Mental health conversations – Toxic parenting

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Mental health conversations – Toxic parenting

Parent relationships are generally the most challenging relationships to walk away from, unlike any other relationships. We don’t get to choose our blood relatives; we are born from them and into them. Parents are the foundation of who we are and perhaps serve as the greatest support system for some. Phrases such as “blood is thicker than water” or “we are a collective community as opposed to individualistic, therefore, family should stand together” are commonly used in most families, more so in the African context. However, the danger comes when these beliefs or phrases are engrained in us to an extent that it legitimises unhealthy patterns of behaviour (intentionally or unintentionally), and causes harm to the family as a unit or to some members of the family. 

Children in particular are at risk of being subjected to toxic relationships by parents. Because of their vulnerability and dependency on their parents, they aren’t able to escape these relationships when they’re young. Dr C. Childs defines toxic parents as parents who prioritise their needs above their children – self-centred as opposed to other centred, also known as the authoritarian parents. In parents’ defence, they were also once children and most of them have adopted parenting skills that they’ve experienced themselves or learned from their parents. 

Nevertheless, toxic parenting is detrimental to children’s mental and physiological health and can contribute to unhealthy coping patterns in adulthood as well as mental illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, while also compromising the immune system. 

How to identify toxic parents according to Li, Childs and Baan Sethi:

Self-absorbed parents – lack empathy and aren’t emotionally available to their children as they’re mostly concerned about the self. The rigid parents – forcefully impose their values and opinions on their children as anything contrary is regarded wrong; leave limited room for individuality and mental freedom. Emotionally reactive – get easily offended especially when their view points are challenged; likely to display unpredictable behaviour and emotional outbursts.  Controlling parents – lack boundaries and respect even when children are adults who are capable of making their own decisions. 

Demanding parents –expect children to neglect their schedules to prioritise parents’ needs instead, and can use threats or manipulation to get attention from their children. 

Manipulative parents – may use guilt tripping or silent treatment to control their children, and can also twist the truth to take advantage of their children. 

Critical parents – never satisfied with children’s achievements. Abusive parents – verbal and emotional abuse such as name-calling, hurling insults, yelling and screaming are normalised forms of communication. Additionally, children are physically abused beyond the normal spanking as a form of discipline as well as sexually exploited in many households in our context. Some young girls, in particular, fall prey to teenage pregnancy due to sexual abuse and incest relationships that are appropriated in certain cultures. Secretive parents – keeping silent about sexual abuse committed towards children by older family members, or forbidding children to talk about their traumatic experiences. 

Instead, it perpetuates unhealthy functioning in the affected individuals. Parentification – expecting children to support parents emotionally or materially when they are young denies children childhood experiences. 

Emotionally healthy parents understand their children’s feelings, apologise when they are wrong, use healthy communication to solve problems and encourage authenticity. 

* Justine /Oaes (Clinical Psychologist Intern)