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.

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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.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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