the alienating parent and engage in disrespectful behavior toward the targeted parent. Older children are usually adept at sniffing out BS from the toxic parent and know that the other parent is not the epitome of all things terrible, though they may agree with the alienating parent out of a desire to please her/him and demonstrate loyalty.  

These are only some of the more common ways that toxic parents negatively impact their children. If you have grown up under the manipulative and selfish rule of a toxic mother or father, there are numerous therapeutic options and excellent books available that can help you begin to take your life back. Sadly, many persons who have grown up in the dark shadow of such parents end up taking on their toxicity in their own lives and may—out of sheer survival—develop the same narcissistic qualities that they experienced from their parent in childhood. Others are more likely to develop codependent qualities that make it more likely that they will choose someone with varying degrees of narcissistic qualities as a partner because it's what they know having grown up with one. As is becoming clear, however, the repercussions of toxic parenting can range from tragic to potentially catastrophic depending on the significance of the roles such children take on as adults.  

Our children deserve better. As Jung is famous for saying, "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” I can think of no better time than now for parents to take responsibility for their own inner journeys. An inability to do so runs the risk of parents not being able to set their children free to be children so that they can follow their soul's firm persuasion without needing to take care of the unconscious needs of their caregivers. The potential repercussions could be more profound than we realize.