Toxic People Affect Kids Too: Know the Signs and How to Explore a Little Deeper

Toxic People Affect Kids Too - Know the Signs. Then Explore Deeper

We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first.

Sometimes that means letting them know when we don’t support something an adult in their lives has said or done and giving them permission to close down to the influence of those who contaminate their self-esteem, their happiness and their self concept. It’s not always easy or possible to withdraw from a relationship, but with our support they can minimise the influence and impact of those broken adults who might otherwise do harm.

Toxic relationships are ones in which someone’s own negative behaviour can cause emotional damage or contaminate the way a child sees himself or herself. They can lead to anxiety, depression, physical illnesses and feelings of isolation. Children can end up blaming themselves and feeling guilt or shame. Even if there is something about our kids that needs a little bit of a nudge in a different direction, any behaviour that makes them feel less than or ashamed just won’t do it. In fact, it will do damage.

We all have an inner voice. It’s the one that tells us how we’re going, whether we’re good enough, how we think the world sees us, what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve done right. When an adult is toxic, the risk is that the inner voice of the child will pick it up and make the words their own. Children are born awesome. Our job as the adults in their lives is to make sure they know this and to minimise the effect of anyone who might influence them to feel otherwise. When children feel stupid, slow, naughty, troublesome, untrustworthy, incapable or silenced in response to the comments of any adult in their lives, it’s time for us to be their voice. 

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We adults will get it wrong sometimes. On some days, we’ll get it so wrong that it will feel like ‘right’ won’t want anything to do with us for a while, but kids are savvy and seem to know the difference between a bad day, a bad mood, bad timing and something more enduring and targeted. Our kids will look to us for confirmation and validation of what the world is telling them. Though it’s important to support the other adults in their lives as much as we possibly can, when there is an adult who is causing them harm or responding to them with bad intent, it’s equally important for us to let our children know that we don’t support that adult’s behaviour. 

Toxic people can come in the form of teachers, coaches, relatives, parents (their own and the parents of others) and friends. The only thing anyone needs to be toxic is a mouth. The potential is in all of us.

Adults should be a source of support, safety and trust for children. At the very least, they should do no harm. When they are a source of shame, anxiety or stress, the risk to the child is too much to allow it to keep going. Though it’s important to provide our kids with the opportunity to be resilient to difficult people, part of being resilient is knowing when to draw a bold heavy line between our self and another. Kids need our permission and our guidance to being able close down to people who scrape against them continuously.

This doesn’t mean that we withdraw our support from every adult who makes a decision that we or our children don’t like. We’re all human and life disappoints us all sometimes with plenty of decisions that go against us along the way. Part of becoming a successful adult is learning to bounce back from these with the capacity to sustain relationships through disagreements and disappointments.

A bad decision or a difficult relationship isn’t necessarily a toxic one. The line can be a blurry though. Toxic people are usually masters in the art subtlety and skilled at staying just behind-the-line-but-not really-but-kind-of. Fortunately, children are often skilled at picking up on when something – or someone – feels bad. I’m not talking about the cranky teacher or the day they get blamed for something that isn’t their fault. I’m talking about ongoing behaviour that feels shaming, belittling and ‘bad’. Kids might not always talk about it because they won’t always have the words, so it’s up to us as the adults in their lives to notice the changes in them and to listen when they try to tell us that something isn’t right. 

The Signs.

Kids won’t always be able to say when something doesn’t feel right, particularly if it’s in response to an adult whose authority they’ve been taught to respect or whose intentions they’ve been taught to trust. The first sign that something isn’t right might be in their behaviour. Here are some things to watch out for. Remember, you’re looking for changes from their normal:

  1. They seem withdrawn. 
  2. They don’t want to go to somewhere they previously had no problems going (e.g. school, soccer, dancing). (Remember that you’re looking for changes from the norm. If your child has always had trouble saying goodbye at school drop-off, that doesn’t mean there is someone there that they are having trouble with. What’s more likely is that they’re a little bit anxious about leaving you.) 
  3. They cry more easily than usual, or more often.
  4. They have a lack of energy. 
  5. They aren’t as interested in the things they used to enjoy.
  6. They have unexplained tummy aches, headaches or other pains or illnesses.
  7. They’re clingy.
  8. They’re aggressive or more cranky than usual.
  9. They seem worried more than usual.
  10. They seem more controlling than usual. (When there is something that feels out of control in one part of their lives, a normal response is to try to take control over other things.)
  11. They’re treating their siblings differently. (They might treat younger people in their lives the way they feel that someone is treating them.)

Now Explore a Little Deeper. Have the Conversation.

If you suspect there is somebody in your child’s life who is causing trouble, have the conversation. Here are some questions to guide you in your chat with them:

  1. So – if you had to say five people you like being around, who would you say? What makes them good to be around? Is there anyone who doesn’t feel good to be around?
    Start with something that’s easy to talk about so your child will (hopefully!) feel relaxed enough and engaged enough with you to speak about something that might be more difficult.
  2. Would you say they’re mostly good to be around or mostly bad? What makes it so? How do you feel when you’ve been with that person? 
    Look particularly for how your child feels about him/herself. Remember the danger of toxic people is damage to the self-concept.
  3. What do you think that person thinks of you? 
    Adults don’t have to like everyone and they don’t have to like your child. Regardless of how an adult feels though, it’s critical that any negative personal opinions are kept away from the child. An adult might disapprove of a certain behaviour, but the child should always feel supported and liked regardless. This needs to be conveyed verbally as well as non-verbally. It’s not enough for an adult to say, ‘But I’ve never said anything bad.’ Good. But what about the non-verbals?
  4. What does that person think of other kids?
    If your child says this person is grumpy with everyone, there’s less chance that the things the adult says or does will be taken personally, which minimises the chances of doing damage. If your child says the adult is fine with everyone else but doesn’t like him or her, then that sound you hear will be alarm bells.
  5. Does this person treat you the same as the other kids or a bit differently? If differently, how?

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These questions are more for you. Your child might not be able to answer them directly but they are important ones to consider. The answers might be more likely to come up through observation, passing comments or in direct conversation with the adult in question …

  1. Is your child’s feelings towards this adult different to their feelings towards other adults?
    If there are a few adults the child feels like this about, it may be a symptom of a broader problem, rather than one problem person. Is your child misinterpreting? Taking things personally that aren’t intended that way? Acting in a way that’s problematic?
  2. Does the adult exclude your child from activities or give your child less opportunities than other kids who are also under the adult’s supervision or care.
  3. Is the adult quick to blame the child for their (the adult’s) own behaviour, mood or feelings?
  4. Does the adult lack empathy towards your child and fail to understand why your child feels or behaves as he or she does?
  5. Does the adult often find fault with your child?
  6. What is it that the adult does that causes distress to the child?
    See if you can get a handle on exactly what it is about the adult that upsets the child. It may just be that the adult has a loud voice, or a way of speaking that sounds more abrasive than is intended. A measure is whether the adult does this with everyone or just your child.
  7. Does the adult interfere with the child’s opportunities?
  8. Does the adult pathologise your child and try to convince you, (or particularly in the case of a parent) health professionals or the child they there is something wrong with the child?
  9. Does that adult do anything that undermines the child’s capacity to cope or their belief that they can cope (with whatever)?
    This and the previous are perhaps the most toxic of toxic behaviours and are often at the hands of a parent, particularly in divorce of separation. In this case, the adult (typically the parent) will actively tell the child they won’t or can’t cope with a situation. They will give the impression that they are doing this for the child’s benefit. The adult may interfere with the child’s relationships or attempts to try new things – ‘to protect them’. In more severe instances, the adult may seek for the child to be medicated (unnecessarily). The true effect of this may be to deepen the child’s dependance on the adult and to undermine the child’s potential for independence and growth. This is most often done to interfere with the relationship between the child and the other parent.

Kids are born with a beautifully intact sense of who they are. As the adults in their lives, it’s up to us to see to it that their self-concept stays as dent free as possible. Of course there will be scars and bruises – they’re an unavoidable part of learning and being better, stronger, wiser and braver, but when deeper cuts are made into that self-concept, the damage is harder to repair. Sometimes it changes people forever.

As parents, we are told to support teachers, coaches and other adults in the lives of our children and this is true – to a point. What’s more important is supporting our own children in drawing the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to other people. Sometimes that means openly naming unacceptable behaviour. When did it ever become more important to support an adult than to protect a child?

I’m not talking about openly speaking out against a decision that neither you nor the child like, or behaviour that might have gone against what you would prefer. There are plenty of times to ‘suck it up’ and get on with it. What I’m talking about is the behaviour that does damage. It can be a hard line to draw, and given the finesse with which toxic people have mastered the art of subtlety, it can also be a blurry one. Remember this though – you know your child, and you will know when something is changing them – the way they are, the way they see themselves. Trust yourself to know when something isn’t right. If it feels ‘off’, then it probably is. 

We can’t stop toxic people coming into the lives of our children. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as wrong. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to adults should never be used against them by those broken adults who might do harm. 

Our kids are amazing. Let’s do whatever we have to to keep them that way.

(This article was reprinted with my permission on The Good Men Project.)

104 Comments

MB

This was a very thoughtful and well written article! I wish that my mother could have read this when I was growing up.
She allowed my stepfather to inflict verbal and emotional abuse for years.
Sometimes I still feel that she loved him more, because a parent who cares about their child wouldn’t allow that.

He is an extremely toxic person and sadly, he ruined my life in many ways.
To all the parents out there reading this…please beware of adults around your kids who might harm them emotionally, verbally and otherwise.
It’s important to protect children from this type of damage. My mother saw the harm that was being done to me and she did absolutely nothing about it.

We, as adults, need to step up and speak out when children are being hurt.
We can’t stay silent when a child is being abused…because it IS abuse.

Reply
MB

This was a very thoughtful and well written article! I wish that my mother could have read this when I was growing up.
She allowed my stepfather to inflict verbal and emotional abuse for years.
Sometimes I still feel that she loved him more, because a parent who cares about their child wouldn’t allow that.

He is an extremely toxic person and sadly, he ruined my life in many ways.
To all the parents out there reading this…please beware of adults around your kids who might harm them emotionally, verbally and otherwise.

Reply

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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