Toxic parenting is the term I use to describe a broad range of poor parenting, childcare, school and community practices that impact upon children in ways that are detrimental to their long-term mental and emotional wellbeing. This is not to suggest that coddling children is a solution either, as per the millennial trend of ‘child worship’ we have seen, which in my view is yet another form of toxic parenting that panders to the child’s every whim, failing to provide her with realistic balance. The mistreatment of children – whether by abuse, chronic criticism or neglect, or by their elevation to celebrity status by those keen to impart the notion of specialness and entitlement, is nothing less than a pandemic in our world. Universal failures to provide children with a realistic, grounded sense of themselves and the world contributes to a society of competing egos, driven by over- or under-estimations of self and other.
The following is a cameo written by Anne, describing one of many undermining and life-shaping experiences in her childhood that contributed to her struggles with self-esteem, trauma, depression and dissociation later in life. Family cultures that stigmatise and scapegoat the innocent result in powerful, toxic messages, shame and blame within the minds of children whose parents (care-givers and other authority figures) elect to act out their own inner demons rather than taking responsibility and overcoming them. Thankfully, such experiences and the damage to personal security and confidence survivors carry into adulthood can be worked through to a mental and emotional resolution in psychotherapy. But as with all things, prevention is better than cure. The message is a simple one: treat your kids, colleagues, neighbours, family and friends as human beings and they may not need to spend years in psychotherapy in later life undoing the damage:
“When I was 12 years old, my Mother said she was taking just me out for a treat the next day (so I guess it wouldn’t have been a school day) and I remember feeling excited but also nervous, as I wasn’t used to her being kind to me. The night before she touched my cheek ever so softly as I lay in bed. I still remember that as it was so unlike her to show me any warmth at all. I was told to wash my hair the next morning and my Mother fussed with my hair and I remember a new lilac coloured ribbon for my hair and wearing my best outfit. I remember feeling bad for my sisters, and guilty, for going on a treat without them.
My Mother parked outside an unfamiliar house and I thought perhaps I would be getting my treat after she’d visited whoever she knew in this house. We entered and we sat down in a waiting room. An internal door opened and a man with grey hair asked my Mother to come in but for me to wait in the waiting room. After a short while, my Mother came out and he asked me to come in alone. My Mother sat in the waiting room. He asked me all sorts of questions and then held up picture cards and asked me to tell him what I saw in each picture. I can’t remember the questions or my answers, something about school I remember that, but I did wonder what this was all about and who was he?
I’m not sure how long I was in there but I was asked to go and sit back in the waiting room as he wanted to speak to my Mother alone again. As I sat waiting, I first heard murmuring from behind the closed door and then raised voices. Mainly my Mother’s raised voice. I remember feeling panicked as I thought I’d said something wrong and that’s what all the shouting was about. The door flew open and the look on my Mother’s face was one of intense anger as she came towards me, yanked me up quite roughly and marched me quickly out the door and into the car. As I sat in the back seat, I glanced towards the house and the man I’d seen was waving at me, but slowly. His face looked quite sad. I still didn’t know who he was, perhaps he did tell me but I don’t remember and he had spoken softly and kindly to me.
My Mother drove straight back home like a bat out of hell and I sat in the back of the car, believing that I was responsible for her anger and no doubt I was trying hard to think what I must have said to the man. I could feel her anger from the back seat. I didn’t ask her who the man was or if she was taking me for my treat now. I knew better than to ask her anything when she was so very angry. As we parked in our driveway and got out, she told me to not mention to my sisters where I’d been. I stuck to the story with my sisters but felt bad that I’d been forced to lie to them. I never did find out who that man was, why she’d taken me there, and why it was to remain a secret. Now of course, I would say he was probably a Psychiatrist and he found nothing wrong with me and this had angered my Mother which would explain her raised voice and stomping out of his home.
She tried the same trick when I was around 16 years of age. This was with our family GP, Dr Fitzgerald. For a good few weeks before she took me to see him, she kept on insisting that I was hearing my deceased maternal Grandfather’s voice and no matter how many times I said I wasn’t, she insisted I was and that this is what I needed to tell Dr Fitzgerald. She almost had me convinced – but when the appointment day came and my Mother briefly filled him in and he turned to ask me if it were true, that I was hearing my deceased Grandfather’s voice, I said “No it’s not. Mum told me to tell you I did but I don’t” (or words to that effect). I have no idea where my strength came from to say this. I was going against my Mother’s orders.
As with the Psychiatrist she took me to see at the age of 12, I never saw Dr Fitzgerald again either. I think my Mother was hell-bent on having me diagnosed with a Psychiatric disorder. I think she wanted me sectioned. I think she wanted rid of me but didn’t know how to go about it, so tried to make out I was mental – but both times she failed, mainly because I was very lucky that both the Psychiatrist and the GP were decent human beings – and perhaps they could see for themselves that I was just a normal child and teenager with a controlling, manipulative Mother.”
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