One of the toughest things about parenting is that the results aren’t always obvious. If we use the immediate behaviour of our children as a measure of how we’re doing as parents, there will be days that we could rightly swan around with the only thing in need of adjustment being the tilt of our crown. Then there are the other days – the ones that could see us crushed by the rawness and spectacular chaos of it all. This is the messy nature of raising beautiful small humans into thriving big ones.
The messages we learn as children are powerful. Part of the reason for this is that these messages are planted before we discover our capacity to challenge and reject them. If you were raised by toxic parents, you would understand the enduring scrape of these messages, and their lasting influence on behaviour. One of the legacies of toxic parents is another generation of toxic parents. But, there is something else they can leave – an opportunity to rise above all of it and parent in ways that are more open, more informed, more loving and richer for the wisdom and insight that is fuelled by your history.
There are two ways that our own history can have an influence. The first is to repeat what we have been exposed to. The second is to drive us to push hard against it, and do things in a completely different way. You don’t have to know what that way will look like. The detail is unimportant. What’s important is the commitment to breaking the cycle.
Stopping the messages that come from toxic parents.
Here are some of the common messages that become embedded by toxic parents, and new ways to think about them.
The Old Message:
I don’t know what a good parent looks like. I’m ruining my kids.
Knowing what a good parent is NOT is as powerful as knowing what a good parent is.
You might not have a model of good parenting to guide you, but you know what good parenting is not – it’s not stingy, it’s not cruel and above all else it’s not perfect. Let your internal compass steer you – it’s that thing that wrestles with you when you wish you could have done something better. Parenting takes shape as we go. The greatest wisdom is contained within experience. The greatest parents will be those who are open to those experiences, not the ones who believe with everything in them that there is nothing more for them to know.
The Old Message.
You have to be ‘good’ to be loveable.
Nobody is always good. But you are always good enough.
Nobody is always good. We humans come with frayed edges, flaws, tempers and vast imperfections, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be brave, loving, nurturing, life-giving, rich, warm and wonderful to be around. The ones you love the most can at times feel like the most annoying, demanding disappointing people on the planet. You will feel like that to them sometimes too. All of us will make plenty of mistakes. It’s naïve to think otherwise.
Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on your flaws as they will become the things that steer your mood, your relationships and the way you see yourself. Own your own goodness – your wisdom, your courage, your fight for something better for you and everyone connected to you. You are ending a legacy of pain and toxicity and giving the generations that come after you an opportunity for a depth of love and nurturing that will be richer because of you.
The Old Message:
Arguing leads to trouble. It’s easier to agree.
Disagreements are normal and healthy.
Healthy relationships have room for independence of thought and feeling. The key is finding a healthy way to express and experiment with that independence. Love does not require compliance or submission and in strong, nurturing relationships, difference is not just tolerated, but embraced. When you were small, you may have been punished for disagreeing, but you are not small and powerless anymore. See your environment for what it is, and realise your capacity to influence it.
The Old Message:
Kids should be seen and not heard.
I should be seen and not heard.
All of us have a voice, and it’s an important one.
All of us have something unique and important to put into the world that wouldn’t be there otherwise and the only way to do this is to allow ourselves to be seen and heard. Nurture this in your kids by encouraging them to ask for what they need. Ask for their opinions and their thoughts and let your limits be around the way they speak, not around what they say. This doesn’t mean that you will always agree with their point of view. It means that you respect their right to have one. There will come a time, most likely in the thick of adolescence, when you will want your kids to be able to think independently of the pack. They will learn how to do this, and the strength and value in this, through their relationship with you.
The Old Message:
Kids should do as they’re told.
The New learning:
You are nurturing assertiveness, self-respect and independence of mind.
A child that says ‘no’ is getting beautifully acquainted with one of the most important words on the planet. Of course, its sound would be all the more sweeter if it wasn’t fired at us with military precision, but it is a word that we want them to know well, and to feel confident and strong about using. We don’t want to train the ‘no’ out of our children. Whenever you hear it (which I know will be often at mind-blowingly inconvenient times) know that your small human is experimenting with setting and protecting his or her own boundaries. It will be an experiment that will take time to master, and that’s okay.
The Old Message:
What I want doesn’t matter.
You matter. Your needs matter.
One of the most damaging lessons that unhealthy families teach is that the needs of the child aren’t important. They will have various ways of doing this, including criticism, judgement, put-downs and neglect. Eventually, the learning is that there is no point in having needs as they won’t be responded to anyway. The depression of needs will, quite literally, lead to depression and a malnourished self. We all have needs and we all need to be in an environment that is supportive of those needs. You matter and what is important to you matters. It matters not just for you, but for the people connected to you. It is difficult to thrive when the things that are important to you are being crushed.
The Old Message:
It’s discipline, and all kids need it.
If it hurts or diminishes, it’s not discipline. It’s ugly, and it’s useless.
Discipline comes from the word disciple, as in ‘to teach’. Discipline was never meant to be about punishment for the sake of punishment or jumping on everything they get wrong. In toxic families, children learn to brace, ready for the next ‘gotcha’ that is often impossible to see coming. When we pull them up too harshly for everything they get wrong, the environment feels fragile. The need for control escalates, because of what can come out of nowhere. When they get it wrong, this is an important opportunity to let them see that even when they aren’t perfect, they’re still okay, and so is getting it wrong sometimes. Influence will always be more far-reaching than control. Influence comes from being someone they want to listen to, rather than being someone they are scared of. Don’t let punishment fill the gap when you don’t know what else to do. Be okay with asking for space and time. ‘I am not happy with the way you hurt your sister. I need to think about what happens next.’ Alternatively, involve them in the process. ‘You have really hurt her feelings by calling her names. What do you think should happen next?’
The Old Message:
Kids need to control themselves.
All feelings are important, so is expressing them.
Children have an important job to do in relation to their emotions, and that is to get to understand them, and learn how to best deal with them. That isn’t going to happen if they aren’t given the space to feel all of their feelings, even the difficult ones. Anger, sadness, jealousy, spite – they are all important. The key is to guide them and for that to happen, children need to be able to experiment with their emotions, even the messiest ones. We give them something wonderful when we give them a safe, non-judgemental space to feel, and to experiment with how to manage their emotions, without being managed by them.
The Old Message:
I have absolutely no control over my life, the people around me or what they do to me.
You are powerful and can shape the world around you in a way that works for you.
In toxic families, control and power are owned completely by the toxic people. Children quickly learn that they are victims of their environment and that they have no option but to surrender and be barreled along by whatever or whoever is around them.
Realise that things have changed and slowly experiment with influencing the environment around you. When you decide, your children will follow. They might not follow straight away – you’re doing something different and they need time to adjust – but eventually they will realise that you are the one in control. That doesn’t mean they won’t push against you sometimes. They’re human and they have separate needs to yours and sometimes these will clash. Let their resistance be the evidence that they feel safe enough to give voice to their needs, and that you are creating something different and more nurturing than the toxic environment your parents created for you.
The Old Message:
When they misbehave it’s my fault. Everything is my fault.
Their growth is theirs. You can’t do it for them.
Without a doubt, toxic parents who are negligent, indifferent, uninvolved and cruel, will have a big chance of ruining children, but if you’re open to being the best parent you can be, you’re not going to be one of those. Of course we all have days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months when our parenting isn’t great, but we are all a work in progress. The greatest opportunities for learning can happen in those vastly messy moments that have us exhausted, bewildered and wondering if we’ll ever be ‘good enough’. Here’s the thing – good enough parents are great ones. Children need to find their edges. They need to scrape against ours. They need to experiment with boundaries, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and with feelings that can feel ugly at times. They need to know that mistakes are okay and that even the people we love will disappoint from time to time. As parents one of the best things we can learn – for the small humans in our lives and for ourselves, is to be okay with the mess. It there are those around you who judge and criticise and who wallow smugly at the glorious sight of your imperfections, let them. They will have imperfections of their own. Perfect people don’t exist – it’s just that their flaws will be different to yours, or perhaps a little more hidden (to them at least).
Making the difference.
The key to doing things in a healthier way is to realise when old learnings are triggering the repeat of old patterns. These responses will be so automatic that you won’t even realise they are there.
You will likely thoughts or memories or muscle memories in your body that cause you to freeze or become stressed or anxious in response to certain things. Notice your body and the thoughts and the feelings you are feeling. Are they familiar? Are they useful? What are the memories connected to this?
Now, look for the differences between then and now. You are in a new environment now, with different people to the ones you grew up with. When it comes to the automatic behaviour that no longer feels right, it is possible that your mind and your body are reacting in an old way to a new environment. You may be responding to new situations as though they are old, familiar ones – possibly when you were when you were powerless, helpless and small. Things are different now and it will make a difference if you can consciously notice how.
Notice the physical differences in the space around you. You’re not little in someone else’s space anymore. You are strong, and capable and this space is yours. You get to decide how you react.
Then, notice how you are holding yourself in your body. The body remembers and it’s likely that if you were taught to be small when you were younger, or if you learned to be invisible or diminished, that is how you will hold yourself in the world.
If you are trying to respond differently, start by changing your physical presence. This will often be easier than changing the way you think or the way you feel. Thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all related so a change in one, such as physical presence, will often lead to a change in the others. Try standing taller and stronger. You can take up as much space as feels okay. It might feel unfamiliar and it might feel awkward, but experiment with it. When you catch yourself folding or scrunching or pulling away, for example, try expanding and acting as though you have the right to be here and the right to be heard, because you do. Similarly, if you feel as though you are responding too aggressively, try holding stroking your arm affectionately before you react. It will be more difficult to react aggressively, when you are feeling nurtured.
Once you feel more in control, you will have less out of control responses. Have your anchor words. ‘Things are different now. I’m okay,’ or ‘I have a right to be here now. I’m okay.’ It might take some work to find what fits, but keep going until it feels right. Find the words that can make you feel stronger just by thinking them.
None of this will come easily or quickly. The feelings and triggers have been there for a while and they will take a while to fade, but everything you do will make a difference.
Being human is a messy business but in the mess is often where the magic lives. That’s one of the beautiful things about being human – we all get to do it in our own way.