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The Scary Truth Between Toxic Home Environments and Adverse Childhood Experiences

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Home should be a place of comfort, safety, and unconditional love. Home is where children learn, grow, and develop their identities. Ideally, it is where they should feel supported and nurtured by their families.

Unfortunately, for many children, home is anything but idyllic. Within the confines of white picket fences, trouble lurks. Likewise, this toxic environment can make even the most beautiful home feel like a prison. And when home feels so unsafe and so miserable, children are susceptible to adverse childhood experiences that can impact them for the rest of their lives.

Lack Of Secure Attachment

We enter this world utterly defenseless. We don’t know how to take care of ourselves; we don’t understand our own needs, and we cannot survive without adult supervision. We rely on our caregivers to provide for these basic essentials. Thus, in early childhood, there is nothing that can truly replace the bond between the caregiver and child. 

In healthy and loving homes, our caregivers are sensitive and attuned to our needs. They give us affirmation. They respond to our physical needs (changing diapers, feeding us, taking care of us when we are sick). Moreover, they also attune to our emotional needs. They provide a sense of safety and validation in this new world we’re supposed to navigate.

Unfortunately,  in toxic home environments, caregivers do not adequately meet the needs of their children. Physical neglect is one thing (and an incredibly dangerous thing at that!), but the toll of emotional neglect can be far more insidious. Because the parent is often preoccupied dealing with his or her own emotional needs, there is less support to provide for the child. 

As a result, the child may grow up feeling insecure, anxious, or even abandoned. He or she may experience distrust in others. This lack of secure attachment makes it challenging for children to feel like they can safely rely on people to truly be there for them in times of distress.

Nonexistent or Inconsistent Structure

Structure is the cornerstone of healthy growth, and all children need boundaries. They need to know their limits for maneuvering their way around the world. 

In healthy environments, parents create and enforce appropriate boundaries for their children. These boundaries are not meant to be punitive or spiteful. Good boundaries are carved with love, intention, and protection. They are clear and enforced, and healthy parents stay consistent in implementing them. As a result, children grow up learning how to respect the needs of others.

In toxic homes, boundaries tend to be either nonexistent or wildly inconsistent. The child does not know what mood the parent will be in that day. One day, a rule will apply. The next, it won’t. 

Sometimes, the child is permitted to “run the show” and make his or her own guidelines. As these children grow, they often struggle with rebelling against authority. They don’t know who or how to trust others. Hungry for guidance, they are desperate to cling onto something- even if that something is just as toxic. 

Poor Modeling of Healthy Relationships

When we think of adverse childhood experiences, we often think of overt displays of abuse. However, parental modeling can be just as important in shaping a child’s well-being.

When children observe happy and healthy parents, they learn about the core tenets of respect and love. They internalize how adults should treat each other- even in times of stress or conflict. Parents play a crucial role in directly and indirectly modeling how adults should communicate and engage with one another. 

But what if the parents are always arguing or insulting one another? What happens if one parent is physically or emotionally toxic? What if children grow up witnessing constant criticism, blame, and intense conflict? 

They tend to struggle in intimate relationships themselves. This adverse childhood experience often causes children to repeat these ugly cycles in their adult lives. They will often choose partners who resemble one or more of their caretakers. They may become abusers or victims of abuse. Even though they desperately didn’t want to become their parents, they are at risk of becoming exactly like their parents. 

Stunted Identity Development

Children start exploring their preferences and passions from a young age. One day, they profess they want to be an astronaut. The next, they plan to be a doctor. This experimentation is normal. Children enjoy expressing themselves- they react to the world around them with curiosity and insight. 

In healthy homes, parents encourage this authentic exploration. In other words, they show interest in their child’s life. They ask questions without judgment, and they embrace the child’s joyful spirit. While it is normal to have some preferences for what your child does and doesn’t do, these parents don’t force these expectations.

However, in toxic environments, one or both parents may be rigid with their children. They have set ideas of what the child will and will not do. They may criticize, stunt, laugh, or downright refuse the child from pursuing certain interests. If the child does pursue interests outside the rigid rules, parents may react with hostility and threats.  

This rigidity can be detrimental to identity formation. Children can experience an immense sense of shame and low self-esteem. The child may grow up trying to “please the parent.” Likewise, he or she may struggle to distinguish individual needs from the needs of others.

Broken Trust 

Toxic environments (such as those where one parent is high on the narcissism spectrum) tend to breed broken trust, which tend to compound the vulnerability of adverse childhood experiences.

Without trust, the home simply isn’t safe. It becomes a place for survival- rather than a place of nurturing.

Children need to trust their parents- both implicitly and explicitly. After all, they depend on their parents for basic life necessities. They need to feel like they can rely on them. Even as children get older, this trust is still important. Adolescents and teenagers must know that their parents love them- even if they are rebelling, drifting apart, or spending more time with friends.

In toxic households, people don’t trust each other. Parents don’t trust their children, kids don’t trust their parents, and parents often don’t trust each other. It’s a constant cycle of shame, fear, and resentment.

Children in these households often grow up feeling neglected and unloved. They may be desperate for approval for others. With this sense of emptiness, they may spend their adult lives seeking for this love in other people or things.

Protecting Your Children From Adverse Childhood Experiences

As a parent, you want to do right by your children. You love them, and you want to provide them with the best life possible.

However, when you choose to stay with an abusive or toxic partner, you compromise your child’s safety and integrity. You choose to accept the negative, awful behavior. And that choice can have devastating consequences on your children.

With what we now know, we can almost predict that children who grow up in toxic home environments where one parent is narcissistic and emotionally abusive will develop narcissistic or codependent traits.

Although it may seem frightening, the best choice may be to consider leaving this negative relationship. Sometimes, with conscious effort, partners are willing to change and grow. However, if you’ve been running in the same circles, fighting the same fights, and suffering the same abuse, the chance for this transformation is slim because this is an indicator that you’re dealing with a narcissistic individual. And then, sadly, you are unwittingly taking part in the dynamic that could have harmful, long-term outcomes for your children.

Yes, your exit strategy may take time and planning. Yes, it may feel painful and devastating. However, as a parent, you have an obligation to protect and love your children to the best of your ability. The longer you stay in the sickness, the more you risk hurting the people you love the most.

Furthermore, you deserve to be happy! If you feel miserable and trapped in your relationship, that’s a problem that likely won’t improve on its own.  Join the many wonderful folks in The Essential Break Free Bootcamp who have finally found freedom and are healing their own lives.

If you’ve just found this site and are ready to begin your first steps to freedom, download your beginner’s healing roadmap below!  You get everything you need to start your healing journey.  It’s free!

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Melissa Noble- Contreras says February 17, 2020

I’m having a terrible problem having left the narcissistic ex. We have a daughter who is still a minor and one that has just left for college. The daughter who is home has had to live with my narc ex in a 50/50 situation. It has had detrimental effects on my daughter who now shows an absolute disgust for me due to ex’s venomous opposition to me. When she is with me she will not talk or just be her normal self. It’s like my ex and his wife have a spell on her. I see that she has been brainwashed by him. How can I get help I can’t seem to undue this damage it’s too much for me to handle. I escaped from him left the marriage but now my child is abused by him! The courts don’t help by giving these people the same rights as non abusers. Please help with any and all advice.

Olivia says February 15, 2020

Many of these situations ring a very loud bell with me. Thanks for summarising what happens in unhealthy homes.

Anonymous says February 15, 2020

I was with a narcissist for 4 years. I believed I had found my soulmate and the love of my life. Their were bad times and looking back I know it was his manipulative ways now. He had an older child and we instantly bonded. I was his safe haven and protector when his father acted up. I tolerated a lot because I felt like I needed to stay to protect him. I became sick and actually ended getting pregnant myself. Within weeks of us finding out his mask came completely off and physically became abusive with me. I left that day and never went back. I was emotionally distraught because I felt like I needed to return since he was the father of my child. I was torn. Later I found out that her had another woman in our apartment 3 weeks later. I pray for his son to find the stable person in his life, but I knew no matter how emotionally tied I felt to that man, I did not want my child to have the emotional abuse that I went through. Sometimes you really can’t see the reality until you remove yourself from the situation.

Kendon Lowe says January 16, 2020

I really appreciate your article on the devastation that a toxic home environment has on children. I have been in a physically, emotionally, sexually, and financially abusive relationship for 15 years. I’ve literally been stripped of all my rights and privacy as a human being. I want to leave, but I need help because I dont have any family or friends. Would you have any advice to give me? He is a narcissist, and has been cheating on me, his wife, with a man he met on a gay website. I’m totally disgusted and am afraid that if I stay, this will inevitably have a severe negative effect on me and both of my young girls.

Thank you,
Kendon M. Lowe

    RecoveringGirl says February 20, 2020

    Kendon – it has been a month since your post. I was in a marriage with a narcissist for 8 years and thankfully we did not have children. We were trying, and I thought that if I did, and he treated the child like he treated me that it would give me the strength to get out. Luckily, it did not come to that. But, now that you know what a narcissist is and does, you will see his actions and words unfold into a textbook definition. Children know. I grew up with 2 borderline personality parents, and both my brother and I are our 40s and single. Love yourself, love your children, find the strength to move forward and somehow get away from this person. You will never thrive with him around, and scared and still is how he wants you. Once you detach yourself from this toxic person, you will start to see doors open that you never imagined. be strong.

Nicky says October 8, 2019

Dear Kim, when I realised that my son was picking up some nasty characteristic traits I put the emphasis of my troubled marriage onto my husband and it resulted in him leaving me. My son has witnessed certain things, been taken away from me for over a year. He ran away from his father and he was making progress but 2 weeks ago he just decided he wont go to school anymore and I’m saddened to say that my son fights with me just like his dad and is full of excuses. I’m handling him with honesty and sticking to the truth and facts. He is listening and bumping his head and I’m certaintly not rigid and my son has had a good childhood and lots of love and effort has been put into him but he has not had the greatest role Model as a father and he is angry and hurt but I dont understand why he feels he can take it on me? I have come to understand that he is either feeding his ego or when he suffers from low self esteem he looks for sympathy and if you dont nurse what he needs he looses self control. He has broken so many things in my house and then he blames me for triggering him. He has become the same difficult boy that he became after witnessing his father almost kill me when he was 7 years old. He is 16 now and has the mentality of a 6 year old with an attitude of a miserable 61 year old and let’s not forget the frustrated 16year body.

Liz says October 5, 2019

I have found patterns of narcissism,co dependency,enablers,scapegoats,etc on both sides of my family.Domestic violence,abandonment of families,alcoholism,high school drop out,low self esteem,fake selves,parents died and the children are separated to live with extended family members,etc over 3 generations

Elizabeth says October 5, 2019

I was in an emotionally/mentally/verbally abusive relationship with my daughter’s father who is mostly certainly a narcissist. It was after my daughter’s birth that I finally summoned the courage to leave. We were able to move away from him, so I am hoping that he will not choose to exercise frequent visitation. I worry, however, about the impact on my daughter (either way). Will she resent me for not staying with her father? How do I best support her?

Indra says October 5, 2019

Yes , Children should be the reason we leave . It takes an immense amount of unconditional love for our kids to finally navigate the dynamics of how toxic their home lives were and why the non narcissistic parent had to leave

Andra Liquori says October 4, 2019

I was thinking about this today and having difficulty getting over the abuse of two highly narcissistic parents at age 60. My life was destroyed in every area because of their toxicity. There was never a feeling of love (never one hug or kind touch, only being hunted down like prey every day when my father came home from work in a blind, seething rage with me as his hated target). I frantically cleared volumes of clothes and boxes from the closet and under the bed to hide myself in terror from fear of being killed. When I begged him not to kill me he would come on stronger. He seemed to gain power and joy from it. My mother knew about all of it and didn’t care one bit. She enabled the abuse. Both were very rejecting of me otherwise.
There were inconsistent boundaries too. When I was around 13 I left home for a week and when I returned not a word was said. Ever since I was a very young child they didn’t care if I even went to bed at night. I sat up in the attic once and no one checked on me. However, if I put a fingerprint on the door I would be screamed at and punished. The punishment and bullying from my father was a constant thing. Yes, he hated me. I later found out that my mother hated me even more.
As an adult I became extremely depressed and was obsessed with thoughts of suicide, which were precipitated by a severe eye and face injury. At this point my mother told me that she wanted me to commit suicide, which I think got me started with the obsessive thinking. I lived in E.R.’s from attempts on my life and psychiatric institutions. I wound up in a very abusive marriage. The story of my marriage could make a movie they were that bad. The craziness outside of the marriage was a miserable nightmare too. I’m not exaggerating at all.
I realize I had abandonment issues throughout my life and co-dependency as well. No one would tolerate that kind of treatment. I did because I was disabled in every way though (invalid confined to bed and a wheelchair, for example) and I thought that was all I deserved. That I was a hideous person as my parents told me I was and led me to believe by their actions.
Looking back I think that had my mother left my father things could have been a little better. Way back then we didn’t know about narcissism and narcissistic abuse. Now people are more aware.

Manoj Jain says September 4, 2019

No two narcissist can be with each other they need an empathetic person to be with, so it is impossible that your dad and mom both are narcissist, probably your mom is not

Anonymous says August 12, 2019

I would like for more information on being in a long term narcissistic marriage (30 years) and with children and grandchildren. Without giving them a reason to blame the being left out on you? Mostly just being older and deciding to leave and healing.

Vivi says July 7, 2019

Excelente aporte. Desearía haberlo sabido hace once años, cuando mi hija mayor aún era niña, quizás habría reunido el valor que necesitaba para salir de un matrimonio tóxico. Aún tengo dos hijas más que están creciendo y al fin pude salir. Fue ver el daño en sus vidas, a causa de la toxicidad de la relación con su padre, la que me impulso a salir y procurarles un ambiente mejor. Gracias, por tu apoyo.

Mary says July 7, 2019

So very true, Kim. My father, and possibly my mother, now both in their 90’s, are narcissists. My brother has NPD, my sister is on anti-depressants, and I am starting treatment for co-dependency. All of us ‘kids’ are are in our sixties, so yes, this definitely affects children over the course of their lives. I am grateful for the awareness that encourages me to repair the damage. Thank you so much for your insights, and for sharing.

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