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‘When I go back home in the Christmas holidays,’ a thirty-something friend of mine told me, ‘it’s as if I go back to my childhood. My mum cooks for me. My brother and I seem to regress. We just hang out and play games. It’s idyllic.’
She’s lucky. There is a strong tendency, when we’re with our parents, to regress in some way (in other words, to re-create the relationship dynamics that existed some time in the past). But if those dynamics were strongly negative for us back then, the result can be a persistently troublesome relationship with parents that lastsall the way through adulthood.
The term ‘toxic parents’ gained currency thanks to the bestselling book by psychologist Susan Forward in the 1990s. The sad truth is that some parents – for a whole multitude of reasons – exert a degree of control over their children which leaves the kids doing everything they can to win the love and affection of the parents but almost never getting it, and ending up feeling frightened, unhappy, worthless and unloved – and later, guilty for having those feelings. Decades later, every phone call from a parent can still trigger a sense of panic and guilt. And however self-reliant, established, and grown-up the adult son or daughter may be, the relationship with the parent is capable of bringing it all crashing down.
The guilt aspect can be very strong. In the face of frightening, volatile parents, small children are faced with a difficult choice as they try to make sense of the situation around them: either the child is good and their parents are bad and unloving (which is an idea too awful to think about for most kids); or, alternatively, the parents are good, and the child is bad, lazy, selfish, troublesome, whatever. Many kids end up adopting the second way of thinking (to preserve the fantasy of a loving parent) and it can take years, decades, or even a lifetime to be able to unhook themselves, as adults, from the guilt that comes along with that.
If any of this describes any part of your own relationship with your parent, then do get hold of Susan Forward’s book and read it. And take some time to think about other aspects of your life – how you relate to people, how you feel about authority figures, whether you are always the most conscientious person in the room.
Forward’s terminology is right on the nail: ‘toxic’ suggests poisoning, and recovering from such a ‘poisoned’ childhood means looking at how far that poison has seeped into our own thoughts and feelings about ourselves and those around us.
BOOK SUGGESTION: Toxic Parents
EXTERNAL LINK: A good article from the New York Times on this subject.