Our past experiences shape us to a great extent. It reflects in the patterns we develop, the people we become, how we interact with ourselves and our emotions, how we interact with others, the way we respond to our environment and how we perceive ourselves as we continue to grow into adults. Our past experiences are a combination of the values and ideologies we grew up with and were surrounded by, the conditions we were convinced needed to be met to perceive ourselves as loved, worthy and capable and most of these experiences involved our parents. Our parents are the first people we identify with, communicate to and they eventually form the building blocks of all our future relationships as well as our perception of ourselves.
There is no one type of parent, each parent has a different way of raising their child/children, each parent has different values and beliefs, and each parent has a different approach. It could be intentional or unintentional, it could do more harm than good or sustain the neutrality which should ideally exist. Each one of us is different, including our parents.
Before we dive into the concept of toxic parenting, we must make peace with one aspect – the aspect of how our parents are human beings too.
We must take them down from a high pedestal and just see them as we see the entire world, the way we see other individuals in our lives including ourselves – as simple people who make mistakes, who fail frequently, who may have gone through an extremely difficult time in their childhood which could have been a reason for them to project their negativity into their approach of parenting. We must try to see that with grace and honesty. When we do that, our process of healing becomes easier leading us to become more forgiving of us and them, it becomes easier to let go, and to stay close to what brings us peace.
- Comparison/Conditions: Each individual is unique in their own way. If we were all the same, there would be nothing special about us or the world, we would just be existing with the same personalities every single day leading to the creation of a very monotonous and narrow-minded environment. However, this is an idea which has been drastically misunderstood and misguided, and instead of perceiving this ideology, we fall back to making comparisons. We were raised in a manner where we automatically compared our grades, accomplishments, successes, failures and relationships to those of others – and this automatic reaction merely came from our parent’s need to compare us to others. There has always been this ideal standard which we were convinced we had to meet, this ideal grade which we had to achieve to be categorized as “intelligent”, an ideal body type which we had to sustain to be categorized as “attractive”, or the amount of work which we had to take on to be categorized as “hardworking” whilst forgetting how worthy we already are and how much life has to offer. We were never taught that, and the constant need of our parents to compare us with our friends or their success becomes exhausting, mentally draining and can lead to a downward spiral which becomes extremely difficult to recover from.
- Criticism plays an equal role in causing the child to become anxious and self-critical in terms of every action they take. The need of parents to make comparisons and criticisms becomes toxic. It can deeply affect a child to a point where they consistently strive to look for self-worth elsewhere, become hopeless and the faith they should ideally have diminished with every step of the way.
- Concern VS Control: Every parent is concerned about their children but there’s a difference between concern and control. There are times when parents try to control the life of their children by trying to convince them that one particular path is the best path for them even if the child doesn’t believe so. They may try to make them believe that they’re not capable enough, stay on guard and be extremely hard on their children in terms of who they should be friends with or where they can/cannot go. To be protective is ideal but over-protection can eventually turn into smothering which makes the child want to run away. Each of us is born with one very important need, the need to be able to trust and be trusted and this term is quite relevant when it comes to the relationship between a parent and a child. It’s difficult but it’s not impossible and being able to trust will create an environment where honesty will automatically exist. The child will not even feel the need to lie to their parents or anyone else because honesty will become the basis of their relationship and practicing that can help rebuild the dynamic between the parent and the child as well as the rest of the relationships in the child’s life.
- Negative Response or Positive Response? Which one do you use?: The way we respond to another individual amidst difficult experiences or emotions can set the basis for the relationship, and there are times when parents overshadow its importance. For example, if a child doesn’t get a good grade, a parent’s automatic response may be to undervalue their capability and intelligence and instead perceive them as “good for nothing”. The same response could occur in a variety of situations. The standard created is so high that it puts pressure on the child and they eventually go into believing the entirety of how their parents respond to them and what is being said to them, and end up feeling broken. This is extremely toxic as it creates an environment of self-doubt for the child and disrupts their ability to move forward. Hence, it is imperative that the parent takes a step back and notices the way they respond and think, “Have I been responding to my child appropriately?”, “Is my way of responding to my child doing more harm than good?”, “Is it helping my child become the best version of himself?” Every strong parent-child relationship is built on support, and it is one way to eliminate the toxicity which may have existed.
As we have reflected on past experiences as a major factor, it is important to throw light on a related subject. John Bowlby, a well-known psychologist, introduced a theory based on the patterns that children develop as they grow into adults as a reflection of their relationships and how they were treated by their parents. This is known as the Attachment Theory. It consists of several aspects including –
- Anxious/Preoccupied – preoccupied with the idea of seeking love and self-worth from others to fill the void from their early childhood
- Dismissive/Avoidant – having a difficult time opening up to people and forming close relationships, they are emotionally distant
- Fearful/Avoidant – the key emotion which was experienced in childhood was fear – this could be initiated from severe emotional neglect/physical abuse
- Secure – feeling of security, safety and reassurance.
Bowlby claimed that the way we experience our emotions and perceive ourselves and our relationships as we grow older, all go back to the four attachment styles, the way we were raised in our early childhood and the experiences we had. This is an extremely important concept to understand under toxic parenting. One can intentionally or even unintentionally fall into either category, seeing themselves as unworthy when it genuinely had nothing to do with them.
Keeping the following in mind, it is imperative for each parent to be aware of how they interact with their child, responding to them and how they treat them as that is what forms the core of the individual itself. It’s not impossible to fall out of a pattern. Even though it takes years of realization and healing to do so, why not avoid the pain instead? To be aware of the direction one is going in can make a world of a difference in not only the dynamic created but also in the child itself. It can prevent years of struggle, self-doubt, and the feeling of being afraid, unworthy and hopelessness.
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