15 Signs you have a toxic parent

15 Signs You Have a Toxic Parent

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Do you have a troubled relationship with your parents? Are they demanding, critical, and manipulative? If so, they may have “toxic” behaviors.

No one has a perfect relationship with their parents or in-laws. If you’re fortunate, you have a positive and healthy relationship with your parents most of the time.

Unfortunately, for some people – those with toxic parents* – this isn’t possible. No matter how hard you try, you can’t have a mutually satisfying and respectful relationship with people who are emotionally unhealthy or emotionally immature.

What is a toxic parent?

The term “toxic” parent is a bit nebulous and we probably all define it differently. However, it often refers to parents who are abusive, emotionally immature, have narcissistic traits, or struggle with other personality disorders, mental illnesses, or addiction.

Young children, even those with toxic parents, assume that their parents are typical. Without any basis for comparison, you think other families operate by the same dysfunctional rules and that everyone’s parents are cruel, unavailable, or controlling. Eventually, however, you realize that emotionally healthy parents show genuine concern for their children’s feelings, encourage them to follow their dreams, apologize when they screw up, and talk about problems in a respectful way. You realize that your parents are different.

Toxic parents cause a lot of pain and lasting psychological problems for their children. The good news is that it’s possible to overcome the effects of toxic parents. The first step is to be aware of what it really means to have a toxic parent and recognize the particular ways that your parents are dysfunctional or emotionally unhealthy.

Signs you have a toxic parent

Below are some of the common signs of a toxic parent.

Toxic parents are:

  • Self-centered and have a limited capacity for empathy: They always put their own needs first and don’t consider other people’s needs or feelings. They don’t think about how their behavior impacts others and they have a hard time understanding how other people feel.
  • Disrespectful: They fail to treat you with even a basic level of respect, courtesy, and kindness.
  • Emotionally reactive: Toxic parents often have difficulty controlling their emotions. They overreact, are “dramatic”, or are unpredictable.
  • Controlling: They want to tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Toxic parents always want to have the upper hand. Guilt and money are common ways they exert power and control.
  • Angry: They’re harsh and aggressive. Or they might be passive-aggressive – using the silent treatment, snide comments said under their breath, or intentionally forgetting
  • Critical: Nothing you do is ever good enough for a toxic parent. They find fault with everything.
  • Manipulative: They twist the truth to make themselves look good. They use guilt, denial, and trivializing to get what they want.
  • Blaming: They don’t take responsibility for their own behavior, won’t own their part in the family dysfunction, and blame it all on you (or another scapegoat).
  • Demanding: They expect you to drop everything to tend to their needs. Again, they have no concern for you, your schedule, or your needs; it’s all about them and what you can do to serve them.
  • Embarrassing: They behave so poorly (anything from making racist jokes, getting into physical altercations, making sexual advances towards your spouse, and so on) that you’re embarrassed to be associated with them.
  • Cruel: Toxic parents do and say things that are downright mean. They mock you, call you names, point out your shortcomings and intentionally bring up things that you’re sensitive about.
  • Boundaryless: They intrude on your personal space and don’t accept that you’re a grown adult who is completely separate from them. They want to know about your personal life, they stand in your personal space, open your mail, come over uninvited, offer unsolicited advice, and undermine your parenting.
  • Enmeshed: Your parents have an unhealthy reliance on you. They share too much personal information with you (secrets or details of their marital problems or sex life, for example) and rely on you to be their primary source of emotional support.

You can read more about enmeshment in this article: 13 Signs You Grew Up in an Enmeshed Family.

  • Competitive: Not only do they always need to be right, they act like they’re in competition with you. So, instead of cheering you on and being happy for your successes, they try to one-up you, diminish your accomplishments, or ignore you.

And the last sign that you have toxic parents is about how you feel rather than what they do.

  • You feel bad when you talk to, spend time with, or think about them: You feel worse after an encounter with your parents. You dread talking to them. And even the thought of your toxic parents can cause your body to tense up and your stomach to churn. Painful memories may surface. Their negative energy taints everything they touch. If you have toxic parents, you probably weren’t encouraged to have your own feelings, so you might not be used to noticing them. So, be sure to pay attention to your feelings and notice whether your parents trigger feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, shame, or other negative emotions.
Set boundaries with toxic people

Awareness leads to acceptance

If you have toxic parents, please remember that it’s not your fault. No matter how much they try to blame you, your parents aren’t “difficult” because of anything you did.

Recognizing that your parents have significant problems, and are unlikely to change, paves the way to acceptance. And when we accept people as they are, we free ourselves from the struggle to try to change them. We can grieve the loss of the kind of parent-child relationship that we wished for.

Acceptance is very helpful in restoring your peace of mind. But even still, it’s very stressful to have toxic parents and you need strategies to help you cope with your parents’ dysfunction. Stay tuned! In my next post, I’ll be sharing some tips for coping with toxic parents and breaking codependent patterns.

©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com.

*The term “toxic people” is used in this article to describe people who consistently exhibit toxic or harmful behaviors. It is not the ideal term and I’d prefer not to label people at all. However, using this popular term allows people searching on the internet to find pertinent resources, such as this article.

Reading list


Codependency Maze ebook

Free yourself from codependent patterns

Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and more. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.


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Sharon Martin is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.

11 thoughts on “15 Signs You Have a Toxic Parent”

  1. Dear Sharon,
    Thank you so much for this article. For longest time I was living with guilt because I had to limit my contact with my parents because they had been emotionally and verbally abusive towards me since I was a child. Now that I’m an adult in my 30s I finally have the courage to take control and I know in order to heal and live a happy life I have to put some space and boundaries between my toxic parents and I. But still I feel guilty from time to time ,like now when it’s close to the holidays Seasons. That’s why I’m reading up on toxic parents and ways to heal on the internet and found your article. My parents ticked all Thd boxes and exhibit all the signs of toxic parents mentioned in your article. Reading your article it reminds me why I’m putting distance and boundaries and I should not feel guilty.

      1. Hi,my folks pretty much tick all the boxes.Am not old enough to live without their support but I try to least involve myself with them as I mostly end up feeling really bad.They have insulted me ever since I was small and I’m slowly healing as I get older(currently 21).Hope others going through this are able to accept how the parents are so that they start healing

        1.  Dr. Shefali is an amazing strength/knowledge resource also, similar to this page but her facebook updates are often very soothing and empowering, and hard to argue with ?

        2. Its depressing when you have to listen to all the discouraging things about you and looked at as if you’re a burden for them. I really need to get out of this house but i cant live on my own as of now, i dont have a job yet and my studies hasnt been completed yet. I feel guilty all the time thinking Im breaking my family patterns . How do i break free? I’ve now started feeling that i need to always be with them inorder to live ; like they always tell me ” You’re nothing without my money ” I feel depressed and cant even do anything about it

  2. Victoria Kate Mitchell

    Thank you for this article, my mother is the epitome of a toxic parent. I’m 48 & still haven’t found the courage to get her out of my life. She has tried so hard to destroy me, why can’t I say no and get lost to her once and for all?

    1. Hi, im only starting this journey of discovery and my male best friend had a similar upbringing. Difference between us is ive a small family and no one believes me, his sister got it as bad as him so he has a family member to ground him. So just wanted to ask are you alone in your understanding/realisation or do u have someone to validate how you feel?

  3. every points is my mother’s, i have so many bad feeling-guilty of myself, makes me tremble and fragile. I even dont know anymore what should i do.
    It is always my fault, and i am a bad daughter.

  4. I read your article on toxic parents because my son’s new fiance has been calling me and my husband toxic parents on social media and I was curious what it was. We do not fit any of the boxes except that he no longer wants to spend anytime with us since he has been dating her. We gave him a loving home, he used to be best friends with his dad and they shared hobbies together until he went out of state to college (that we financed) until he met this young woman. Now he no longer has a relationship with me, his dad, sister or grandmothers all of which loved him very much. She has convinced him to see a therapist (together) and she is now his “spokesperson” and calls us all narcissistic and toxic and that he has chosen her over us. The therapist is supposedly advising him to disconnect from us from the information she/he as has given them. He is 25 and she is 22. She moved in with him immediately when they started dating three years ago. We were paying his rent the first 2 years. We gave him freedom to be an adult and did not drop in so we did not know she had been staying there. He has now graduated and has a job in another state and she has followed him there. Since he has his own funds is why we feel the sudden break from us. Any advice?

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