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Toxic Parenting and child’s mental health

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Baumrind gave 4 parenting styles, namely:

  • Authoritarian – stern or strict. It insists on unquestioning obedience, and enforces good behaviour through threats, shaming, and other punishments.

  • Permissive or indulgentIt’s a type that is characterized by low demands with high responsiveness. Permissive parents tend to be very loving, yet provide few guidelines and rules.

  • Uninvolved - also called neglectful parenting, which obviously carries more negative connotations — is a style of parenting where parents don’t respond to their child’s needs or desires beyond the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.

  • Authoritative - The authoritative parenting style is an approach to child-rearing that combines warmth, sensitivity, and the setting of limits. Parents use reasoning to guide children. They avoid threats or punishments.

Now there is a fifth style that can mix with any of the above and the combination isn’t quite right for any child - Toxic. This has been seen to be growing with its realisation of existence. Let’s see what is the meaning of toxic, first.

Toxic - causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious to self and or others. This style consists of mixed signals, physical and or mental abuse. The parents depict constant mistrust while showcasing signs of trust.

Such behaviour is often a result of previous conditioning, development of schemas (our concepts that help us organise and interpret information) and experience of such parenting in the past. In simpler language, lets say that this kind of behaviour is passed on from generation to the other, until one generation realises the damage and decides to bring a change. It becomes extremely difficult for that particular generation to bring about changes, because it is seen as going against the upbringing’s core values and morals and going against the elderly individuals. Example – grandma taught mom how to fold clothes, and mom taught you the same method. Now you have found an even efficient way of doing the task, but convincing your mother of the method can be difficult.

Let’s look at a story to get an idea of how the pattern works.

  • A girl was born in a poor family of milkmen and newspaper vendors. She being the second girl child. She was unwanted because her mother wanted a son and there was an elder sister already who was loved for being the first child of the family. Now, being the second child wasn’t easy for Sushma, because she was always torn between situations and her own needs. She was always expected to fulfil other’s demands and was made to sacrifice for the smallest of things. Because of this she grew up to be extremely financially independent so that she didn’t have to ask anyone for anything. But emotionally and mentally, she was always dependent on someone or the other, though denied it. She ran her family before marriage and her mother had no regards for her actions and responsibilities, due to the dislike towards her daughter. Her own daughter!

Sushma got married against her will and yet had a great married life with her husband. Though when it came to her in-laws, they again hated her for being the most educated among all the members. They created a lot of hardships and hurdles in her married life. 6 years post the marriage, Sushma lost her husband. They had had two daughters- Damini and Simran- she left with them to live separately so to keep them away from her in-law’s influence. Always brave and determined, she managed to give both kids a fine enough life where needs were met. However, her trauma wasn’t dealt with and her coping mechanisms were a disaster to her and her kids. She started hitting her kids on a regular basis and then fed them as though nothing happened. She started grooming them according to what the society would find fit. However, her first born was a rebel since the very beginning and refused to adhere to anything that she didn’t like. She was more attached to the father than to Sushma and she lost her best friend with her father. With such treatment from her mother, she developed anger issues, trust issues and Damini was too little to understand what she was going through. So Sushma sent Damini for child counselling due to rising incidents of her anger which even resulted in hitting Sushma!

Damini grew up clueless as to what her mother wanted from her. Did she love her? But she had saved her and her younger sister after their father’s death. She even provides for them and takes care of them and does everything nice. But then she even hits her, abuses both the sisters, hates them to a point where Sushma has actually disowned them (Damini specially). Sushma even said things that were so hurtful to Damini that they became the main reason behind Damini’s mental health issues! Damini seeked counselling in college on her own, but her guilt never left. She blamed herself for every negative thing that happened in her life and in the family’s life. She grew up thinking that she didn’t deserve love and that she was good for nothing. Sushma didn’t think all this was serious even after repeated breakdowns from Damini and her constant blunt words. Because she was so busy trying to think that she is a good mother, she forgot to monitor her actions and behaviour patterns. Sushma refused to believe that she was the cause behind Damini’s mental health issues and relationship choices. While seeking treatment for Damini, no one haulted to think that if she had so many complaints and wasn’t comfortable or safe with her mother, there has to be something wrong with what Sushma was doing. No one told her that she too needed help and should seek help and guidance. It became a thing of ego for Sushma that someone else would teach her how to be a good mother and person! There was denial for change because it was taught like that to her- that being a mother justifies every action and no one but a mother would understand the reasons of what she does! This and similar teachings have been passed from generation from generation are the reason behind today’s existing toxic parenting.

What kind of relationship develops due to this kind of parenting?

They (Sushma & Damini) developed something that we call ‘Trauma Bonding’. Trauma bonding is loyalty to a destructive person due to loops of abuse followed by intermittent love and care. This treatment creates a powerful emotional bond that becomes extremely difficult to break. People don’t realise that they are in a trauma bond while others can clearly see the pattern.

According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, these types of destructive attachments are known as “Betrayal Bonds”. These can take place in any context where a relationship can be formed. They can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, within the family and workplace. This pattern and similar ones are commonly and more often found in parent-child relationships and romantic relations. In a lot of cases, toxic parenting like this results in under-confident individuals and that hinders their expectations from self or others. There is a constant conflict between what they want and what they think they deserve. The latter is always lesser in position to the former. For example ; Damini overthinks about buying a birthday dress for herself. She thinks and contemplates whether it makes her a spoilt brat or selfish since she will be receiving special treatment on that day. And questions like, ‘ Am I deserving of this?’ ‘Will mom be okay with it?’ ‘ Isn’t this too much money to spend?’ ‘Isn’t the treatment itself enough?’ etc.

Yes, being content with what one has, is great and necessary. But is wanting one dress per year something impossible or too much to ask for? No. Yet as a result, Damini hasn’t bought a dress since 5 years because after buying it, her mother has always brought it up as a waste of money and something that Damini made her do just out of desires to show off! Now thinking about it logically, if someone doesn’t ask for clothes, and wants a birthday dress, it shouldn’t be such an issue. But toxic people are used to a pattern and as a part of that, they are used to pointing out everything good that they do but deny everything negative about themselves. Though the same behaviour is reversed when it comes to others! In such patterns, guilt also becomes a massive factor of functionality for the affected individual. Taking compliments becomes difficult. Something as simple as receiving compliments and responding to them is a task, because they don’t believe the opposite person’s views about themselves or don’t believe those compliments about themselves. They stop believing that they’re good enough or even enough. All this leads to self- loathing and hatred. An individual develops a habit of believing that they can never be fulfilling, they deny their qualities and accept their flaws very easily. They habitually criticise themselves and forgive any kind of offensive behaviour by others, because they have grown up in that environment, thinking that it is okay to be treated like that.

Let’s come to identifying these patterns and behaviours;

  • If you notice any abuse followed by intense love and care.

  • If emotional abuse is followed by material gifts.

  • If the same mistake is repeated and has different explanations - this means that the individual is not ready to change his or her habits and is forming new reasons to do the same. This often stems from denial.

  • Ways of gaining affection are often via excessive love and flattery.

  • You end up completely dependent on them for validation and love.

  • They start criticising and blaming you for everything and there is no trace of them in anything negative, but in positive.

  • They manipulate you to believe their narratives and if things go wrong, it is your fault.

  • You don’t know what’s wrong and right anymore. You are constantly confused about what the truth is.

  • Your only source of feeling good is by doing things their way because then the reward is a positive validation.

  • If you go against anything small or big, things get worse and out of hand. As a result, you settle for whatever brings even the slightest chance of peace.

  • There are regular promises, but none are met in reality.

  • You experience constant negativity and a dislike towards them.

  • You don’t feel safe and secure with them.

  • You don’t feel like you can do anything by self. (confidence issues)

  • Your close ones have advised you to move out of that environment.

  • Others are disturbed by your actions but you have a habit of brushing it off. You do end up feeling miserable at the mention of situations though)

  • When you have tried to leave but you end up feeling physically ill and think that you won’t be able to survive alone.

  • You are aware that the person is sometimes abusive and destructive but you focus on the good days instead.

  • You feel protective about them because of their hard past and find yourself caring for them in spite of their destructive behaviour.

  • You are also aware of the manipulation but deny it and tend to forget the bad things easily.

  • The relationship is intense and inconsistent. You make efforts to please them and make the feel good only to receive heartbreak in return because they are never satisfied and instead focus on your flaws.

  • You experience thoughts of self- harm and have tried administering the same.

If all or any of these points match your situation in any relationship, it is high time that you take steps against it and seek professional help. Self- affirmations go a long way in such situations. Just like the person criticises you, you need to affirm yourself and remind yourself that you are worth a lot more and you do not deserve this treatment. Once we have identified and accepted the issue and decided to leave, we must look at the various ways to go about a plan.

Let’s now look at ways to get out of these relationships;

  • Like discussed earlier, keep going with the self- affirmations

  • Do not give up on the decision of leaving.

  • Seek the support of a psychotherapist or recovery expert.

  • Concentrate on saving up for yourself. Financial independence is the most needed while living alone and to get out of such an environment.

  • Once you have moved out physically, it is time for legal action. File a case against the toxic partner.

  • Always have someone to talk to on a regular basis. It could be anyone who understands you and would be a ready help whenever needed and may even justify in your favour when the time comes. The person must not be a mutual contact between you and your abusive partner.

  • At no point shall there be denial through guilt, which is extremely common given the issues related to self.

  • Keep yourself busy with some or the other activity of your choice so to keep negative thoughts or suicidal thoughts at bay.

  • Maintain a journal that you present in front of your mental health professional. It helps them to analyse your issues and needs in a better way.

We’ve seen how this travels from one generation to the other via teachings of beliefs and values and most importantly, treatment and parenting. Generation gaps also play a vital role in all this because the survival strategies used by those people in the past are different than us. They have grown up with completely different environments with different and safe to say, opposite values, ideologies, rules and norms of the society. We also saw how to train ourselves to come out of such a loop and how to identify it. Even the law does not forgive anyone for a repetitive crime. Why are we forgiving others after repeatedly ruining our lives? So, say NO to all the expectations and allegations, because self-care is not selfish.

- Piyusha Pande


If this article is a trigger for you, we recommend immediate help and support. In no way does this article focus on igniting any kind of negative feelings or thoughts towards self and or others.

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Omkar Naik | Psychologist CINQ.IN Transforming Mental Health: Discover a World-Class Clinic with an Integrated International Approach of Care" is grammatically correct Keywords : Therapist in Pune, Psychologist in Pune, Counsellors in Pune, Therapy in Pune, Marriage Counselling in Pune, Mental Health Clinic in Baner, Psychologist in Baner

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