Think you’re dealing with a toxic co-parent?
“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 10 signs of toxic parenting you should be aware of if you think you’re co-parenting with a toxic ex):
- Being too critical
- Not keeping grown-up stuff to the grown-ups
- Relying on children for emotional support
- Disrespecting healthy boundaries
- Using guilt to control
- Not allowing children to fail (or ridiculing them for it)
- Pitting siblings or family members against each other
- Becoming jealous of a child’s success
- Refuse to admit wrongdoing
- Manipulating visitation agreement
If you are co-parenting with a toxic ex, consider using an app like Our Family Wizard to keep your communications in one place. Tens of thousands of parents have used Our Family Wizard to share calendars and schedules, message, and share documents and updates about their children. Read our review of Our Family Wizard.
Not sure if you’re dealing with a toxic co-parent — or if you have some toxic tendencies? Here are some toxic traits to watch out for:
1. Being too critical
Criticism can be helpful, but not if it is presented in a negative way by 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.
Think you might be a toxic parent? Consider getting help from a licensed therapist through BetterHelp.
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 or toxic ex 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 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.
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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 hobbies, work and fitness that fills you up.
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 disrespect 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 set boundaries with a toxic co-parent?
Part of dealing with a toxic co-parenting means setting co-parenting boundaries, which are rules for you both to follow when it comes to your children and also the unshared aspects of your lives. These are some examples:
- Following the terms of your parenting plan — or, if you don't have one, start drafting a parenting plan now >>
- Sticking to a consistent schedule
- Communicating with respect and civility
- Disagreeing in private
- Don’t withhold important info or updates from your ex
- Avoid bad-mouthing your ex to your children
- Avoid talking about new romantic relationships
Learn more about these co-parenting boundaries here:
A definitive list of 7 co-parenting boundaries you need to know
How do you deal with a toxic parent who refuses to respect boundaries?
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 habits. It can be hard! Expect your adult parent to push back, throw a fit, and become even verbally abusive.
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 do 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.
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6. Not allowing children to fail (or ridiculing them for it)
MacBeth says 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
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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 recommendation is Positive Parenting Solutions. Read: Positive Parenting Solutions review — is it worth it?
Where to find parenting classes “near me” in 2023
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.
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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.
10. Manipulating visitation agreement
If your ex cancels at the last minute or shows up unexpectedly, you may be co-parenting with a toxic ex. Not respecting your visitation schedule might be a way for your ex to:
- Control how you spend time with your children
- Undermine your authority with your kids
- Manipulate your kids/try to become their “favorite” parent
- Stop you from pursuing new romantic relationships
Part of learning how to co-parent successfully for the sake of your kids means getting these issues under control
Toxic parenting FAQs
What is toxic parenting?
Toxic parenting is a term used to describe parenting that negatively impacts a child. According to Sara Macke, a licensed clinical social worker based in Thomspon’s Station, Tenn., the term is used in society today as more young adults work to shift the patterns and behaviors they grew up with when being parented by their own parents.
“We are recognizing a wave of young adults with depressive symptoms and overwhelming guilt, reaching out to therapists to process these feelings without recognizing initially that it is likely caused by years and years of invalidation and emotional suppression from their childhood,” Macke says.
What is a toxic parent?
Macke says toxic parents don’t often respect boundaries. These are some telltale signs of a toxic parent:
- Overshare information with their children and involve children in their emotional concerns
- Overstep boundaries or trigger their children to feel like they don't have any boundaries that are worthy of setting
- Rarely ask how children are really doing, what they need, and how they can be supported
“Think about it…would you be friends with your parent?” Macke asks. “That can be one quick way to identify if they have toxic behaviors.”
What are the effects of toxic parenting?
Macke says young adults who experienced toxic parenting from an emotionally immature or self-involved parent often have heavy symptoms of insecurity, self-doubt, and unhealthy boundaries themselves.
“In my work with these young adults, we are processing family relationships, setting healthy boundaries, enforcing and reinforcing said boundaries, positive self-talk and coaching through negative or unhealthy emotions, learning how to effectively communicate and problem solve, and much more that they didn't have modeled for them growing up,” Macke says.
She says the biggest obstacle her clients face from toxic parenting is learning to trust themselves.
There is an entire subreddit called r/toxicparents where people share their toxic parenting experiences and seek help to navigate these negative relationships.
Bottom line: Recognize signs of toxic co-parenting so you can avoid them
If you are a parent, it’s important to recognize toxic parenting traits so you can avoid them yourself and raise emotionally healthy children.
Macke says if you're a struggling parent and you feel like you've lost yourself, it's not too late to seek therapy and start to change.
“Your children will recognize that,” she says.
Toxic parenting is a term used to describe parenting that negatively impacts a child.
Sara Macke, LCSW, says toxic parents don’t often respect boundaries.
Sara Macke, LCSW, says young adults who experienced toxic parenting from an emotionally immature or self-involved parent often have heavy symptoms of insecurity, self-doubt, and unhealthy boundaries themselves.
There are nine signs of a toxic parent: being too critical; not keeping grown-up stuff to the grown-ups; relying on children for emotional support; disrespecting healthy boundaries; using guilt to control; not allowing children to fail (or ridiculing them for it); pitting siblings or family members against each other; becoming jealous of a child’s success; and refuse to admit wrongdoing.