Today we are going to tackle a delicate question. In the survivor community, we have a tendency to talk about toxic people as though they aren’t human. We talk about how evil they are and how inhumane they treat other people. And honestly, all of that talk is 100% earned by the toxic people we’ve had to interact with. However, it does bring us into some uncomfortable spaces when we are thinking about the children of toxic people.
I had a very interesting exchange with a follower over on my Instagram recently about how to think about the children of toxic people. It's easy to get wrapped up in thinking that anyone who is exposed to such high levels of toxicity from a young age will necessarily walk out of that situation with some toxic tendencies. And while that thinking makes some sense, it's got some pretty big flaws.
If you’ve been following my content for very long, you know that I am the child of two toxic parents. I can also say with full confidence that I am not a toxic person. If being exposed to such extreme toxicity as a child makes people become toxic, then I shouldn’t exist the way I do today. Let’s explore this a bit more together.
It is absolutely true that toxic people engage in some pretty horrific behavior. If you are the child of a toxic person, you’ll probably be on the receiving end of that behavior to at least some extent if not to a very large extent. However, the way we respond to that behavior varies a lot.
A major factor in how anybody deals with toxic parents is their personality. I am naturally a bit introverted. I like to write and think a lot. For me, that meant whenever one of my parents did something that was very inappropriate, I turned inward. I would journal. I would reflect on why they acted the way they did. Along my journey, I sometimes made mistakes like blaming myself for their behavior. But over time, I was able to see that my parents acted badly in so many ways that it couldn’t just be because of my behavior.
This is just one example of how my personality heavily influenced my response as a child to toxic parents. For a more extroverted kid, they may learn to navigate this toxicity by finding ways to always be hanging out with their friends thus minimizing their exposure to their parents.
Because each of us, assuming we don’t have a personality disorder, has our own way of approaching issues, we each will have our own way of navigating toxic people, even when those people are our parents.
Beyond personality differences, the children of toxic parents typically have more in their lives than just their parents. While family and friends can never replace the important role of a parent in a child’s life, they can bring different perspectives into the child’s experience.
In my own life, I had a very loving grandmother who was very validating to my issues with my mother. She died when I was fairly young, but her positive presence and validation of my concerns had a lasting impact on me.
If you are in a co-parenting situation with a toxic parent, do not underestimate all the positive impacts your parenting is having on your child. Yes, it would be better if children did not have to navigate toxicity, but the next best thing is to make sure that they do not have to EXCLUSIVELY navigate toxicity. If you can create a loving space for your child to exist in, then you are showing your child that an entirely different way of living is possible. It may take some time, but eventually, children will find themselves drawn toward spaces that are authentically restorative. Toxic people can not create authentically restorative spaces.
So, one of the reasons adult children of at least one toxic parent are not necessarily toxic is because of all of these mitigating factors. The more kids are exposed to toxicity-free spaces, the more likely they are to gravitate toward these other ways of life.
Within the survivor community, we sometimes do ourselves a disservice by the way we speak about toxic people and the children of such people. If you did not have a toxic parent, it can be hard to imagine what life would have been like growing up with one. As someone in that boat, I can say very few people who have exposure to toxic people say through a romantic relationship or a work relationship can begin to imagine what it was like. And while I fully recognize the desire and instinct to demonize toxic people since they do behave quite terribly, it makes it harder to have gentle thoughts about their children.
Like everybody else, I didn’t choose my parents. It turns out they were profoundly flawed individuals. And it turns out that my life is a lot more peaceful and enjoyable with really firm boundaries to keep them out. However, it is not so helpful when people demonize my parents and people like my parents. I know it comes from a place of hurt, and I’ve wanted to demonize them myself at times, but no matter what I think about toxic people, or what others think about them, they are my parents.
If you need to demonize the toxic person in your life as part of your healing journey, you do you. We all need different things along the way, and it may be the best course of action for you. But just remember that the children of toxic people are not necessarily like their parents. And if you are co-parenting with a toxic person, be sensitive to the fact that your child is probably struggling to navigate this too.
Are you the adult child of a toxic person? Did any of this resonate with you? Let me know in the comments below.
One of the most powerful things I’ve discovered on my own journey with toxic people is the power of sharing. I was silent for a long time about my experiences because I didn’t think anybody would understand. If you are the adult child of a toxic person, or you are co-parenting with a toxic person, I can help. I work with folks 1:1 to make sense of toxic people and through my own lived experience I can help you make better choices. I can help give you reassurance when you are taking those big steps toward a happier life. I can give you some insight into the struggles that your kid might be facing. You can sign up for your free consultation here.