4 Examples of Toxic Parenting and How to Fix Them

Toxic parenting can sneak into your family life before you realize it, especially in times of stress. If you see yourself in these examples of toxic parenting, here's how to turn it around fast.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #578

There are so many things in life that are beyond a child's control. That's why kids depend on their parents or caregivers to keep them safe and secure, both physically and emotionally. Sadly, some parents struggle with damaging behavior known as toxic parenting, which can have long-lasting, damaging effects. Toxic means poisonous, harmful, contaminated. A toxic parent is someone whose negative, poisonous behavior causes harmful emotional damage. And that damage can contaminate a child's sense of self.

As parents, we set the tone for our kids. When we're upbeat and positive, it has a ripple effect on the rest of the family. When we're discouraged and cynical, we make life unpleasant. We might do this with negative comments, personal digs, or a hostile tone of voice or body language.

No otherwise good parent wants to behave in a way that harms their child, but toxic interactions can slip into family life before you realize it, especially when you're stressed. Let's take a look at some examples of toxic parenting and then talk about how to make positive changes.

Tip #1: Don't shame your child

Toxic parenting example

Last week, I watched a TV movie with my youngest daughter. It started out lighthearted and funny, but then it took an uncomfortable turn.

The mom in the show interacted with her daughter in front of her book club. Gathered were six middle-aged women sipping wine and discussing their latest read. In walked the tween girl, a bit shy. Without introducing her to the club ladies, her mom looked her up and down and snarled, "Did you tell your father yet that you flunked two classes this quarter?"

My daughter immediately cringed and looked down at her feet. I asked how she felt about the mom's comment, and she said it bothered her just watching. Although it was a fictional program, the shame the character felt was painful to watch, and it upset my daughter.

The toxicity in this example is twofold. First, having your mom make a crack about your grades is disheartening. But receiving that comment in front of others is downright demeaning.

How to correct it

In "How to break the cycle of shame with your child," Dr. Laura Markham, Ph.D., recommends parents try an exercise that allows you to feel mild shame.

First, say "Yes!" aloud a few times. Note how that makes you feel. Do you smile? Do you feel some excitement or happiness?

Now, say "No!" aloud several times. Your smile might change to a frown. Do you feel tense? Some parents might even feel a sense of anger.

Dr. Markham's suggestion is to use empathy to help you understand how your behavior might make your child feel.

Will the child be damaged for life if she's been shamed? No, as long as that was a rare occurrence in the context of unconditional love and acceptance. But if these shaming interactions are repeated throughout childhood, the shame can become toxic.

Dr. Laura Markham, Ph.D.

Supportive parenting example

The book club mom I mentioned earlier could have waited to talk to her daughter in private instead of snapping at her in front of others. She also could have been supportive and helpful rather than critical.

Imagine how much better everyone would have felt if this mom had taken her daughter aside privately and said, "You must be feeling bad about your grades, especially since Dad doesn't know yet. Why don't we tell him together? Then we can all figure out a plan to get those grades back up."

Tip #2: Allow your child to express his feelings

Toxic parenting example

Laura was trying to figure out how her family could spend their summer vacation. For years, they'd spent it at her inlaw's cottage on the lake, but this year, the cottage wasn't available.

Excited that they might be able to try something new, 12-year-old Kelsey eagerly chimed in with her idea to visit the Grand Canyon.

"I wasn't asking for your input," Laura said. "You'll go where I decide."

Talk about shutting down a child's enthusiasm instead of making them feel heard and appreciated!

How to correct it

Expressing feelings doesn't always come easy to everyone, but when you're mindful of how you're speaking and listening to your kids, everyone benefits.

Communication is about much more than giving directions or coordinating your family's daily plan. It's about sharing and acknowledging feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, and being able to ask for help. Engaging in a robust and meaningful conversation is the key to building a stable family life. Expressing feelings doesn't always come easy to everyone, but when you're mindful of how you're speaking and listening to your kids, everyone benefits.

If the way you communicate with your child is usually one-sided, it's time to consider that you might be engaging in toxic parenting.

A while back, I heard a terrific acronym—WAIT, for Why Am I Talking? When you're trying to improve any relationship, listening is far more important than talking. It doesn't matter whether you're communicating with your kids, spouse, or coworker—if they have something important they want to share, let them have the floor, and tune in with interest. Interject your thoughts only when the other person pauses for feedback.

Supportive parenting example

Laura shares that this year's family vacation won't be at the lake house because of renovations. Instead of dictating where the family will go instead, she opens a dialog.

"I'm not sure where our vacation destination will be this summer. If you have some ideas, let's talk about them! I'll make the final decision based on what makes the most sense for our family."

In this example, Laura let everyone know their ideas would be heard. But she also managed everyone's expectations by letting them know she'd make the final decision.

Tip #3: Never parent with sarcasm

Toxic parenting example

Let's say you have a child who takes longer to process directions. You're frustrated that it takes so long for him to respond to your request to get his boots and raincoat on for a rainy day walk.

In your frustration, you quip, "Cameron, ketchup comes out of a bottle faster than you get ready to go outside. So catch up!"

You may think your pun is amusing, but it's unlikely Cameron feels the same way. Instead, he feels shamed and hurt.

How to correct it

Oscar Wilde said, "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence."

The first step in overcoming sarcasm is to be mindful of it.

You may feel smart when you come up with a good dig, but sarcasm means there's a bite somewhere in your words. Snide comments can be funny and even appropriate sometimes. (Like when yet another problem arose at work and you quipped to your coworker, "That's just what I needed today!") But in many cases, particularly when you're dealing with a child's behavior, sarcasm is far more hurtful than helpful.

Sarcasm can be a coping mechanism we default to when we're feeling stressed or insecure. The first step in overcoming sarcasm is to be mindful of it.

One trick I learned is to imagine someone's recording everything you say, just like a court reporter. Sarcasm doesn't usually translate well in writing—your tone and body language don't come through. If someone were to review all your sarcastic comments as a written record, would they be disturbed by what you said because they didn't get the "joke?"

It takes some practice, but remember to stop and think before you speak. There's a little hostility hidden in every sarcastic comment. Is that who you want to be? If you pause before you speak, you'll soon catch yourself before those snarky one-liners have a chance to hurt someone.

Supportive parenting example

Replace your toxic swipes with kindness and understanding.

"Cameron, you seem unsure of what to do next. Can I help you understand the directions?"

You'll find more examples of how to nix sarcasm by watching this YouTube video, 8 Toxic Things Parents Say To their Children.

Tip #4: Keep negativity at bay

Toxic parenting example

Tensions are high in the Butler household because many of the children's regular sports clubs and activities are canceled indefinitely.

Annie reacts to the news by slamming her bedroom door and yelling that she hates everything. Mom screeches down the hallway, "Annie, you're acting like a wicked witch today! I can't stand to be around you anymore. Life is full of disappointment, so learn to deal with it!"

How to correct it

As I mentioned earlier, I've always believed parents set the emotional tone in their home environment. When we're exhausted and cranky, we're less patient with our kids and our partner, and that means we're more prone to snapping and criticizing. Yet when we're happy and energized, we set off a spunky, positive vibe, and the entire family lightens up.

In "11 Ways You're Being a Toxic Parent—Without Even Knowing It," Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., an internationally-recognized child psychology expert and author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, says that a parent's thoughts are often at the root of negativity. He explains, "No kid is perfect, but parents often don't realize just how much their thoughts, rather than their children's behavior, contribute to their own emotions."

Parents who catch themselves in a cycle of negative thinking should take a step back and reframe their negative thoughts into more positive ones.

Supportive parenting example

If you think negative, you'll be negative—it's just that simple. If your automatic thought is, She's always such a little brat! then you'll find yourself wrestling with anger, and you'll be more likely to say something hurtful.

She's not a brat; she's expressing disappointment, frustration, and maybe even grief over the loss of something important to her.

When your child acts out, take a moment to empathize with her. She's not a brat; she's expressing disappointment, frustration, and maybe even grief over the loss of something important to her. Haven't you ever felt the same way? Here's a more supportive approach.

"Honey, I understand how upsetting this news is. I know how much you were looking forward to playing softball this year. Why don't you take some time to process it? Then we can sit and make a list of the fun activities and outings we can look forward to soon."

I'm a firm believer in practicing daily gratitude as a way to stay positive. A gratitude journal helps me to enjoy my kids more, especially on those daunting days. I've also noticed that I tend to be much more pleasant and accepting of all that's going on in my life when I practice regular self-care like being mindful of engaging in positive self-talk.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.