Are You a Toxic Parent?
These are five warning signs you may have crossed the line, and what to do about it. It’s never too late to change bad patterns.
Parenting is a hard gig; we all know and accept that. But sometime in the last few decades, we also started to accept the idea that parents will mess up their kids in ways that require a lifetime of therapy. It’s time to be the parenting generation that changes all that, and starts raising kids who don’t have to recover from their childhoods as adults.
Raising an extreme child is enough to push most rational adults to the brink of insanity, without adding the idea of toxic parenting to the mix. But even though it feels like we already have too much to manage, it’s essential that we model positive and appropriate behavior for our children.
When we became parents, we didn’t receive an instruction manual or an explanation of what to expect with each kid. Every child, even within the same home, may need different things from different parents, and this can be difficult to navigate.
These are five signs that you are crossing boundaries into emotionally toxic territory and some solutions to turn things around.
1. They fill the role of an adult.
As our children grow older and gain maturity, we give them additional responsibilities in the family. But are we piling on too much too soon?
Example: You ask your seven-year-old to keep an eye on your five-year-old after school until you are home at 5:30pm. Or, you let your child stay up late on a school night to listen to you complain about your boyfriend.
What to do: First, assess how you were parented. Were you expected to take on tasks that were beyond the scope of your age at the time? If so, you don’t have to emulate what you experienced. When you realize where your parenting patterns come from, choose a practical place to make a change.
When it’s age-appropriate, a child may be trusted with babysitting a younger sibling, but that maturity doesn’t happen by age eight. Children shouldn’t be expected to be a caregiver or housekeeper, outside of their daily chores. Seek out an after-school program suitable for your kids and your budget.
Additionally, your children shouldn’t be expected to listen to conversations about inappropriate adult topics, like your financial hardships, or relationship woes. Children aren’t your shoulder to cry on—that role should be filled by a trusted adult friend.
Asking kids to take on more than they are able to handle emotionally or physically is toxic parenting. Making small changes as you go will improve your relationship with your children and ease the transition for you.
2. You make them feel guilty.
We teach our children to be kind to others and to do unto others as you would have done unto you. The Golden Rule, right? But when we do things for our kids, are we expecting something in return? Are we making them feel guilty about actions or situations beyond their control?
Example: Your teenage son wants to go to the football game on Friday night, but you are lonely because your long-time relationship went south a few weeks ago. You tell him he can go, but that if he needs you, you’ll just be at home by yourself waiting until he gets there.
What to do: First, apologize. If your children are old enough to understand that you’ve made a habit of doing things like this with them, own it and say you are sorry. Trust me. It will go a long way—as long as you change your behavior going forward. Then, make sure you slow your brain and think before you speak when similar situations arise in the future.
3. You mock them in public.
It makes me cringe when I see this happen.
Example: Tommy has been acting out all morning at your parents’ house on Thanksgiving. He has finally had it and throws an all-out temper tantrum on the kitchen floor, screaming that he is so mad. You respond by getting down near his face and saying in a high-pitched mocking tone, “I’m so mad! I’m so mad! Does that really help you here, Tommy!?”
What to do: It is one thing to be at the brink, and it is another to jump off willingly. I have been there—in the trenches, hour three of a complete disaster of a day with my extreme child. I know that all-bets-are-off feeling that creeps up when you’ve been hit and screamed at, called names, and had things thrown at you. But it is not OK to make fun of our kids ever and it is downright embarrassing and damaging to do it in front of others.
Kids, at any age, understand this is inappropriate behavior because we ask them not to speak like this to their friends when they are tots on the playground. First we must apologize. We need to explain that our behavior wasn’t appropriate, and we were just exhausted and angry. Even parents make mistakes.
Then, we need to enlist a trusted friend, spouse, family member, or someone who can “tag in” when we find ourselves approaching that breaking point. They can help you find a quiet place when you need to regulate your emotions before you say or do something from which it might be difficult to recover.
4. You ask them to keep secrets.
Our children are not our friends. I don’t know how much more plainly I can say it. No matter how much we love our kids or how young we had them, until you are both mature adults, you cannot maintain a healthy friendship with your children. It will be mentally damaging for one or both parties.
Example: You tell your child about a shopping trip when you spent too much money, and then ask him to keep it from his dad.
What to do: We can be confidants to our kids and provide a safe space for them to tell their secrets and share their stories, but that road is one-way.
If you have already confided in your children as if they are your adult friends, approach them and let them know that you recognize that they may be mature enough to handle the information you told them, but it wasn’t right of you to ask them to keep something a secret. No matter how much they may want you to tell them secrets, they don’t need to hear the ones rated PG-13 or beyond.
5. You don’t maintain age-appropriate boundaries.
In our society of smart phones, social media, and instant gratification, it is difficult not to see our teens, or our middle school children, as mini adults. But remember, parents, they aren’t. Their brains are still developing, and they can’t make mature decisions yet. I mean, remember when you were 10? Yeah, I’ll let that thought marinate for a while.
Example: Your 12-year-old wants to stay up and play video games on the Internet. You want to sleep, so you allow it—even though you haven’t set the parental controls on his new gaming system yet. That 12-year-old can now view just about anything while having conversations with other people online who are playing the same game. The scary part? Most of them aren’t likely to be 12.
What to do: It is important for us to acknowledge when we overstep a boundary, fail to set an appropriate boundary, or just make a mistake with our kids. An honest apology goes a long way toward making your child, regardless of age, feel like he or she is important to you.
If you have questions about what is age appropriate, ask your friends, your pediatrician, or an online forum. Think about whether or not you feel comfortable with what your child is doing. You are the parent.
Everything is born out of love—either from the presence or the lack of it. Maybe you were raised in an abusive, neglectful, or codependent household so you are parenting the only way you’ve ever known. We can be a product of our environment, but we do not have to be.
Consider these insights into toxic parenting and evaluate yourself honestly. Are there things you could be doing better? Do you owe your children an apology? Humbling ourselves in font of our children can be one of the most powerful acts we ever model for them. It is never too late to make a change.