9 signs of toxic parenting you should know

Some links below are from our sponsors. Here's how we make money.

Worried about toxic parenting? Maybe you’ve inherited your own parents’ toxic parenting tendencies? Or you think you’re dealing with a toxic co-parent, or struggling as an adult of a toxic mother or father?

“Breaking generational patterns (of unhealthy or toxic behaviors) can be hard,” says Kayla Reed Fitzke, an assistant professor for the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Iowa. “The first step is even realizing that you have them.”

Here are nine signs experts say you should be aware of:

  1. Being too critical
  2. Not keeping grown-up stuff to the grown-ups
  3. Relying on children for emotional support
  4. Disrespecting healthy boundaries
  5. Using guilt to control
  6. Not allowing children to fail (or ridiculing them for it)
  7. Pitting siblings or family members against each other
  8. Becoming jealous of a child’s success
  9. Refuse to admit wrongdoing

Get a free parenting plan template from RocketLawyer here >>

1. Being too critical

Criticism can be helpful, but not if it is presented in a negative way from a toxic parent.

How do toxic parents behave?

Parents who are overly critical react negatively to a child’s conduct or performance rather than finding constructive ways to teach a lesson.

“An example of being overly critical is when children have accidents (e.g. spills a glass of milk) and the parent automatically and consistently criticizes the child for being clumsy or not paying attention,” Fitzke says.

What do toxic parents say when they are too critical?

When negative criticism goes too far or becomes too frequent, it can leave lasting negative effects on children. Harsh statements like “What is wrong with you?” or “You never do anything right” can lead to anxiety in children.

“The consistency in response is what’s key here,” Fitzke adds. “It sends the message to kids that they may not be safe to make mistakes and may result in them hiding things as they get older.”

How do you deal with a toxic parent who is too critical?

“When someone challenges kids in a kind and respectful way, it helps kids feel very secure,” says Rachel Singer, a licensed counseling psychologist in Rockville, Maryland.

Singer suggests when co-parenting with someone who may be overly critical with a child, instead of pointing fingers, address the situation together with a therapist.

Parents can find help locally or visit this list of our recommended online therapy sites.

2. Not keeping grown-up stuff to the grown-ups

Parenting is considered toxic when parents put adult responsibilities on the shoulders of the child — whether the parents are married, cohabiting, or living separately and co-parenting, or solo parenting, according to Fitzke.

This can be considered adultification of a child, and in separated and divorced families, can manifest in parenting alienation, where one parent turns a child against their other parent.

How do toxic parents overshare with their kids?

When a parent allows adult problems and responsibilities to become a concern of the children, it can be a red flag. Toxic parents will allow children to take on adult responsibilities at ages younger than they should,  Fitzke says.  For example, if parents find themselves telling their child something they might vent about to their friends, that is a cue that the topic is inappropriate, she notes.

What do toxic parents say to adultify a child?

There are many topics that should never be discussed with children. Those include:

  • Child support matters: “Ask your dad where the child support is this month.”
  • Family discord issues: “Your mom had an affair, and that’s why we are divorced.”
  • Financial struggles: “We’ll be out on the streets if I can’t find a job.”
  • Household duties: “I am depending on you to keep the house clean while I work.”

How do you deal with a toxic parent who overshares with a kid?

If you find yourself shoving adult responsibilities and/or problems onto your kids, begin with carefully watching your statements in times of stress or when you are overwhelmed with life, Singer says. 

Family therapy may be helpful. What you need to know about family counseling …

3. Relying on children for emotional support

A toxic parent puts the burden on the children to take care of his or her feelings.

 How do toxic parents rely on their children?

Tasking a child with the parent’s emotional needs often happens in a co-parenting relationship, says Lynn MacBeth, a licensed professional counselor, attorney and founding member of The Parenting Institute, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit dedicated to providing conflict resolution and counseling services to families in transition.

It’s common to find single parents who are outwardly emotional about the absence of their children during a visitation schedule, MacBeth notes, adding that this can produce anxiety in children and make them feel as though they are doing something hurtful.

What might a toxic parent say when emotionally depending on their kid?

Some parents tend to repeat statements of overly emotional distress regarding the situation. They may say things like “I don’t know how I am going to get through this weekend without you.” 

“Be careful about saying ‘I miss you too much,” MacBeth says. “Call them, but don’t harp on missing them.”

How do you deal with a toxic parent who relies on their child?

Parents can miss their kids, but that shouldn’t become the children’s problem. Focus on taking ownership of your own feelings, develop meaningful adult relationships, and fill your time with hobies, work and fitness that fills you up.

What to do if you're a stressed-out, overwhelmed mom

4. Disrespecting healthy boundaries

As children get older, a parent’s need to be involved in every detail of their lives lessens. Small children may not have many boundaries, but as they become teenagers, and especially into adulthood, those limits are extremely important, according to Singer.

“If someone is crossing the line, it’s not ok,” Singer says. “Those boundaries need to be set and respected.”

How do toxic parents re: boundaries?

Ignoring boundaries could come in the form of:

  • Demanding information about everything
  • Snooping through a child’s things or technology
  • Meddling in adult children’s lives, marriages, or their own ways of parenting
  • Interfering with a co-parent’s visitation or relationships, including frequent calls during the other parent’s time

How do you deal with a toxic parent who refuses to respect boundaires?

If you are an adult with a parent who refuses to respect your boundaries, be clean and direct about what you will and will not tolerate. You must stay firm and not backslide into old habbits. It can be hard! Expect your adult parent to push back, throw a fit, and become even verbally abusive.

Parenting classes can help. 

5. Using guilt to control

One of the most subtle signs of toxic parenting is using guilt to feel in control, Fitzke says. She notes using guilt may stop or encourage behavior in the short term, but it does not help children internalize why they should behave in a certain way.

How do toxic parents use guilt to control?

According to Fitzke, parents can use guilt in both overt and covert ways such as telling a child they should feel bad about misbehaving (overt) or ignoring a child who doesn’t behave in a way that the parent finds acceptable (covert).

What do toxic parents when using guilt to control?

Toxic individuals use guilt tactics with their adult children when they say things like, “You should be at my house every Sunday for dinner because I am getting older and might not be around much longer.” 

How do you deal with a toxic parent who uses guilt as a weapon?

Parents should allow adult children to make their own decisions without fear of a guilt trip. Older children can establish boundaries and have permission to not feel bad for sticking to them.

5 tips for Self Care Sunday

6. Not allowing children to fail (or ridiculing them for it)

MacBeth some parents push their children too hard, expecting perfection and overlooking the value of learning to fail. Children need to learn how to fail, learn grit and resistance and grow from their mistakes and hurt.

How do toxic, perfectionist parents behave?

It’s one thing to become upset with your child on the ball field for being mean to another player, but it’s a whole new level of toxicity to ridicule them (alone or in front of others) for not performing well. Kids will fail, and that’s ok.

Parents who exhibited this unhealthy behavior can touch on several areas of a child’s life including:

  • School and grades
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Community involvement
  • College and career choices 
  • Adult children marriages

Signs of a toxic relationship or marraige

How do you deal with a toxic parent who expects too much?

Those struggling with a co-parent who mocks his or her children for their shortcomings can suggest family therapy or parenting classes to get a handle on the behavior. Our No. 1 parentng class recommendation is Online Parentng Program, which offers help with anger management, co-parenting after divorce, parenting teens, and more.

7. Pitting siblings or family members against each other

Toxic people tend to love conflict, and unfortunately, the behavior can include bringing children into the problem, Fitzke said. This can be in the form of creating conflict between adult siblings to encourage drama or fostering tension between a child and an ex, she notes.

How do toxic parents pit people against each other?

In some cases, both parents are responsible for forcing a child to take sides. Fitzke said this behavior is known as a triangle — when two people spread the tension to a third to help them cope.

“This can occur across siblings as well,” Fitzke said. “Because this is a pattern of behavior over time, it can be hard to identify and harder to break.”

How do you deal with a toxic parent who pits siblings against one another?

Fitzke notes that this sign is a pattern of behavior over time, and can be hard to identify and harder to break. Therapy, she notes, is the best way to identify and break those generational patterns.

Estate planning as a single mom

8. Becoming jealous of a child’s success

Whether it’s a byproduct of insecurity or a fear of helplessness, reacting negatively when a child succeeds at something is a major sign of toxic parenting.

How do jealous parents behave?

Parental envy can make children feel as though they don’t deserve to succeed and oftentimes creates self-doubt. 

What do jealous parents say?

An example of a jealous parent could be a mom scorning her child for being a “show-off” at the dance recital. Or, an older child is told he “just wants to be better than everyone else” because he is a first-generation college student who is excited that he made the dean’s list.

How do you deal with a jealous parent?

Co-parenting with someone who is jealous or exhibits signs of narcissism can be difficult, but not impossible. Adult children who may be dealing with a jealous parent can set boundaries and avoid conflict.

9. Refuse to admit wrongdoing

Sometimes parents confuse their role of being in charge with the need to always be right. Singer says oftentimes, parents may have good intentions, but “the challenge is the intention may be very different than the impact.” 

People who cannot admit they are wrong will often place the blame for their own behavior or reactions on someone else.

How do you deal with a toxic parent who insists they are right all the time?

If a parent realizes he or she has the tendency to always be right, Singer says it’s never too late to remedy it. “There is no expiration date on apologies,” she said. “Recap what has happened, take ownership of it, and apologize.”

In fact, it’s never too late to change any of the behaviors of toxic parenting and mend those relationships. If you find yourself repeating unhealthy behaviors from your own parents or are dealing with an ex who is exhibiting some of the signs discussed above, reach out to a therapist who can help and be prepared to do the hard work. Parenting is never easy all the time, but it’s always worth the effort every time.

How do toxic parents behave?

Parents who are overly critical react negatively to a child’s conduct or performance rather than finding constructive ways to teach a lesson.

What do toxic parents say when they are too critical?

When negative criticism goes too far or becomes too frequent, it can leave lasting negative effects on children.

How do toxic parents overshare with their kids?

When a parent allows adult problems and responsibilities to become a concern of the children, it can be a red flag.

What might a toxic parent say when emotionally depending on their kid?

Some parents tend to repeat statements of overly emotional distress regarding the situation. They may say things like “I don’t know how I am going to get through this weekend without you.” 

Carla Dempsey is a writer and editor living in the beautiful Laurel Highlands region of southwestern Pennsylvania. She has worked in journalism for more than 25 years, producing and managing content for both print and online publications. She has been instrumental in launching numerous content products during her career, including an award-winning weekly entertainment magazine for a Pittsburgh-area newspaper. She also managed several magazines for readers looking for more information about health and wellness, caregiving, and wedding planning. She is a graduate of Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and has also studied Italian Renaissance Art in Italy. She lives with her husband, Gary, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, and two amazing children, Mason and Julia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *