“My childhood was a training ground for murder.” He said. These words shook me to the core. I am a big fan of real crime stories. Forensic psychology is one of the richest form of human behavior and the unspoken mental illnesses. As these statement shook me the mother went down in tears. This is the story of a nineteen-year-old in a maximum security prison. He was convicted at the age of fifteen for double homicide together with the cousin who was only two years older than him. In his words he never thought he would ever commit murder. He however knew that the only way to get answers in life was through violence. Brought up by an alcoholic mother and a violent step father, he endured and witnessed all forms of violence. Ranging from verbal to physical abuse. He never witnessed a sober way of dealing with a dispute, all he saw was violence.
On this fateful day, the mother had been away for days and the step father did not seem bothered that they had nothing to eat. This was a common scenario. As part of feeling safe he and the cousin always kept a gun that belonged to the step father. They decided to get into the neighbor’s house to take money or get some food. Unknown to them the neighbor was in the house with a friend. When the neighbor approached them they responded the only way they knew how; they shot him and the friend. They did not realize how grave the matter was until the police arrived and they saw the two bodies being taken away.
Sitting in a neatly organized police cell, packed with great books he recounts his childhood like yesterday. Though he has forgiven himself and his mother one thing is for sure; his childhood set him up for prison. This may seem like an extreme case of bad parenting. It might actually seem easy to justify why the young man turned out that way. Am however confronted by the reality of unconscious bad or toxic parenting each day. In my words, there is a difference between growing up and being brought up. The latter is intentional parenting the former is by default.
A case in point is one of my mentee, in her own narration; “I tried to drown myself in the pool to get my parents attention but they did not even realize. They thought I was just playing and asked the caretaker to get me out. They are too busy to realize what I am going through. The pastor says that our parents understand us but my parents don’t even know who I am or what I go through. I think I hate them. I have been through bullying and sadness for more than ten years and they do not even realize.” The parents are doing their best to make a living. The teenager is however slowly slipping away. She feels neglected, rejected and deprived of love. She has people available to her physically but they are unavailable emotionally. Love involves more than feelings and words it’s a way of behaving.
Adults are deteriorated children. These two are cases of unconscious bad parenting. The hardest thing to tell a parent is that their daughter or son turned out to be a bully, murderer, addict, depressed, with low self-esteem or lacking in life skills because of what they did or did not do. Unfortunately, this is the case for many people; they are carrying these inadequacies to adulthood.
We think of toxic parenting as major issues such as abuse but any actions or patterns of behavior that negatively affects your life amount to toxicity whether they were done intentionally or unintentionally. Any behavior that cause guilt, fear, shame, bitterness or unnecessary obligation is potentially damaging. A friend of mine told me the other day, “all adults in this generation need therapy.” I tend to agree with this. The many errors of omission and commission in parenting has led to adults with too many unresolved issues. Parents are however human which means they make mistakes and do potentially damaging things to their children. The challenge is that this damage continues to manifest into adulthood. These errors include;
- Being emotionally unavailable, narcissistic, or perhaps uncaring when it comes to things that a child needs.
- Abuse; not just hitting, yelling, threats, or something totally obvious; but also name-calling, shifting blame, silent treatment, or gas lighting.
- Invading one’s privacy or not allowing them to make own decisions.
- Being overly critical and controlling of one’s decisions, even as an adult.
- Using guilt or shame to play with the person’s emotions
- Pushing to get their way so that one simply give in to ideas or situations out of exhaustion or frustration.
- Making one feel like you will never live up to their expectation or comparing them to other siblings.
- Making one afraid of expressing anger or frustration.
- Making one feel like they come second to other siblings or they are not as worthy
If the behaviors you remember from your childhood are constant or have some type of pattern, you may want to take a second look at how they impacted the person you have become. You may blame yourself for their behaviors or how you react to them. You may feel guilty or inadequate, which makes it hard to thrive in your life as an adult. Growing up with stress and confusion can make it very hard to form healthy self-esteem. The damage has an impact on one’s self worth, other people’s perception, trust and general view of the world. Your childhood experience is the foundation of how you interact with people, places and things around you. This is the reason adults are carrying some heavy baggage around them.
You can however make changes in relationships and your life to address and heal from the damage done. Before you ask yourself what’s wrong with me ask yourself what happened to me? Once you realize that you have been exposed to toxicity, it may be helpful or even liberating to recognize that many behaviors you learnt are toxic. You may have viewed damaging experiences you had growing up as normal. First step is recognizing that you were shaped by your environment. You cannot change until you understand and accept the things that have influenced your behaviors.
Healing – Heal so that your children will not have to heal for having you as a parent.
- Make a list of the things you want to change.
- Write next to each behavior the way you would like to behave/feel instead.
- Prioritize the list if you want, and then choose a behavior to start with.
- Practice your desired behavior in place of the one you want to change.
- Once you feel you’ve mastered one behavior, you can move your way down the list and deal with the others.
“People can forgive toxic parents, not at the beginning but at the end of their emotional housecleaning. People need to get angry about what happened to them. They need to grieve over the fact that they never had the parental love they yearned for. They need to stop diminishing or discounting the damage that was done.” Susan Forward