A friend of mine was reading a book on toxic parenting as part of his efforts to understand himself. He recognized certain things about his own upbringing—some good and some not good. He asked how to ensure that he wasn’t a toxic parent to his own children. He was dumbfounded by the first part of my answer.
The first step in moving away from toxic parenting is to forgive one’s own toxic parent, and other toxic adults (teachers, coaches, babysitters etc.). No, not for what they did, but forgiveness for the persons they were. They themselves may have been raised in a toxic household, suffered abuse, bullying, have had mental illness or marital problems, or even had to work beyond exhaustion for months on end. They may not have had the ability or knowledge to change from what they were to a better self.
But a person can become his or her best self by recognizing the conditions and events which lead to toxic parenting and then taking the necessary steps to change that in their life. It is necessary to dig deep and remember poisonous events and other examples of adults not at their best. One needs to look back at the things that may have felt normal at the time, but now are known to have been abusive or neglectful.
The reason for reflection is that these events are seared into the brain and into one’s own bag of parental tricks. If this hasn’t been sorted out, then the next time the child acts up the parent may be at his most frustrated point, both hurting and tired. He will reach into that bag of tricks and clobber the child with the biggest, meanest thing from the bottom of his parenting bag. One cannot undo that.
Once a person has acknowledged the horrid stuff in their parent bag, they need to look for the effective parental responses. What did the adults get right? Was there a response that turned him away from being a ‘bratty’ or ‘naughty’ child into a pleasant one? Did he, as a child, admit shortcomings to an adult and then receive help and support to right the wrong he had done? Find examples of parents doing a good job of raising their children. People who have been exposed to bad parenting benefit by reeducating themselves as to what good parenting looks and feels like.
We need to make a conscious decision to bind up the toxic responses in our parental bag of tricks. Trade them out for the good responses, the ones that teach, encourage, support, and show love. These are the responses that lead to good behavior in a child and lead to a parent who is in control of his own behavior and feelings.
One’s empathy towards the toxic adults in their past provides an understanding of how they became that way and how one can avoid the same path. Often toxic parenting is passed from one generation to the next. It can end today. Give your children and grandchildren a life free of toxic parenting.
Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.