Updated: Jul 8
Susan Forward wrote a book in 1989 called ‘Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.’
That was, at the time of writing this, 33 years ago.
That’s 33 years that this issue has been written about, and seemingly it is only in recent years that we, as human beings, are finally accepting that our home environments can be some of the most destructive and damaging. In fact, in our work at Lighthouse International, we’ve found it to be the greatest taboo - dare ye not speak against mum and dad or the great family creed!
“Our parents plant mental and emotional seeds in us - seeds that grow as we do. In some families, these are seeds of love, respect and independence. But in many others, they are seeds of fear, obligation, or guilt.” - Susan Forward
My mentor Paul introduced me to Susan Forward’s Toxic Parents some years ago and to be frank, it’s one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read because nearly every page evokes memories, feelings and sensations of trauma in some way, shape or form, and it opens my eyes to the horrors that other children have gone through. I am, after much hesitation and trepidation, choosing to write this series with excerpts from the book in the hope that it will continue as a source of my own processing and healing, as well as help others find a signpost to get the help they need.
The below is a series of questions from the book ‘Toxic Parents’, by Susan Forward, PhD. I am sharing these questions in case they help you to bring clarity to any confusion or uncertainty in yourself about some of the challenges you are living with today.
These are questions you can come back to again and again. They do not define your entire life, they are merely here to help you make sense of your childhood and how to take proactive, healthy steps in building your life as an adult. These questions often reveal very sensitive answers or emotional responses. Take your time with them, be patient, and if you feel reactive feelings, that’s part of the process.
All you need to do is answer yes or no to the following questions.
Your Relationship with Your Parents When You Were a Child:
Did your parents tell you you were bad or worthless? Did they call you insulting names? Did they constantly criticise you?
Did your parents use physical pain to discipline you? Did they beat you with belts, brushes, or other objects?
Did your parents get drunk or use drugs? Did you feel confused, uncomfortable, frightened, hurt or ashamed by this?
Were your parents severely depressed or unavailable because of emotional difficulties or mental or physical illness?
Did you have to take care of your parents because of their problems?
Did your parents do anything to you that had to be kept secret? Were you sexually molested in any way?
Were you frightened of your parents a great deal of the time?
Were you afraid to express anger at your parents?
Your Adult Life:
Do you find yourself in destructive or abusive relationships?
Do you believe that if you get too close to someone, they will hurt and/or abandon you?
Do you expect the worst from people? From life in general?
Do you have a hard time knowing who you are, what you feel, and what you want?
Are you afraid that if people knew the real you, they wouldn’t like you?
Do you feel anxious when you’re successful and frightened that someone will find out you’re a fraud?
Do you get angry or sad for no apparent reason?
Are you a perfectionist?
Is it difficult for you to relax or have a good time?
Despite your best intentions, do you find yourself behaving ‘just like your parents’?
Your Relationship With Your Parents as An Adult:
Do your parents still treat you as if you were a child?
Are many of your major life decisions based upon whether your parents would approve?
Do you have intense emotional or physical reactions after you spend or anticipate spending time with your parents?
Are you afraid to disagree with your parents?
Do your parents manipulate you with threats or guilt?
Do your parents manipulate you with money?
Do you feel responsible for how your parents feel? If they’re unhappy, do you feel it’s your fault? Is it your job to make it better for them?
Do you believe that no matter what you do it’s never good enough for your parents?
Do you believe that someday, somehow, your parents are going to change for the better?
The reality is, most adults, if they were honest with themselves, would answer ‘yes’ to many of these questions. That includes parents who would say yes about their parents! So this isn’t about parent-bashing. This is about bringing awareness to the fact that most of us have, at best, not received the complete upbringing we needed. There is an intergenerational nightmare we are living in, where each generation of parenting is getting worse - less morals, less ethics, less love, less care, less absolute truth at the core of our homes. At worst, we grew up in toxic environments and didn't realise it because it was called ‘family’. In fact, much of the online trolling and abusive attacks we have received at Lighthouse International Group for nearly 2 years, has come from bitter and angry family members who were threatened by their grown-up children exposing family secrets and leaving the ‘family values’.
Healing from the damage of toxic relationships is difficult. As Dr Forward says,
“The damage is not irreparable. Self-worth and dignity can definitely be restored. I know this from both personal and professional experience.”
If you are looking for urgent help and guidance to heal, there are many support groups and counsellors to help you. At Lighthouse, we do have groups and 1-1 support in the form of mentorship-coaching. Or we can work together to figure out the best option for your specific situation and needs
Keep an eye out for future parts of this series each week, where I will be sharing more crucial insights from ‘Toxic Parents’.
If you have any questions about toxic parents, toxic families, or even toxic workplaces, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.