Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City, explains that a toxic relationship is any relationship "where abuse (verbal, emotional, physical, sexual) happens frequently and goes on unchecked." He adds that toxic relationships are often high-conflict, but might not be all bad all the time — nevertheless, good times don't make a relationship healthy.
A toxic dynamic often manifests between parents and their children when the parents act out of their self-interest and, essentially, narcissism. "A parent who doesn't have the emotional capacity to see a child's needs...as important" is a toxic parent, Lundquist explains. "This can play out as blaming, competitiveness, [or] being withholding."
According to Psychology Today, other common actions of a toxic parent may include constantly criticizing their child, overreacting or behaving dramatically, controlling their child's every choice, or manipulating their child to do what they want. Some of these behaviors are more subtle than others, but they all indicate a parent's general lack of respect for their child's needs and feelings. Naturally, if these patterns are established when the child is very young, they might not be able to recognize their parents' behavior as toxic and, in turn, accept this sort of treatment as normal.
As the child grows up, however, they may realize that their parents' behaviors and actions are not healthy, let alone normal. The emotionally toxic behavior will likely continue when the child reaches adulthood, and another sort of exploitation may be added to the mix. "We often see fairly overt abuse [in toxic child-parent relationships] — parents stealing from their adult children in the form of taking on debt in their names, creating financially disruptive situations that their adult children need to 'rescue' them from, [and] failing to repay loans," Lundquist says.
If an adult believes their relationship with their parents is toxic, Lundquist says it will be very difficult to effectively broach the subject with their parents. "The solution is less about appealing to their sense of reason and asking them to change, and more about heavy duty limit-setting," he says. Of course, a therapist can help develop strategies for establishing these sorts of boundaries. "Once limits are set and the abuse is not longer allowed, the resentment fades," Lundquist says.
If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.