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. 

[irp posts=”1086″ name=”Teaching Kids How To Set & Protect Their Boundaries (And Keep Toxic People Out)”]

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?

[irp posts=”867″ name=”Positive Discipline For Anxious (and Non-Anxious) Kids”]

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

ml

Can toxic people harm children while being nice to them? My children’s grandmother is most definitely not a healthy person to interact with, but is apparently recently trying to build some semblance of a positive relationship with us. Visits are short and we cut them off when they start to turn negative, but the children react with a lot of anxious behaviours to visits, which sets off warning bells for me, but they don’t seem to know what it is that makes them react to contact with her with such intensity. I have not probed too deeply as we have tried to keep the adult issues with the relationship separate from the children.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It really depends on what the children are picking up and why they are reacting the way they are. Is it because visits are generally stressful? Could they be picking something up from the adults in relation to the anxiety or stress connected to the visit? Or is it because of something they are picking up from her? Go with your gut on this one.

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ml

Thanks for your reply. My gut says if the children aren’t calm and happy, then something is wrong! I don’t know if there is something too subtle for me to notice happening, like tone of voice or the way things are worded to give a negative slant. Something is consistently unsettling my children, though, regardless of circumstances. It is so hard to justify limiting contact, when i can’t point to anything, and then I start to question whether there is any harm really, when their grandmother just wants to spend time with them… She has been extremely, covertly, abusive to me in the past, and I feel like I have to protect them from her, but she is their father’s mother, not mine. I only recently heard of NPD, and the description fits perfectly, but I find it very hard to get my head around the idea of someone looking as though they are a good person while being capable of all kinds of meanness.

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ml

Hey Sigmund, I found the answer to my question. The answer to “can toxic people harm children while being nice?” is YES and it is called GROOMING.

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Florencia Liaw

My daughter is 4 years old.She kind of very close to me till now.Her father is a hot tempered person.Sometimes,her father loves her in just a few minutes of playing around with her and he on to his personal stuff on handphone.My daughter sometime get on his nerves.He bursts and swings belts at her and screams at her.He even do some harsh movements on her like slaps his hand on her forehead and walks off.Her dad even shouted at me to not interfere in his way of teaching children.He even told me that pain is a while and lesson is forever.For what i think is not gonna teach my children about lessons in life.It gives them fear.By the way,my daughter is the 2nd.Her dad spend less time with both of our childrens.Is it a trauma to her?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

If somebody bigger than you, who was angry and screaming, swung a belt at you, would you feel scared or traumatised? I would. If a man who was angry and much bigger than you came up to you and slapped his hand on your forehead then walked away, would you feel scared and traumatised? I would. Why do you think it would be any different for your little girl. When adults do this sort of thing to adults it’s called assault. It is beyond me why anybody thinks it is okay to do this to a child. It’s not. Research has proven that physical punishment (e.g. smacking) does absolutely no good and can be damaging for children. Here is an article that explains that https://www.heysigmund.com/whats-wrong-with-spanking/. The research is very clear on this – pain does absolutely no good at all and has great potential to cause problems later on. The sort of things that you describe aren’t teaching your daughter anything except to be scared, ashamed, that it is okay to hit people when they don’t do what you want, and that when people love you, it’s okay for them to frighten and physically assault you.

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Diane

I am struggling at the moment with my 19 yr old daughter. She went to university and was so unhappy we allowed her to come home. Her father has always been an authoritarian and expresses that she could do better.she now has a job but her father has told her that she’s made for better things! She has over the past year become less and less outgoing she has no close friendships and rarely goes out. In Sept she had a melt down panic attack and then told me that she had been struggling with anxiety . She has seen a Dr but has waited weeks for CBT appointment. I don’t know what to do to help her.
I love her so much but not sure if it’s too much.
Her father and I have very toxic relationship. I don’t know if setting up home on our own will help her or make it worse?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s very difficult to comment without knowing more. If your daughter is watching toxic exchanges between your husband and yourself, this can’t be a good thing for her. Is this something you can work on? Are there also loving, nurturing exchanges? What does your daughter think? I would really encourage you to speak to a counsellor so you can go through the pros and cons of setting up home on your own, but with someone who is able to explore all of the information.

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Debra

My little sister-in-law is constantly being put down, misunderstood and told that something is wrong with her, by her step-mother. Her mother encourages her to be afraid of everything, and tells the child that she has all these illnesses when she really doesn’t. Her father doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, or maybe doesn’t know everything. I don’t know how to help her. She’s only eleven. I love her so much, and she talks to me about everything, and yesterday she told me “I think people would be happier without me around.” What can I do to help her? I already listen to her and hang out with her and I try to be a supportive rock for her, but I don’t think it’s enough when she experiences this stuff everyday. I was thinking about telling her school counselor about what she said, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that sort of thing, or what sort of trouble it would cause.

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Hey Sigmund

Debra you are so important in your little sister-in-law’s life. The messages that you are able to give her will push against the messages she is getting from other people. Don’t underestimate the difference you will be making by hearing her, and by letting her know that she always has someone who will listen and believe in her. Keep giving her the messages you would like her to take on for herself – that she’s wonderful, strong, brave, healthy, capable. If you are concerned about her and are worried that she may hurt herself, definitely speak to the school counsellor about it. The counsellor will be trained to deal with this and will know how best to handle things. It sounds as though your sister-in-law would really benefit from speaking to the counsellor anyway, so see if you can encourage her to do this. Offer to go with her, or to speak to the counsellor before-hand for her if that helps – sometimes the hardest part is knowing where to start. Let her know that counsellors would see lots of kids like her, and that they would be really great at knowing how to support her. Let her know that everyone needs a hand from time to time and that being brave and strong isn’t about having doing it all yourself all the time, but knowing when to ask for help. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re wonderful.

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Debra

Thanks. I’m glad to hear someone else thinks that’s the best idea, because I couldn’t think of anything else. Thanks again for taking the time to not only write the article, but also for the advice.

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Tressa

Hi, I too wonder if I am somewhat toxic. I wonder if I learned behaviors of my ex. I have been divorced 9 years and before that married for 7 years. My ex was emotionally and physically abusive. In the beginning I ran away and came back several times. Our oldest daughter witnessed things that I’m sure are in her subconscious. After a period of “goodness if you will” we had our second daughter, things went downhill again and in the end my ex put his hands on our oldest daughter. That’s when I left and divorced him. Of course it was my fault (according to him) he was distraught because I met someone else, I did have an affair. I know that was wrong. Sometimes people are brought into your life for a reason though. Long story short, we have had injunctions, supervised visits, etc… every time I ended up stopping it to appease him. My relationship did not work out since it seemed I was still married to my ex based on my behavior. My ex then left town for over a year… he came back “born again”. The intense overwhelming feeling of walking on eggshells and trying to predict him next move, feeling, or thought continued. It seemed he was creeping back in to our lives. Of course the girls love him, and I never wanted them not to. A year and a half ago he grabbed our oldest daughter again. The same way as before. She is a typical teenager now 15 and didn’t respond to her phone or something minute, but to overreact (which is an understatement) by grabbing her by the neck, threatening her life etc… making her admit things she really didn’t think… well lets just say the camels back finally got broken. I absolutely was done. I immediately got another injunction and he has not had contact with them since. I however have received emails here and there the most recent telling me we all hate him since we don’t talk to him. I had said before I pray for him, his response is pray for what? for me to die? and then its followed up by Jesus wants me to treat him as I would want to be treated and one day I’ll be judged for this. Its just the old feelings and still trying to heal from years of this mentality.. after a year I have come a long way but there are days I doubt myself and feel extreme guilt. I believe he is mentally ill, and toxic but the other half of me feels bad for him. I don’t want the girls to resent me. The oldest totally understands and says if she doesn’t ever talk to him again it will be ok but she would like to one day.. I think my 10 year old is different. Its hard because she hasn’t seen what I have and has a slightly different perception. Just having a bad day ….

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Hey Sigmund

Tressa you are so right to protect your daughter from physical and emotional harm. It can be so difficult co-parenting with an ex who has caused so much pain to the family. The thing to try to keep in mind (and I know how hard this is) is that your daughters have to find their own way of having a relationship with him. As long as he isn’t damaging them and as long as he isn’t a risk to them, let them have the space to explore what a relationship with him would mean for them. When they are younger, kids tend to see only the good in their parents because it is so important to them to believe that they came from something good. As they grow older, they are more able to separate who they are from who their parents are and this is when they will make up their own minds about what sort of relationship they want, and whether they want one at all. If you give your girls the freedom to love their dad, they will have no reason to resent you. Again, this depends on the contact being the type that won’t cause them harm. Your girls are very lucky to have you – they sound like they are in wonderful hands.

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Pete

I have a six year old step-son who does not know boundaries well. When playing with other kids a change in an activity is view by my son as an injustice towards him. For example just the other day he was playing soccer with a neighbors kid and fell down while the two where trying to get control of the ball. He viewed this as an attack on him and then proceeded to kick the ball at the other kid in retaliation. This has become an ongoing problem and he reacts this way often, and when removed from the situation he throws a tantrum. When speaking to his mother on this issue she does not discipline him but talks to him after the fact. She is often told that he was knocked down or this or that happened but it is not that one sided. His mother will always take his side of things and suggest that the other kid was in the wrong. I feel that this is sending the wrong message and it is going to intensify his negative reactions and not reduce them. If I speak up about it and give my opinion she then tells me that I am not supportive of her child, but this is not the case. I am worried for him and his future relationships if this continues. Any advise would be greatly appreciated.

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Hey Sigmund

Pete it’s not at all uncommon for six year olds to still be learning where the boundaries are, and how to protect them without hurting their relationships. I’m not sure if by discipline, you mean punishment or guidance. Discipline is always meant to be about teaching (as in ‘disciple’), not punishment. It sounds as though his mother is working hard to do this. It takes time for children to learn the right way to do things and the main thing is that he is being taught the differences between the right way and the wrong way.

There are so many reasons your son could be behaving this way, but I don’t believe that kids ever behave badly for the sake of behaving badly. All behaviour is a way to get a need met, even if it is a dreadful way to meet the need. In your stepson’s case, it might be a need to feel safe or to restore a sense of empowerment or it might be something completely different. Without talking to him, we can only speculate.

If he is interpreting the behaviour of other children as an attack, it is possible that his fight or flight response is particularly sensitive. This is nothing to worry about – it happens in lots of kids. If he feels vulnerable in a situation – and it only has to be for a moment, he might take to the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. The message needs to be that even if the other kids were wrong, that doesn’t make your stepson’s behaviour right. Dealing with a situation aggressively is never the right way to resolve anything and you’re right – if it keeps up it could get in the way of his relationships. At the moment, you and his mother have a great opportunity to teach him some valuable skills. The most important thing is to do this gently and without shaming him. He is probably already feeling vulnerable and he won’t hear anything you say unless he feels connected and safe with you, and free from judgement. Here are some articles that might help:
>> Anxiety or Aggression? When anxiety looks like anger, tantrums or meltdowns https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/ (I’m not suggesting at all that your step son has anxiety, but there are strategies in this article that might be helpful.)
>> Building Emotional Intelligence in Children: Anger & how to be the boss of your brain https://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/.

I hope these help. He is lucky to have you watching out for him.

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Ellen

Fantastic read, other day my daughter age 13 was playing out with cousins age 9,10, they was messing about and daring each other to throw sticks in my cousins neighbors garden, the neighbour then came out and called my 13 year old a little slag!! Said she hope she gets raped! This was heard by another adult, I was in shock, the day after the neighbour rang the police about my daughter throwing stones at her window, nobody else just my daughter and even told the police it was my daughters language she didn’t like! Feel totally out of my depth here!

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Hey Sigmund

Oh no that’s awful!It sounds like the best way to protect your daughter is to keep her well away from the neighbour. Your daughter and her cousins may or may not have been doing the wrong thing, and if they were it’s important to speak with them about this, but that’s a separate issue and whatever they did, it in no way deserved such a vile response. The lack of empathy and self-control showed by your neighbour to say something so terrible is worrying. Let your daughter know that she didn’t deserve it and that some people, even adults, don’t know how to behave and that it’s best to stay away and not engage at all.

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Anonymous

Growing up at the age of 5 my parents divorced. We live with my grandmother would didn’t really like me much and I would often see that the other grandkids around her were clearly treated differently to me. I figured that I wasn’t pretty, smart or good enough. I grew up doing things for myself discovered my independence as a daughter and sister and carried on because that’s what my worth is. years later I got married and after 2 years I had my daughter, my mother in law was a complete nightmare she took over made me feel like my daughter was not mine and would often tell me that I just gave birth to her she belongs to me. for a while this would go on and other things which made me very uncomfortable, sad and angry all at once. I struggle bonding with daughter to date she is 8 years old turning 9 developed and attitude, locks her baby brother(five) outside of the house tells him to do the stuff she knows I hate. I am afraid I may be a toxic mother. I always expect her to follow the rules, push her to be independent and I am so afraid of any of my kids going through bad experiences and I think I may giving it to them. I try so hard to teach them about life and the world out there and shout and scream when I just had it with all the nonsense. I care so much for them that I may be shedding on more negativity to get them to listen and behave in the way that would make most parents proud. the thing is I get that they are kids and I want the best for them I just think I am doing it all wrong. how do I help and bond with my kids so they know that even through discipline I love, care and want the best for them.

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Hey Sigmund

I can hear how much you love your kids and how much you want to be good for them. I also understand how hard it is when you’ve grown up with the sort of messages you received growing up. Try to keep in mind that making mistakes is one of the ways that your daughter will learn some things and grow into a happy, healthy adult. When she does make mistakes, try to find the lesson she can learn and talk to her about it. Still have your boundaries around what is okay and what isn’t, but when she does the wrong thing, let her know what she has got wrong and the lesson she can learn. If you need consequences, do that, but they need to be quick and they need to make sense. The problem with yelling and criticising – as much as that’s exactly what you might feel like doing – is that it doesn’t make sense to them. Especially when they would get into trouble if they spoke like that. All parents yell sometimes – I know how hard to keep it together. When you do yell, let her know that you realise there was a better way to deal with the situation and chat to her about whatever it is was that she did wrong. At the same time, let her know when she does something well. Remember our job is to teach them, not punish them. Here are some articles that might help:

>> Breaking the Cycle of Toxic Parenting – How to Stop The Old Toxic Messages for Good https://www.heysigmund.com/breaking-the-cycle-of-toxic-parenting/

>> An Age by Age Guide for What To Expect From Kids and Teens https://www.heysigmund.com/developmental-stage/

>> How to Avoid Shaming Your Child and Keep Strong, Loving Boundaries https://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-avoid-shaming/

I hope this helps.

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Michael

Thanks for the great article. I have long suspected that my wife’s parenting is toxic and could be harming my children. I have that underlying feeling you describe that something in not right. The kids are constantly being told they are misbehaving in an angry hostile tone. Typically, the first thing I hear when I walk in the door at the end of the day (with the kids present) is that the kids have been behaving badly. I was never treated this way as a child and it disturbs me to think about how unpleasant this must be for my children. Lately, my 8 year old daughter appears to be out of control. She is more often than not upset about something and yelling at everyone in the house throughout the day. I struggle with whether it is better to stay married and act as a “buffer” for the kids or separate and give them a healthier environment at least part of the time.

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Hey Sigmund

Michael your intuition is a powerful thing. I completely understand what a difficult decision this is. Don’t underestimate the enormous difference you will make by being a loving, supportive nurturing presence in their lives. You will be this way for them whether you decide to stay in the marriage or leave. You will have such an important role in giving them an alternate view of themselves, the world and the people in it. They are so lucky to have you.

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Denise

Great article. So helpful. Our child has been experiencing anxiety, sleeplessness and depression since entering a new school. Our findings reveal the principal actually asked an 11 year old if he had a behavioral disorder. Another teacher made fun of him when he asked for help with a math problem. His doctor found him to have no behavioral issues but was deeply troubled by the sleeplessness and depression caused by this school. She urged us to resolve these problems and get our happy child back. Would appreciate any information or article on how to deal with these toxic people directly.

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Hey Sigmund

Oh no this is awful! The most important thing is for your child to know that what happened was wrong – because adults aren’t always right. Second, I would be talking to the school principal and making the impact of what was said to your child clear. Some adults say these sort of things not meaning to do harm, but with no idea of how much damage they can do. Have an open, gentle, generous conversation with the principal and the teacher. Hold back from blame – it will only make them defensive and you won’t be heard. It is possible that they may become defensive, and explain why there was nothing wrong with what they said. If this happens, make it clear that the action and intention isn’t what’s important. What’s important is the impact and how it is responded to. Come from the position that they probably didn’t mean to hurt your child, but since these things were said there has been a noticeable shift in your child’s behaviour. Let them know what the doctor has said. Again, try to be as generous and gracious as you can. You want to clearly get your message across and let it be known that you will be a strong voice for your child, but you don’t want to give either of them any reason to further target your child. Let them know that you are really open to hearing if there are issues in relation to your child that you need to know about, but that shaming your child is not good for anyone. Ask them for their commitment that if your child needs help in class there will not be ridicule or shaming. Let them see you as a strong – and very reasonable – voice for your child. Stay calm and open to what they have to say – you will be more likely to gain their respect and have your own message heard. Then listen to what they have to say and, if necessary, work out a plan that is more constructive than what they have done.
Here are some other articles that may help if you haven’t already read them. There is nothing your child could have done that would have warranted this sort of response.
>> https://www.heysigmund.com/teaching-kids-how-to-set-boundaries-and-keep-toxic-people-out/
>> https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/ (this link will take you to the collection of anxiety articles).
I hope your child is able to find comfort soon.

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Jennie

Great article, I wish I read this earlier!

I had a long time relationship with a toxic person; his thought is negative. I can’t deny that I could count his helpfulness, and grateful about it. Only and only when things go beautiful, he bragged. I never understand why but beard through the moments or twisting the fortunes to be less wonderful than itself.

One thing bug me the most that he don’t like my son, and he did convinced me that my son is severely destructive. I believed him! However, my instinct tell me that I will love and accept my son regardless whoever he is, I took the challenge.

When my relationship was pending, my son was in better mood. And now, the teenager boy had restored his true personality and make me a proud parent =)

Thanks for your work again.

Love!

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Hero

My little sister has been having trouble recently. She is 5 years old. She used to love school and dancing but recently she’s been saying things like ‘nobody’s nice at school’ and ‘I don’t have any friends’. She has become more aggressive, often opting to hit someone that annoys her and has seemed more nervous and sick recently. My brother has ADD and does occasionally burst out in rage that contains swearing, shouting and damage to items. I also fear that I may be too harsh on her. Please tell me our thoughts. My parents are worried, but of course I am not a parent, so I need to know if there is anything I can do.

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Hey Sigmund

It’s wonderful that you are watching out for your sister. It’s very difficult to say what might be going on for her. The best thing for you to do is to let her know that you love her no matter what and that you are there for her. If something is upsetting her, what she needs more than anything is someone she can trust and feel safe with. That person can be you. Let her know that you are there if she ever wants to talk to you, but don’t force her to talk. Play with her and spend time with her so she can feel as though you’re there. If she says things like, ‘nobody’s nice at school,’ it can be really helpful to ask her what she means by that. ‘Who is one person who isn’t nice?’ ‘What do they do that isn’t nice?’ Let her know that you want to understand and you would really like it if she could give you more information. The main thing is just being there, loving her and making it easy for her to talk to you if that is what she wants. She is very lucky to have you.

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Alicia

Thank you so much for writing this piece. My daughter has been struggling with having to spend time at her father’s house (who is a very toxic person). She is afraid to speak up to him and tell him how she really feels. You provided some great advice about teaching our kids that it is ok to recognize that a person and their behavior is wrong (even if it is her own father).

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Alicia. It’s such a hard thing for any child to realise that parents can feel bad to be around. I hope the information is able to bring your daughter some strength and comfort when she spends time with her father. It’s great that she has you to guide her through it.

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Nadia

How about, toxic grandparents? I’m a full-time working mom (school teacher), I have a 3 year old and 1 year old. My father (ex-military, oldest of 7 siblings) was caretaker of my kids for only 2 days in the week.

Long story short: I ended up telling my dad in a long letter (he is not the kind to sit and listen to anybody without interrupting) that I thought it was best he didn’t care for my children anymore.

I listed the things he did that were not healthy: always complaining, not accepting different viewpoints, always criticizing and never praising, he has never apologized for anything or has admitted any faults, etc…. and I even mentioned how I am aware that his childhood was probably very marked somehow, and of course his military background….

He would micromanage my 3 year old, (he wouldn’t let her hold her own spoon, basically rushed her and told her when to swallow, made her go to the bathroom instead of letting her warn him to which she is still struggling with, didn’t let her do toddler things like jump, run, would complain about her to me as soon as I got home instead of sharing the good things she did, always commented on my parenting/my husband/my food/my home, the list goes on)

I feel that I did the right thing. For a long time I felt very weary about dismissing him from his ‘duties’ because he always was on time and provided food and was reliable at my asking (his military side, I’m sure). But the offhand comments and subtle jabs were too much for me and my husband. I didn’t want it affecting her.

It’s been two months since I wrote him the letter, he hasn’t mentioned it. He no longer takes care of them those 2 days. My daughter’s anxiety (best adjective I can think of to describe her) has toned down. She loves him like crazy, but I felt I had to step in.

The problem is, he hasn’t brought it up (mom my said to my husband that my dad spent the whole day crying the day he read the letter). I don’t plan on bringing it up. I don’t know how I feel or how he would feel if I ask them (my parents) to come in for several hours to babysit occasionally since I handed him that letter. Will he feel accepted? Would he think I make no sense because I didn’t want him to care for them, and now I do for 3 hours?

Our relationship is a little rocky, has never been conversational, but I’m trying to get past that.

Thanks for the great article.

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Hey Sigmund

You did the right thing. It’s so important that you listened to your intuition on this. It’s there for a reason. Parenting is done a lot differently now to the way our parents did it because we’ve learned a lot more about child development and the brain and the impact that certain behaviours have on children. Perhaps if our parents’ generation had that insight, they would have parented differently and possible be different grandparents. It sounds as though your grandfather has taken things personally, which is understandable. It’s a difficult situation. One thing that might help is to have the conversation with him (or another letter?) about how you’re grateful for his presence in the lives of your children and that he is really important to them, but parenting has changed. No doubt, by the time we have grandchildren there will be further changes and it will be up to us to understand those changes. He has done the best he could do with the information he had, but there is a wealth of new information that sees the old ways of dealing with children as harmful, whether intentional or not. It couldn’t have been easy to write the letter, but you did it in strength and with the greatest love for your children. You are a wonderful mother.

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Nadia

Thank you for your reply and for confirming that I made the right decision. My father has been more careful with what he says ever since the letter. My parents have mentioned that their intentions are for the best, but again, the varying opinions have always been a crutch. I’ve come to just agree to disagree, but sometimes my father has, in the past, objected with his ‘correct’ opinion.

Communication has been strained because they are always quick to judge, worry about every childhood danger, and give advice when it hasn’t been sought. It is hard to get past conversations that have to do with the weather, really. But hopefully things will improve. Thanks again.

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Cindy

Reading this comment has helped me realize that what I have done is the best thing for my children. I have an extremely toxic husband (soon to be ex-husband) who has blamed me for everything and never taking ownership of his own mistakes. His mother has taken care of my 3 children since the day they were born. Because of my job at that time, i worked shift work and found it difficult to find someone to care for my children during nights and 16 hour shifts. Recently, about 4 months ago i got into a huge argument with my mother in law who lived in my home. She was blaming me for my husband cheating on me. I sent a text to her other daughter in law asking her to please move our mother in law to her home because she was provoking me to get physical with her, which i didn’t want because i had a lot to lose. She willingly took her to her home and since then, i have had my now 3 year old son in day care and my 2 older daughters in regular school. But my oldest who was the most attached to her grandma has been the one most affected. because whenever grandma comes over, she tells my daughter that she will be moving back in soon. Eventhough, she knows very clearly that this will not be happening. but this gives anxiety to my 6 year old daughter because she misses her grandma. It hurts me so much to see how she hurts my daughter (maybe unintentionally). I have however seen how when she is not around, my daughter is closer to me. But in her eyes, there is nothing bad her grandma can do to her.

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Lelia Wes Schott

really great article. thank you for taking the time to write this for us.

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Sue

Thanks for the post and the comments and replies have been insightful as well. I recognize my own damaged yet striving parenting in all of it. I question my own level of toxicity with my child and spouse. Awareness doesn’t always bring change and I struggle with that. I do acknowledge with my child that I struggle to be a ‘healthy’ parent and that has to do we me not her. I guess trying to mitigate the damage.
My biggest concern is that my child has been exposed to an extremely toxic coach on top of having teachers who may not fit the full definition of toxic but they have their own issues. I have tried to have compassion and model that for my child to try to build resilience and compassion in her. In the end though I have had to take my daughter out of the toxic situations but not soon enough to prevent damage. The self loathing, self blaming, anxiety carrying person she is now was not who she entered the world as. She definitely has her own role in some of what has happened but nothing beyond being a normal developing child. I have spoken to her in the ways that you mention as far as modeling boundaries and talking about how the adult isn’t being fully healthy, how the adult probably didn’t have their needs met as a child, etc. But, there has been damage because I didn’t recognize early enough what was happening and this exposure was ongoing for 2 to 3 years with the coach during the years of age 9 to 12, which are critical years for budding self awareness. My question is, what do I do now to help repair the damage done? How does she release this negative self image? It has a spiral effect in that the negative self view now creates negative behaviors in other situations that trigger her from her previous experience with the toxic individual.

Thank you for your post.

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Hey Sigmund

I’m sorry your daughter has had to battle toxic people in her life – nobody should have to. I need you to know that we all get it wrong sometimes. Parenting is the hardest job in the world – it really is – and none of us are perfect at it. Awareness doesn’t always bring change straight away, but it does eventually and in fact is the most important part. It’s okay for our kids to see us getting it wrong. What’s important is that we’re quick to own it when we do – and this comes through really clearly from your comment that you do this.
Coaches and teachers can do untold damage. I will be posting this week about practical ways to help kids when they’ve have had toxic people in their lives. The most important thing you can do now is to build her up. We all need a lot more positive experiences to make up for the damage done by one negative one. When the damage has been consistent and lengthy, there’s be the need for a lot of positive comments and feedback. There can never be too much. Don’t worry if it seems like none of it is getting in – keep doing it anyway because something will be getting through.
Your daughter sounds as though she is taking on the opinions of her coach as her own. This is called introjection – when we ‘swallow whole’ the beliefs or opinions that belong to other people, without looking at whether they are valid, true or useful to us. They become automatic thoughts and the damage is done because we act on them as though they’re true without questioning them. What is the biggest message she has taken from her coach? This is the one that needs to be pulled apart and pushed against. Look at what her coach had to gain from giving her this message? Talk to her and pull it apart, with a view to showing her that people are motivated for all sorts of reasons to be mean and often this has nothing to do with the truth. (It sounds as though you are doing a good job of this already.) Then, look at what your daughter might have to gain from believing this. Does it keep her at arm’s length from people? Does it stop her trying things? Taking risks? Failing? Being rejected? It makes sense that if she has had people in her life who have shamed her for doing the wrong thing that she would want to protect herself from doing the wrong thing in the future. It’s a really sensible thing to do. Point this out to her, but also point out that it’s also stopping her from doing the things she might want to do, so it’s important to leave the coach’s ‘stuff’ with the coach and establish opinions and beliefs that are hers. If one of the reasons she’s owning the coach’s messages is to protect herself from future damage (which is a really valid reason by the way, even if it’s not particularly useful), then it’s important to remind her that other people won’t respond to her making mistakes or doing the wrong thing the way her coach did. Look at the things that are different between new teachers/coaches/people and the old coach. How is the environment different? Are the people kinder? Do they believe in her more? How is she different? Older? Stronger? Smarter than before? When we’ve been hurt, it’s normal to respond to the world as though we might be hurt in the same way again, so it’s important to look at how the new things or the new environment is different to the old one. Then look at how she can be different.
A counsellor might really be able help your daughter to process through this. It’s important to have the conversations at home as well, but if your daughter is stuck and the damage is difficult to repair, counselling can help your daughter process through this and strengthen her against the toxic beliefs that are hurting her.
I really hope you are able to stop being hard on yourself. You sound really in tune with what your daughter is going through and it sounds as though you are a really steady support for her. It’s not easy knowing what to do for our kids, especially when they’re hurting, but you’re supporting her, talking with her, loving her with everything you have. It sounds to me as though you’re giving your daughter everything you’re able to.

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Seren

You touch on question I’d love to hear your perspective on: Diagnosis of kids.
Sometimes it’s a case of pathologizing a child, and, as you describe above, convincing them that they can’t do something under the guise of protecting them. Creating dependent children with a negative identify is the last thing I ever want to do with diagnosis.

But as a psychologist, I do assessments of children who are often in need of a diagnosis. “There’s nothing wrong with you, just get with the program and fly right,” is another form of invalidation. I’ve had a number of surprisingly young patients thank me, sincerely, for helping them begin to understand themselves (beginning with a diagnosis).

Parents who are separating will often polarize around a puzzling child, with one denying any problem and the other insisting on the need for diagnosis and intervention.

Can you write more about this sometime? When does a label help a child to see themselves in a kinder mirror, and when does it interfere with that? When is it “toxic” to diagnose, and when is it “toxic” to refuse to believe a diagnosis?

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Hey Sigmund

This is such a hard one isn’t it and one I’ve struggled with myself in practice. You’re absolutely right – parents who invalidate the needs of their child in relation to needing extra support or a specific type of support in response to a diagnosis can also do damage – though for the most part, parents do pretty incredible things with the right information. It’s been something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. I don’t know that the diagnosis is as toxic as what a parent might do with it, particularly if there is a greater need to ‘punish’ the other parent in the case of divorce or separation (‘he/she can’t cope with going to your house for the weekend because he/she is anxious/depressed/has adhd/whatever’ or ‘look what you’ve done by leaving us – you’ve made him/her anxious/depressed/whatever’) than there is to look after the needs of the child. The other problem of course is that because diagnosis also hinges a lot around reports from parents, it can be hard to know when the part of the spectrum has been reached as to warrant a diagnosis. A diagnosis can be really important to give a context for treatment and support. It’s when it’s used for anything other than that that it becomes an issue. Even then, it’s most likely not the diagnosis that’s the problem (provided it’s based on accurate information, though this can be sometimes difficult) but the toxic adults involved and what they’re doing with that diagnosis or what they did to obtain this diagnosis. It’s been something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. I’d like to see a conversation about this – not because I’ve seen a lot of it, but because when it happens (either when a diagnosis is invalidated or when a diagnosis is used to hamper a child (by keeping them dependant, limiting their potential, contaminating their self-concept, interfering with their relationships) the damage it does can be enormous. I really appreciate your views on this.

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Claudia Koch

I grew up in a very toxic environment, and I’m afraid I had passed this on to my only daughter, which pains me beyond description. I had looked for answers and relief from the pain in the Gospel, in counseling, in drugs, you name it! But it seems to methat it keeps comin back in moments of stress or grief, and I can hardly control it. But there’s a book called The Compassionate Mind which helps to see the ‘monster side’ in us and others from a more human point of view. It’s not easy to “draw a line”, specially when you’re talking about family, but we can develop sympathy and ways of treating each other in a more compassionate manner, so we all can grow in the process of clearing the air. As long as we give room for love to permeate our thoughts and actions, we should be ok, me thinks!
Let me know when you write about ‘how to handle the toxicity inside and around us”! 😉

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you for sharing this. You’re working hard on being the best version of yourself and it’s important to acknowledge that. You’re so right about the importance of love and compassion but the most important people for us to turn this on is toward is ourselves.

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dee

When I first read the title I thought how am I toxic as a parent? We all have our flaws and carry baggage. I don’t think it’s about protecting your child as much as teaching them how to set up boundaries, but also interpreting what people are saying. If it’s something negative always being said,letting your child know that what that person, whoever-including parents, is about them-not the child. Quite frankly some people can be awful and words and opinions can hurt and often stick around a long time. It’s not about a child being perfect or preventing failures- they will fail and they will know it. Letting a child know that failure is expected and is part of the learning process. No one needs a slap in the face. We can all approach things in a positive manner. I believe in mutual respect and teaching and modeling healthy relationships. A lot of the past generations didn’t get the communication part right. communication is key and this article is helping parents talk to.their kids. I had awful anxiety starting at 9, i never told my mom what formed those anxieties until I was an adult.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so right – it’s so important to teach our kids about boundaries and to have the conversation with them to help them make sense of things that happen or things that are said. Some toxic people are so brutal though that regardless of how well we teach our kids to set their own boundaries, the manipulative, slippery nature of the toxic person means that they will think nothing of trampling on the boundary and then setting fire to it. I’m not talking about the adult who makes a mistake, has a bad day or ‘loses it’ now and then and says angry things. Kids certainly need to know that it’s okay to make mistakes or to have things not turn out as expected, but toxic adults will go further than this. Their behaviour is deeply damaging and the results can still be seen in adulthood. They will target a child, often when the parents or caring adults aren’t around and shame them, humiliate them, yell or criticise – more than would be expected of an adult who might be having a bad day or who might be responding to behaviour that is less than ideal. Toxic people can do lasting damage to a child’s self-concept, their trust, their confidence and the self-esteem if they’re left unchecked. Sometimes however hard we work to teach our kids boundaries and how to be resilient, the brutal nature of a toxic adult means that we, as the adult in that child’s life who is watching over them, might have to be their voice, their shield and their protection from a person who will barrel through any boundary and justify why the child deserves to be so badly treated. Sometimes it might be speaking to the adult, sometimes it’s publicly withdrawing our support for the adult, or withdrawing the child from the adult’s reach. It’s also an important way to model to the child that they are worth fighting for. The message being that ‘I’ll fight for you (I’ll insist on better treatment, let go of something that feels bad for you) because you’re worth it. When you’re old enough I hope that you will fight for yourself like I do.’
I think one of the things we’ve learnt from our parents (or from what our parents’ generation didn’t do) is the importance of conversation. Thank you for being a part of it and for keeping it going.

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aimz

I carry alot of resentment towards the father of my two amazing kids he was a controlling angry and constantly put me down I don’t put my kids down but sometimes I feel I’m not a joyful and empathetic parent as I should be some days I wake up and don’t want to face the day which is not a good attitude to pass on to my children is there anyway to snap out of this resentment ?

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Hey Sigmund

You’ve broken free of this man, but resentment will keep him beside you. The best antidote to resentment is compassion and gratitude. I know how hard this is, but you can’t be angry at someone you feel sympathy for, and you can’t resent the past when you’re grateful for the present. People aren’t born controlling and angry – they become that way in response to the lackings in their own lives. This might be a lack of love, validation, acceptance, control, safety, security. I don’t know because it will be different for everyone but you might have an idea of what his unfulfilled important needs are. You don’t need to forget how you felt with him and you don’t need to accept or find excuses for his behaviour, but if you can understand it in the context of his life, it will make your resentment easier to let go of. It’s also important to be compassionate to yourself. Sometimes the only way through something is to feel it. Some days might feel worse than others, and that’s okay. Acknowledge your anger, grief, guilt, whatever it is you’re feeling, then let it go. Here is an article that might help. https://www.heysigmund.com/letting-go-how-to-master-the-art/ Have in your mind what letting go looks like and feels like then let it happen. Do you imagine literally letting go of the strings? Do you imagine feeling lighter, happier, more joyful? How would you feel physically different if you were to let go of the resentment? If you feel like you’ve been stuck for a while, counselling might be a way to shift it. Above all else, remember than you’re very normal. Give yourself the love and time to heal and you will get through this.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you. And yes – I love the comments that are left in response to the posts. There’s always plenty of wisdom, support and food for thought. They Hey Sigmund community is a pretty awesome one.

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Serena Patterson

I love almost all of you columns, but this one is a bit vague–could we have some more concrete markers for identifying the toxic adults vs. the ones with constructive criticism? As a start, I’m thinking:

“Green lights”
a) Empathy. Toxic adults don’t empathize when they’ve hurt the child’s feelings. They look pleased, or amused, or gloating. Constructive critics show signs that they know the child may feel hurt, and that they care about the child. They look sad, or try to help the child to feel better and have hope.
b) Feeling liked. The toxic person makes it personal; we feel that they don’t like us. Other people around usually notice it, too. “That teacher doesn’t like Billy,” is a good indicator that Billy’s in the wrong class placement.

“Red lights”
a) Ridicule or disdain are two easy-to-recognize communication patterns that spell “toxic.” “Jokes” at somebody else’s expense aren’t funny.
b) Blaming and Shaming. When the toxic person feels cornered, they look for someone nearby to take the heat–and quickly find a target to blame and shame. We all do this sometimes, but the less toxic person can back down and engage in non-blaming dialogue or problem-solving. The toxic person can’t; they need a scape-goat.

Incidentally, toxic parents blame teachers as a catagory; toxic teachers blame parents as a catagory. I’m leery of people who start sentences with “The problem with teachers…” or “The problem with parents…” or even “The problem with this generation is…” This article is important in helping parents look clearly at their children’s support system. We need more help in building alliances (especially in such busy times) around our kids!

Thanks for your great work–I love this column. .

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Hey Sigmund

Sounds like a great idea for another post. I agree with your markers completely. Sometimes kids aren’t able to articulate exactly what it is that feels bad, particularly if it’s subtle. Toxic behaviour is made all the more slippery by the fact that it can often happen when parents aren’t around to observe. The first and most important clue is that the child feels as though something isn’t right – sometimes this will lead to toxic behaviour being at the core and sometimes it will lead to something else (the child being sensitive, a misunderstanding etc), but there is room here to explore the concrete markers of toxic behaviour. Leave it with me!

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leesa

I am the stepchild of a toxic parent, and my mom’s mom was toxic, too. Of this, I am certain. My mother was damaged. I am a parent for the last decade and have struggled with tremendous anxiety and uncertainty, and with worry that I am carrying that toxicity and damage to my parenting.

I fear that *I* may be the toxic adult. I read books and blogs, join support groups, try to be peaceful and mindful to “build my healthy parenting toolbox”…. And I don’t yet feel strong and centered enough to do this well, which hurts my heart to think of the ways I am not being the parent my child “deserves.”

And actually, I am also exhausted from all the wishing and trying. And dusting myself off when I falter. I get into guilt and shame and frustration, enough that I have moments when I need to withdraw myself to regroup. But is the withdrawing to regroup seen as withdrawing love or abandonment of affection?

I have heard the “oh, if you’re trying so hard and wondering, then you must be a good parent.” But I don’t buy that. We can get brownie points and gold stars for trying, but it doesn’t mean we are doing it competently and effectively (in ways that benefit the healthy development of our children as innately awesome individuals, and place in a community)

So, how does a child of toxic parenting start to figure out what part of these feelings and behaviors are due to effects of toxic parenting on one’s sense of self, and which parts are due to acting toxic oneself to one’s child? I know my lens is tinted by damaged parenting… And while I have worked for decades to reduce the tint, it’s still there (and nothing like parenting to bump up against all sorts of interesting truths about oneself, right?).

Further, I was a existentially dour and HSP child, and so is my child. Is that nature or nurture? I don’t know if some of his expressions are based more on his temperament, or are a result of faulty parenting that needs repair (I may get stuck in too “micro” an analysis). His answers to most questions would have what could be judged as a “negative” cast, as mine would have as a kid (I am jolly now mostly but for parenting, which brings out the unsteady parts of me). I am so confused, and I want to give my child what she needs. And I don’t even know if all this kvetching and worrying is evidence that I am making it narcissistically all about me.

Oh my: I am quite tangled, aren’t I?

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Hey Sigmund

Where to begin! Let’s begin with how you don’t sound at all toxic to me!(Or narcissistic.) Toxic people justify their behaviour, blame their behaviour on the person they’re contaminating, manipulate, lie and control and have no insight into their impact on others. That does not sound at all like you – not even a little bit. Toxic people don’t get points for trying because they don’t try. We all make mistakes – all of us – it’s an unavoidable part of being a parent. It’s the hardest job in the world and we do it often without any experience and with so much conflicting information – not to mention totally sleep deprived in the early days at least. The other thing that trips us all up is that what’s effective for one child will be useless for another. None of us have this parenting thing figured out – trust me – we do our best and we seek out good information but it’s on the job learning and we’re all in it together. Your filter is a self-critical one because that’s what you’ve been taught by a toxic upbringing – but that doesn’t mean it’s giving you the correct information. I would love to see you being more self-compassionate – I can see that it’s in you to be compassionate for others, particularly if you’re HSP. This is probably both nature and nurture. So you’re a thoughtful, wise, empathic, compassionate and intuitive pair then – I’d have you in my tribe – and with these traits in mind, you probably couldn’t be toxic if you tried to be.
Withdrawing yourself is different to withdrawing love and affection. We give out so much as parents, sometimes the only way to recharge is to withdraw for a little while. That doesn’t mean you’re rejecting your son or abandoning him. It’s a self-nurturing thing to do and an important thing to model. There will be times things get too much/too intense/too emotional for our kids and it’s important that they feel as though it’s completely okay for them to withdraw from the situation for long enough to get themselves together and in a space that feels okay again.
What your child needs is for you to be loving, self-reflective, available and open – and you sound like all of those things. What would also be great is if you could model self-compassion. We all get it wrong sometimes, you’ll get it wrong too, and that’s okay. You’re aware of your ‘stuff’, your working on it, you’re looking for ways to be better – can’t ask for more than that. Don’t pick up where the toxic parenting of you left off – there’s a little girl in you who needs to know that she’s doing okay, that she’s loved, and that her mistakes don’t make her a bad person but that they spring her forward to new learnings and wisdom – so try to give this to her, because she’s well overdue – and she really really deserves it.

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Susan

Your reply to Leesa was so correct. I was raised by a very toxic mother and it has taken me 60 years to realize and try to understand that. (Although others who knew me saw it right away.) A toxic parent has “no insight into their impact on others”, including their children. My mother is definitely narcissistic, with definite other problems. As children we were all beaten while she was in a blind rage, but I was usually the targeted one. She never could give us positive praise as her jealousy always controlled her comments. She is now 90 years old and when I talk with her , TRY to talk with her, about what happened, she tells everyone I have a head injury (I do not) which makes me crazy and she is sure I will have alzheimers in a few years and she wants to live to see it. She will never admit the things she has done. When my father passed away (the good parent), she had no funeral, memorial service, nothing…as it wasn’t about her! So, as a parent, if you are reading this article and wondering if you are toxic, then you probably are not, because if you were, you would not even question yourself. Toxic parents are always right!

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you for sharing your story. It’s such a powerful one and an awful experience to have to grow up with. Toxic people just aren’t capable of realising what’s wrong with their behaviour – even when it so obvious to everyone else. When it’s a parent who is toxic it can take such a long time to realise and acknowledge the toxicity of the behaviour. I’m pleased you are able to see it for what it is now – that takes strength in itself.

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Thereset

Consider also your childs personality. My son swore the teacher was picking in him. He eventually refused to go to school and often felt sick in the stomach. After much research I realized she was a firm teacher who spoke to everyone the same. However he interpreted only what she said to him. He’s a dreamer and so didn’t notice the other interactions. The teacher was astounded when I told her because she said my child was the least of her worries in the class. I’m glad I hadn’t gone in all guns blazing. He now talks very fondly of her. I realized he is a sensitive boy and takes thing to heart. So the questions outlined above would have pointed the finger at the teacher when we just needed some understanding between us. Just another point of view to be aware of.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes. What’s really important is following through whenever our kids tell us something isn’t right. Sometimes it will lead to nothing to be worried about and sometimes it will be more. It’s great that you did the research. Sounds as though you did exactly what your son needed you to do – including preserving his relationship with the teacher who wasn’t actually doing anything wrong. Thank you for sharing this.

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naomie

My son is 15 months and is clingy. And all of a sudden started to growl at me. Am.I the toxic person. Or is he expressing himself. I’m the main person he sees everyday. He loves his pop and growls at his house too.

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Hey Sigmund

No – it doesn’t mean you’re toxic at all! At 15 months your son is figuring out the world and the people around him. Kids will start to find ways to separate from their parents and to establish themselves as their own person – it’s a normal and important part of their development. They might get defiant, push their parents away, do exactly the opposite of what they say, be disobedient – but that doesn’t mean that those parents have done anything wrong – not at all. Toxic people manipulate, control and undermine without considering the damage it’s doing. As long as you’re loving your son, setting healthy boundaries, and letting him be the best he can be (which of course sometimes means discipline), then keep doing what you’re doing – and enjoy him!

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
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

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