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June 18, 2015       

Toxic Parents: Mean or Emotionally Distressed?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

People are often confused by toxic parents who are also very loving and will do anything for their children. Such a duality is often due to emotional problems that are acted out in a toxic manner to the children. For example, a controlling OCD parent who is anxious about germs and spends hours a day cleaning may believe they are protecting their children. However, when the child breaks a rule such as coming into the house without showering the parent becomes angry and berates the child.

Sometimes the parents have self-esteem issues that cause them to want to be the perfect parent or social anxiety which causes them to be concerned about how they appear to others. Either of these is often reflected through attempts to have perfect children. The result, however, since children are not perfect is for these parents to be critical and demanding of the children. This can sometimes cause the opposite effect that they desire and the child may have behavioral problems or it may exacerbate the child's anxiety and cause the child to be more people-pleasing and passive.

In all these examples the parent might otherwise be loving and involved in healthy ways with the children. The confusion experienced by the children of such parents usually indicates the parent is not a mean person but that the behavior is due to these types of emotional problems. The parent feels the stress of the self-inflicted demands which is transferred to the children.

No matter the reason, however, it is still toxic behavior and can be quite disturbing for the child. Many of my clients with anxiety disorders recognize this and go to extreme lengths to not allow their anxiety to affect their children (or sometimes even be observed by the children). Usually the people who engage in these toxic behaviors aren't aware of their behavior and are unlikely to be receiving therapy.

The good thing about this type of toxic parent, at least for adult children, is they are often responsive to assertive limit setting. Because they don't want to be rejected which will cause them to appear to be bad parents to themselves and others, letting them know their behavior is unacceptable and that you might be forced to reject them sometimes changes the behavior. For example, “If you continue to criticize me, I will end the visit” said at the time of the behavior can make them more aware of their behavior and attempt to control it.

Therefore, before continuing to endure such behavior or ending all contact with a parent it may be beneficial to determine if the toxic behavior is due to these types of emotional problems. If so, it may be worthwhile to set limits with the parent. This does not mean saying something one time because most of us are not one-time learners especially when it comes to changing our behavior. Instead, it means saying something every time and following through on the consequence (such as ending the visit). After a few consequences, these types of parents are likely to realize you are serious and change their behavior. If they don't, there may be nothing you can do but protect yourself from the toxicity in anyway you can.

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Dr. Monica Frank

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