A fractious relationship between parents and children is a fact of life, and a rite of passage that almost everyone goes through at some point in their life. But underneath the very ordinary and expected tensions of rules and discipline that come with raising kids can be other, more insidious patterns. In a recent video, YouTuber and licensed family therapist Kati Morton shares some of the secret signs of toxic parenting.
"Do you know everything I've done for you?"
This is something that can be used to make a child feel guilt, or like they are a burden. "It can feel like our parents' decision to have us is somehow our fault, and has caused us to be indebted to them, and that debt can never be repaid," says Morton. However, this is usually just a deflection of their own frustrations or dissatisfaction.
"You're such a disappointment."
A child's first relationship with their primary caregiver is incredibly important to them developing their sense of self, and so hearing this can be "devastating," says Morton, and can potentially even lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Commenting on appearance in a negative way.
"If we're drawing attention to any part of our child's body, that can lead to them judging that part even more harshly, leading to things like eating disorder and bad body image," says Morton, citing a wealth of experience with clients whose own self-image has been shaped by their parents' lens.
Treating the child like an extension of themselves.
"This can be incredibly common when we have a parent who's a narcissist," she says. "The thought that you would want to do things on your own, make your own decisions, be independent, says to a narcissistic parent that they aren't as vital or important as they think they are."
Not allowing privacy.
Whether it's reading their child's diary or checking their phone, this is often a sign of helicopter parenting, where a parent insists on closely overseeing every aspect of their child's life. In situations like this, if asked for privacy, the parent will automatically assume that the child is doing something bad.
Forcing their own ambitions on the child.
A narcissistic parent might want their child to follow in their footsteps, or to pursue a dream that they were unable to, and can be traced back to seeing the child as an extension. "This kind of thinking and acting doesn't involve free will," says Morton. "It means that our value and their love is conditional, and that it's tied directly to us doing what they want."
Withholding attention as a form of punishment.
"Everybody is wired for connection and love... attention and affection are basic human needs," says Morton. "So if our parents withhold it... We can see all love in our life as something that's conditional." She adds that this also shows just how inept a toxic parent is at communication.
They never apologize.
Parents aren't perfect, and will make mistakes—it's important, Morton explains, to demonstrate that when we do something wrong, it is possible to own up to it. "By apologizing, we're teaching our children how to healthily handle conflict," she says. Additionally, apologizing to a child makes them aware of their own self-worth and value.
Making comparisons with other children.
"Comparing one person to another person is never going to be healthy... It can be incredibly damaging when done to siblings, as it creates more competition vs. camaraderie," says Morton.
"I'm only doing this for your own good."
Saying this shuts down any kind of productive conversation about what's going on, or allow the child to ask questions. "It also assumes the parent always knows what's right and best," says Morton. "We just want to be loved, cared for and understood... so when these toxic phrases and actions are swirling around in our life, we can find ourselves acting in unhealthy ways in order to get those needs met."
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