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.
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 won’t improve on its own. Join the many wonderful folks in The Break Free Program who have finally found freedom and are healing their own lives, and their children’s lives, as well.
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