The highs and lows of parenting can be quite drastic. One moment you look at your sweet child and you can’t imagine a more rewarding job than parenthood.
The next minute, you’re witnessing your three-year-old’s tantrum, and wondering how you’ll survive another fifteen years of parenting a child.
Let’s face it: being responsible for another human being’s nutrition, health, education, and safety (for an entire lifetime), while running on little to no sleep and trying to maintain a healthy mental state is a hard job.
But do we sometimes make such processing harder than it needs to be? Do we make it more emotionally exhausting? Do we run the risk of harming our relationships with our children by getting stuck in negative mindsets?
Let’s explore how we can establish healthy relationships with our kids and how to avoid becoming a toxic parent.
3 Toxic Parenting Mindsets – And How To Turn Them Around
Sometimes we get stuck in negative ruts, which has negative impacts on our parenting.
This happens most often when we go into survival mode after a crisis, or even afterwards when we’re trying to find a new ‘normal’.
The way in which we view our situation can significantly influence how we parent. It can be difficult to switch mindsets but, at the same time, a switch can be a simple fix for many parenting problems.
We can’t always change a situation, and we can’t rush through a challenging stage in parenthood. We can, however, change our view of it, and make it work better for ourselves and for our children.
Being able to acknowledge emotions and give them the value they deserve is of paramount importance for the well-being of all members of the family. Most parents want to become better people and improve their relationship with their children. Many parents, though – especially first-time parents – sometimes struggle to identify toxic behavior patterns they might be following without even realizing it.
Here are 3 toxic mindsets, and suggestions for ways you can turn them around:
#1: Setting unrealistic expectations
We read parenting books, we watch ‘reality’ shows and we catch glimpses of our friends’ children. Then we start to think about our own kids. Surely our two-year-old ought to have reached a certain stage. And our baby should definitely be sleeping through the night by now.
We expect our six-year-old to do as he’s told without ever making a mistake, which we perceive as disobedience and disrespect.
In reality, kids are often disobedient, especially when we don’t pay attention to their emotional development or we don’t talk about what’s bothering them. If we don’t provide emotional support they will disobey, because no child will do what a parent wants every single time. We forget they’re simply human children. They will make mistakes, just like we did, as kids, and continue to do, as adults.
When we approach parenting with unrealistic expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment. We put unrealistic pressure on our children.
It leaves us frustrated and feeling as though we’re doing something wrong. It also makes our children feel like they can never live up to our expectations.
How do we replace unrealistic expectations?
For me, the most poignant reminders come from looking at my own day. Did I do everything perfectly? Was I perfectly kind to my spouse? Did I speak only with patience and perfect love to my children?
Have I spilled anything this week? Or forgotten to switch on a load of laundry? Maybe an important work email went without a reply, simply because I was distracted. There are so many small things in life that can make our emotional balance a bit unstable.
Often, we expect our children to reach a level of perfection we can’t attain ourselves. Kids will forget things. They might lose patience, and struggle with emotional regulation. Forgotten homework, meltdowns after long days, and even some disobedience, are all normal.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have standards or expectations for behavior. Neither does it mean there aren’t consequences for certain actions.
As parents, having realistic expectations relieves stress and helps us make informed decisions about how to guide our children. The children benefit too; if we have realistic expectations, the goals we set for our children will be reachable.
Learn more about each age group, and how to support your children at each stage in Don’t Worry, It’s Normal! – A Quick Guide To Normal Behaviour For Babies, Toddlers, Kids And Teens.
#2: Comparing ourselves or our children with others
Carrie’s daughter is sleeping through the night already. What am I doing wrong?
Every time I visit Sam, her house is spotless. I really need to get myself together.
Lisa’s son is always so well behaved! Why can’t my son sit still for just one meal?
We all know making comparisons is not a great idea. We try not to do it but sometimes we simply fall into the trap. In an era of constant social media connection, it can be even harder not to compare.
However, when we’re stuck in a comparison mindset – even if we, and our children, are doing the best we can – we will always feel ‘less than.’
Maybe Sam’s house is spotless, but perhaps you had a teething baby to rock, or a kid who needed a ride to soccer practice. Maybe you made a delicious dinner.
We only have a brief glimpse into other people’s lives and homes. We can’t compare our actual reality with a glimpse of someone else’s. If we try, it makes it more difficult to feel good about ourselves, our children, and our parenting.
This applies to almost everything – whether it’s money, education or family times filled up with joy. Comparing ourselves with others is a very unhealthy behavior.
How do we avoid comparisons?
In parenthood, making comparisons is nothing new. However, because of the constant glimpses into other people’s lives, via social media, it takes on new dimensions.
It’s important to accept your circumstances and to accept yourself and your children for who you are. You don’t need to be like Carrie or Sam to be good, or right, or anything else. Your child doesn’t need to be like Lisa’s son; he can be successful in his own way.
I recently shared BellyBelly’s The Mental Load – Why Mamas Are Burning Out and a friend’s reply really explained how we can develop a better mindset and avoid comparisons.
Heidi said, “For me it’s been a process of saying, ‘I will absolutely seem like a failure if I see myself through any other lens but the right one’. I am no longer trying to be successful by any definition but the one I am convicted of. So no Pinterest-worthy pic? Oh well. No Olympic-level sports? Shrug. No impressive resume? Somewhat strategic and somewhat out of my control. I accept my circumstances, I celebrate my friends’ accomplishments and am truly happy for them”.
Choose goals that are right for you and your children, and celebrate them, regardless of how they match up to other people’s goals. In doing this, you can rejoice in your own accomplishments, and find joy in others’ achievements without feeling the pressure of comparison.
You can read more in Why You Shouldn’t Compare Yourself To Other Mothers.
#3: Demanding control and creating power struggles
Children need leadership, guidance, and even authority. However, in trying to find the right balance in guiding our children, we can become authoritarian and demand absolute control.
This can cause frustration for both children and parents and often leads to unhealthy relationships.
When we fall into a control mindset, chances are our intentions are good. We want to make sure our infant gets enough sleep. It’s important to make sure our children look presentable and are using proper manners. We want our toddlers to eat enough of the right foods, and we really want them to learn to use the potty!
And while it can feel good to have control, no one actually likes to feel controlled. The control mindset eventually leads to power struggles, unhappy children, and very frustrated parents.
Remember, no one wins in a power struggle – whether it’s with a family member or with anyone else. Make sure you pick your battles wisely. Welcome any opportunities to engage your children in problem-solving. Offer options, regardless of how limited they are, then let your child choose, and provide a natural consequence. If harsh words are said, always show humility once you’ve both had time to calm down and process what’s happened.
Toxic parenting behaviors
Although all parents are different, toxic parents tend to show many, if not all, of the following behaviors:
- They are self-centered. It’s often said that you need to love yourself to be able to love others. However, toxic parents don’t really love themselves and that’s why they think everything should gravitate around them
- They are controlling and critical. These parents were probably once children with toxic and emotionally abusive parents. They try to live their lives through their children, repeating the same patterns. Emotionally they are adult children because their own feelings were never taken into account and their inner child hasn’t developed emotionally
- They try to shield their children from pain. A toxic relationship between parent and child can take many different forms. Some parents – especially separated parents – overprotect their children from the outside world. They think that sorting out their kids’ problems and not letting them get into trouble is actually good parenting. The truth is that childhood is the time for our children to learn how to behave, how to solve problems, and learn about developing a healthy social life. Healthy parents accompany their children in these processes and support their emotional needs. At the same time, they teach their kids about the importance of taking responsibility for their own actions. Avoiding painful circumstances where our own children learn to take responsibility for their mistakes is very toxic behavior. We risk letting them move into adulthood unable to deal with social situations on their own.
- They invalidate children’s feelings. Saying things like ‘Stop crying’, ‘It’s over now so get on with it, and ‘That’s nothing’ is giving children the message that their own needs and emotions aren’t important. It’s like saying they shouldn’t feel the way they do but how their mother or father says they should feel. It confuses them and damages their feelings of self-worth. It makes children believe their feelings should be different from the ones they are experiencing
- They only praise achievements. If parents praise only their children’s achievements, such as good grades, winning, or being good at sports, they’re leaving them unable to deal with problems or with frustration. The children will then understand that the only thing that matters in life is to achieve the things their parents praise them for. Giving the ‘silent treatment’ when children don’t achieve what’s expected is also very damaging. Responsible parents will welcome these circumstances to talk, ease frustration, and bond with their children so it’s clear they are loved, no matter what.
- Their boundaries are very clear but they don’t allow others to set boundaries. Toxic people usually demand their boundaries are respected while never taking others’ insights and boundaries into account.
Do toxic parents love their children?
Even a toxic mother and father love their children very much– but not in the best way. Their behavior reflects the way they’ve learned to love and it isn’t healthy.
Toxic parents possibly weren’t loved properly and so didn’t learn how to do it when they became parents themselves. Their feeling of a lack of love makes them perpetuate the same behavior with their children.
At the same time they seek to be loved in a healthy way. This is very difficult to achieve unless they realize how wrong their emotional upbringing was.
A toxic parent tends to feel guilty about behaviors but often doesn’t know how to process these feelings. Many people are unable to identify abuse as they think only physical abuse is harmful.
Acknowledging that you’re emotionally damaged is the first step to stopping the abuse but it takes a lot of insight and reflection. It’s also important to gather detailed information about what needs to change to improve your life and your child’s life. This process is usually quite painful and often very difficult, because toxic people tend to be very proud. They usually believe it’s others, not themselves, who have a problem.
Long term effects of toxic parents
Toxic parenting will have a negative impact on children’s lives. If not corrected, it will influence their ability to develop healthy relationships.
When children have experienced toxic parenting it’s very likely they’ll copy and develop the same behavior when they become parents. It’s also quite likely they’ll look for partners who will either abuse them or who will adopt a submissive role and allow the abuse. Either way they’re doomed to live in unhealthy romantic relationships.
Even when they are able to find a non-abusive partner it’s likely the relationship won’t last as their partners’ processing of what a healthy relationship should be will be very different from theirs.
If you’ve only been into abusive relationships you’re only prepared to have these and although you won’t be happy it’s the only type of relationship you’re prepared to share with another adult.
How to avoid a control mindset while guiding children
Infants need adequate sleep, toddlers need healthy diets, and your children should learn how to be respectful of those around them. However, controlling every situation isn’t the way to achieve those things.
There are certain non-negotiables, such as safety concerns – for example, children must wear seatbelts, and can’t be allowed to live on soft drinks and gummy worms. However, with overall collaboration, by choosing your battles and setting consistent expectations and consequences, you can guide your children to become productive adults.
Children need guidance, but they also need to learn how to solve problems and make safe decisions. A fully controlled environment doesn’t allow them space for learning.
Research shows that authoritative parenting can help prepare children for life. This is totally different from authoritarian parenting.
Authoritative parents guide children. They are firm but flexible and don’t use control as a means of teaching.
Authoritarian parents use fear and control. They often allow emotions (theirs and their children’s) to affect their parenting choices, and often in negative ways.
The ‘Quick Guide To Normal Behaviour’, linked in #1 above, helps to show how to support and teach your children at different stages.
You might also find these articles helpful, as you work out a healthy balance in your parenting:
- 25 Ways To Cherish Your Children While You Can
- Why You Can’t Let Your Child’s Feelings Control Your Decisions
- Healthy Relationships: Challenges To Parents And Partners