Mary Trump’s new book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” has some people wondering how family dysfunction affects kids. What kind of adults do they become when they’ve been exposed to toxic parenting behaviors?
Most people clearly recognize that serious maltreatment, like abuse or neglect, can have a lasting impact on children. But what about toxic parenting strategies that don’t rise to an extreme level of abuse? Or what about destructive parenting behaviors that might be less obvious?
As a therapist, I see some families who appear to function okay to the outside world yet are riddled with dysfunctional family dynamics behind closed doors. And just because these don’t constitute abuse, or because they aren’t visible to anyone outside the family, doesn’t mean they won’t prevent kids from becoming healthy adults.
Here are 10 toxic parenting behaviors that can make children less functional in adulthood:
1. Shielding kids from pain
While you don’t want to expose kids to pain just for the purpose of “toughening them up,” you also don’t want to shield them from all discomfort.
Whether a parent insists the coach put their kid on the team or they say their missing cat is “on vacation,” kids who lack experience dealing with pain often become adults who crumble when they encounter adversity.
2. Invalidating their feelings
Telling kids to “stop worrying” or “stop crying” sends a message that their feelings are bad. It teaches them that they need to hide their feelings or fight those emotions. They may grow up to mask their feelings or numb their pain in unhealthy ways.
3. Praising their achievements only
When parents praise kids for getting a perfect score on a math test or the most points in the game, they teach them that their accomplishments matter more than everything else.
Kids who only hear praise for their achievements (rather than for putting in the hard work it took to get there or a willingness to be brave and try something where they may fail) may grow up to become adults who think they need to succeed at all costs. They might be more willing to lie, cheat, and steal so they can come out a winner.
4. Living vicariously through their kids
Parents have unhealed emotional wounds, too. And it can be tempting to try and live through your kids as a way to heal those wounds.
But when a parent insists that a child try to reach their own unrealized dreams, their children are likely to grow up without a strong sense of self. They may be resentful toward their parents while also being dependent on them to help make decisions.
5. Expecting perfection
Setting the bar high can be good for kids. It teaches them that they can do more than they think.
But expecting perfection could cause them to feel like they can’t ever measure up. They may grow up to feel as though they aren’t good enough because they couldn’t achieve what you told them they could.
6. Using fear to gain compliance
Whether a parent shoots kids intimidating looks or threatens to embarrass or hit them, scaring kids into complying can backfire.
They’ll be more likely to make decisions based on fear instead of on what they actually believe is right. This could cause them to become an adult without a healthy moral compass.
7. Trying to win favor with their kids
Whether parents are coparenting after they’re divorced or still happily married, some parents work hard to be the “favorite.”
And while winning a child’s favor might make a parent feel good momentarily, ultimately the kids lose in the end. They may grow up to become adults who manipulate others as a way to get what they want.
8. Using guilt trips as a tool
Constantly reminding your child how hard you work to pay for their stuff or insisting that they’d listen better if they really loved you might guilt kids into doing what you want.
But it also means they’ll be easy targets for that friend who wants to cheat off their paper or that romantic interest who wants to have sex and use similar guilt trips. Or they may turn into adults who repeat the pattern by using guilt as a weapon against their loved ones as well.
9. ‘Parentifying’ their kids
Parents who lack adult confidantes or are insecure about their decision-making may depend on their kids to step up.
Giving kids more information and responsibility than they’re capable of handling raises their anxiety and leaves them feeling like you aren’t equipped to lead the family. Consequently, they may grow up to become anxious adults who feel as though they need to constantly control everything around them to stay safe.
10. Being emotionally unavailable
It’s cliché but it’s true — kids need your presence more than presents.
Parents who are always staring at their phones or too busy and stressed out to support their kids emotionally aren’t fostering their child’s emotional development. Kids who grow up with emotionally unavailable parents may struggle to develop healthy, meaningful relationships in adulthood.