For some children, when the lights go off at night, anxieties of a monster hiding under the bed or in the closet come to surface. For these children, usually leaving a light on, or having a parent show them the closet or space under the bed devoid of any monsters can be all that is needed to reassure them. Luckily, these children will at some point outgrow these fears.
For people like me, anxiety sticks around for longer than just childhood. Our anxiety is more than just about a monster under our bed. We drag our anxiety well into adulthood, probably because at a young age we understood that there was no monster that materialized out of thin air, in the darkest crevices of our rooms. For us, the monster was a daily part of our lives. The monster was our parents.
Whether it was just one parent or both, few things in life will leave a deeper scar than growing up with a toxic parent. The great thing about an imaginary monster that comes alive in the dark is that once the light is switched off the monster loses its power. For children of toxic parents, there are fewer options to vanquish our monster. Most of us end up having to wait until we’re old enough and independent enough to get away from them. Still, even once we’ve left their cold shadow, we find that life can be just that much more of a struggle thanks to the aftermath of a toxic parent’s conditioning.
Below is a list of ways in which children of toxic parents struggle as adults. Whether you yourself are a child of a toxic parent, or you know someone who is, this list may offer some insight as to issues we may have some difficulty expressing.
1. We don’t understand unconditional love.
My husband and I have been together eighteen years and married for eleven — a pretty neat accomplishment if I do say so myself. But for most of the beginning of our relationship, I expected it to fall apart at any given moment. Even now, there are days when I might say something insensitive or act in a way that will frustrate my husband, and I’ll still hear that voice in my head saying “This is it. He’s over me for real this time.” Only to realize that his love for me transcends my flaws and mistakes.
A toxic parent’s love is always conditional. You’re always walking down a fine line between love and rejection. Maybe this is what makes it so toxic. The ingrained belief that at any moment you will slip up and they won’t want you anymore. That’s how they keep you coming back to curl right under their thumb. They know that their love and acceptance is everything to you, so they use it as a leveraging tool to get you to act and do as they please.
2. We constantly doubt ourselves.
I’m well into my thirties now. At this stage in life, where I’ve probably lived half my life, and I am almost embarrassed at my lack of confidence. I see other people my age walking through life with decided steps, while I still waver back and forth at the threshold of any decision. I overthink the outcome of any and all of my actions. What can go wrong? What will be the repercussions if I make any mistakes?
Toxic parents thrive on making you feel like you can’t make a move without them. They get their kicks out of making you feel like you’ll be at fault unless you get their approval first. Sure, a healthy parent will also worry about the choices that you make, but sometimes they have to allow you to make a few mistakes. They know you can’t rely on them for the rest of your life. At the end of the day, a good parent will be supportive of your choices. A toxic parent, on the other hand, enjoys pulling your strings. They enjoy the way in which you always retrace your steps right back to them. This control over you makes them feel powerful. They love the way you are nothing without their approval.
3. We feel the need to always be prepared for a lonely life.
One of the terrible things about toxic parents is the way they wield their love over us like a weapon. They give it and they take it away at their own leisure. You never know how your actions are going to affect their mood. Most of the time you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. So you live in constant fear of losing their approval and their love for you. Because of this, you get used to feeling like at any given moment they’re going to cut you out completely. So you live with this shadow over you, warning you to be ready because sooner or later you’re going to end up alone. If your parents can choose to not want you, who could ever willingly choose to want you? So you remain in a cycle of training yourself to be alone.
4. We have trust issues and suspect others of having a second agenda.
Because toxic parents love to hold their affection over you like a favor you owe them, they will often use it to manipulate you into doing things for them. It doesn’t even matter what the thing is. They point is that it leaves you with a sense that no one is to be trusted. You believe everyone comes to you only when you can be useful to them. This type of conditioning bleeds over into your personal life and well into adulthood. It’s always hard to believe that anyone will approach you just for the enjoyment of your company.
5. We knowingly let people walk all over us.
When you grow up with a toxic parent, you spend so much time avoiding confrontation and avoiding feeling like you’re worthless that sometimes, even when you know they’re using you and manipulating you for their own benefit, you let them do it. Fighting is usually futile and only brings more stress. Later in life, you find yourself always bending to other people’s will. And it doesn’t take you long to realize that, once again, your toxic parent’s conditioning is at work here. If you didn’t confront them back then, why would you bother doing it now with people who aren’t even remotely bound to you?
6. We can’t take compliments and secretly think people hate us.
Growing up with a toxic parent can condition you to feel pretty insignificant — like your worth is measured only by what you can do for them. But you know that their opinion of you wavers according to what they want to get out of you. Later in life, you’ll find that it’s hard to believe when someone compliments your work or your talents, or even just the way you wear your hair. In a way, you’ve learned to numb yourself to compliments because you’ve known them to be empty or to be leading in the direction of a second agenda. We refuse to accept compliments because we refuse to believe there’s anything about us worth complimenting. And yet, the criticisms of others are the only comments we accept as real. So deeply ingrained in us is our toxic parent’s manipulation that we grow up as people who think there’s nothing about us worth loving. We’re just a pile of disappointments. Anyone who thinks otherwise must be lying to us.
7. We spend the rest of our lives trying to escape this mind cycle.
The good news is that there’s help out there for those of us who grew up under the dark regime of a toxic parent. Many channels offering help have become more popular as time passes. I would be lying if I said the progress of rewiring my mind wasn’t a constant struggle, but it can be done. As with everything else, there are good days and there are days in which I snap right back into it. But since starting therapy at least there are good days now. And some good days are always better than none.