Kate Romero kept her head down most of her childhood growing up in Detroit. She hid the anger, defiance and depression that resulted from years of being abused, belittled and neglected.
She longed to be in foster care. When she was old enough, she left.
"I appreciate they gave me a reference point of how I did not want to be," said Romero, a relationship coach in Studio City, California. She is writing a memoir chronicling her childhood and some difficult adult years that saw new relationships end badly until, at age 37, she decided to do things differently for her sake and that of her son.
A book by therapist Susan Forward changed Romero's course. The premise of "Toxic Parents" is that the effects of parents who abuse, demean and otherwise stunt their children's future and sense of self-worth may be overcome by those willing to live differently than the way they were raised.
Forward wrote that you don't have to forgive, but you do have to take responsibility for moving ahead if you want to leave the past behind. Romero decided healing was possible and she intended to do whatever it took, including developing a sense of her own value.
Many different behaviors mark toxic family relationships, not all as dramatic as what Romero endured, but still potentially harmful for children and their futures. Experts offer long lists of poison behaviors, some quite common, including parents who demean each other, keep secrets, are emotionally absent, heavily addicted, abusive or neglectful. Siblings can develop toxic relationships, often influenced by their parents' behaviors.
"Toxic relationships" is a euphemism for abusive relationships that form a cycle of disrespect, contempt and control, said Elle Nicole, a relationship coach in Chicago. Abuse can be physical, psychological, emotional, verbal, sexual or financial.
"Most often, there is some level of psychological, emotional or verbal abuse where one or more partner(s) may belittle, criticize, cheat, lie and put the relationship in a continual pattern of stress and negativity," she said. Some people consider such a relationship "passionate." It's just troubled.
The toxic behavior he sees in his couples therapy practice in Calabasas, California, undermines the safety and security of the relationship, said Stan Tatkin, author of "Wired for Love." It creates upheaval. Arguments are not by definition toxic, though, unless done in a way that threatens the relationship.
Narcissistic behavior is toxic, but so is playing the victim or continually churning up drama, said Patrick Wanis, a relationship coach who works with clients on both coasts.
If a father seems to be "always angry," the child may absorb that and be angry himself, or internalize it and feel the mother's depression and pain. How a child internalizes depends largely on which parent the child aligns with more. A child who witnesses abuse is also more likely to abuse others.
In toxic relationships, "it’s hard for children to understand what’s real and how things should be, said Paul Coleman, a psychologist in Wappinger Falls, New York. Families often keep secrets, like the abusive parent who appears friendly and normal to outsiders, or the children and spouse who are not allowed to tell anyone the other parent is an addict.
Childhood may take place in a heightened state of alertness or fear where children believe they cause the misery around them. They must learn to navigate seeming double standards: "If I scream at you, it’s because you provoked me. If you scream back, you are being hurtful or disrespectful," he said.
Such relationships can lead to depression, addictive behaviors, physical ailments, low self-esteem, self-harm and more. The impact on children is the most devastating, said Nicole.
Personalities form during childhood, so children need loving and stable home environments. Children may deal with the effects of toxic environments for a lifetime, "choosing poor partners once they get older and even developing personality disorders," she said. "Children who grow up in these environments often learn inappropriate ways of regulating and expressing emotion, and this can lead to behavior problems in school, tantrums, self-harm and even sociopathic behaviors, in extreme cases."
Not all problem behaviors are dramatic; even eye rolling and put downs exact a price in how people feel about themselves and each other. But the price for kids may be lifelong without intervention. Tatkin said kids whose parents treat each other contemptuously may suffer life-shortening ills. People in insecure relationships become accident prone, less focused and simply not as nice. A longevity bonus that research says goes with marriage disappears if the marriage is toxic.
Kids learn how to "do relationships" from parents and may consider something quite normal when it's really toxic, increasing risk for forming similarly miserable relationships as they grow, said Lourdes Viado, a marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas. Children may also take on parental roles, growing up too soon. "That child is also likely to fall into the parent role in other areas of life: with friends, attracting people who need to 'be fixed' and becoming overly responsible."
They are apt to seek connection, love, support and nurturing from outside sources, she said, making them more vulnerable to negatives like drugs and alcohol, or turn within, becoming isolated and internalizing problems.
Especially harmful is a parent expecting the child to fulfill the parent's emotional needs, said Wanis.
A new study from Michigan State University researchers found problems with that, as well. It calls it "parentification" — which includes having children provide child care, do an excessive amount of household chores and meet others' emotional needs — and said it hampers future parenthood. New moms who had childhoods like that don't prioritize their baby's needs over their own needs and they're less warm.
Parents can help their children overcome damage inflicted because of bad relationships, including the parents'. "Children biologically and psychologically need their parents to be in love to feel secure and go about the business of being children," said Tatkin. The good news, he added, is when parents treat each other better, children can recover almost immediately. They become less stressed and behavior improves quickly.
Often it's a matter of stopping the behavior that undermines the relationship; even small steps make huge differences. It's possible to end a dysfunctional cycle that sweeps through families by choosing to change directions, said Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist in Southern California who wrote "It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction."
Wanis recommends becoming aware, committing to change and finding some help, whether a book, a class or therapy. "It's very rare someone can use the same mindset that created the problem to heal the problem."
Parents need to keep adult things private, Tessina warned. Kids don't need to know you have a hangover or the gory details of your dating life if you're single. If you must fight, do it elsewhere. Letting children be children without burdening them with adult conflicts helps preserve their future.
Most important, said Tessina, is facing things that harm you, including addictions, bad health habits and behaviors. "Get help and work it out so you don't pass it on to your kids."
Change takes intention and practice.
"If people are to have happy and healthy relationships, and show their children how to do the same, they will need to learn to monitor their words and deeds on an everyday basis. They have to learn to say what they mean and mean what they say — without being mean about it," warned New York City-area relationship coach Cindi Braff. "They need to catch themselves when they see that they are falling back into their old, destructive patterns. After awhile, these healthy patterns of interacting with others will become a natural way for them to behave and react."
Ruth Spalding, a social worker in Traverse City, Michigan, said parents who don't want to repeat the toxic relationship of their parents can become overprotective of their kids or overreact to conflict that is natural when older kids become independent. She cautions parents to slow down. "You can say, 'I am too mad to talk about this right now. I am going to calm down, but I promise tomorrow I will be in a mindset to talk about it.'"
She warns against strategies like pretending someone's not there. "That's a nonviolent way of expressing anger, but it is really hurtful, especially to kids. … It's an abusive tactic."
Spalding believes motivated families can create healthy relationships from the rubble of negative ones, although it takes work and sometimes long treatment. If an adult who was part of a toxic family life won't make changes, relationships may need to end, she said.
In situations where parents won't own up to their problem behaviors, healing may only come if their children, like Romero, find a way to heal themselves.
Romero, 59, eventually let go of people who were not willing to work on their issues. She looked at her failed adult relationships and realized she had to respect and love herself — and seek only others who would do the same.
She is now happily married to a man she describes as "a keeper." He treats her well, makes her laugh and values her, she said. "I absolutely love my life. It was not predictable I would end up with this kind of life," she said. "I was told I was dumb and ugly and I lived immersed in negative messages. Now I have joy."
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