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Toxic Parents: Identifying Unhealthy Behavior in Your Family

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Hazel Caingcoy · Updated Jun 21, 2022

Toxic Parents: Identifying Unhealthy Behavior in Your Family

Do you like your mom and dad? Without your knowing, you may have toxic parents. Identifying a toxic parent — and finding out if you are mimicking their behavior — can be challenging. After all, they are the people who raised you. If you have lived with unhealthy or abusive behavior your entire life, it can be hard to tell if you have toxic parents or not. Let’s take a closer look at unhealthy parental behavior.

Unhealthy Patterns of Behavior in the Family

Unhealthy patterns within the family can negatively impact a person’s life, and they can be repeated when that person eventually has their own family. Sometimes, parents and caregivers fail to understand that certain family dynamics are unhealthy or do not know how to alter them. It’s important to take note of these patterns. Do you like your mom and dad? If not, maybe it’s because they are showing these patterns.

Dysfunctional families frequently exhibit the following patterns:


Do you like your mom or dad when they’ve had a few bottles of beer? Often, one or both parents struggle with addictions that strongly influence other family members. These could come in the form of addiction to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, overworking, or overeating.


Physical violence is a method of control that may be used by one or both parents. There may be instances of violence, or violent punishment of siblings. Even the fear of angry outbursts among family members is a form of violence.


With this unhealthy behavior, the child is exploited by one or both parents and treated as material possessions whose purpose it is to meet their physiological and/or emotional needs. A common example for this would be parents using their child as a retirement plan. 

Lack of Support

Do you like your mom or dad when they brush off your problems? Parents who display a lack of support are incapable of providing financial and basic physical needs of their children, or threaten to withhold support or care. It is also common for either or both parents to be unable to provide adequate support for their children emotionally.


Do you like your mom and dad for never listening to what you want? Children can experience strong authoritarian control from either one or both parents. In many cases, these families are strict adherents to a particular belief — religious, political or personal.  In such families, children must obey all rules and meet all expectations. For example, female children are subjected to fixed marriages against their will. 

It’s important to remember that just because these patterns exist within a family doesn’t mean they are dysfunctional. The extent and degree of these patterns, as well as how much it affects the family members, play a huge role in determining if a family is toxic or dysfunctional. 

Dysfunctional Families

There is dysfunction in the family when unhealthy patterns hinder a child from feeling safe, loved and cared for. When these unhealthy patterns result in injury, mental burden and emotional turmoil, it affects a child’s choices in life and how they interact with others. Here are some of the clear signs and behaviours of dysfunctional families. 


Parental control is often the most common hallmark of dysfunctional family structures. Parents may constantly compare children with each other, make them compete for love, or pit them against one another. In addition to dependency, lack of privacy is a key element of control. 

Studies show that those who reported their parents invaded their privacy when they were young or encouraged dependency were less likely to score well in studies of happiness and wellbeing. 

A child who was not brought up to make their own decisions will lack the confidence necessary to excel in the classroom or at work.

Substance Abuse

Families affected by substance abuse and/or drug use tend to establish rules, roles, and relationships centered around the abuse of alcohol and/or other substances. 

There are also certain roles that family members tend to play such as enablers and scapegoats. 

The enablers do whatever they can to provide a smooth household run, even though substance abuse is taking place. The scapegoat, on the other hand, is a family member who acts out in order to divert attention from problems at home.


Do you like your mom and dad when they always want you to be perfect? A parent who is a perfectionist might be creating a dysfunctional family. It is very hard for them to accept failure when it comes to their children or family members. 

Being too concerned about perfection can result in a reduction in playfulness and knowledge assimilation in children, resulting in a lasting negative effect. 

Perfectionism causes individuals to continually feel inadequate due to a constant source of negative emotions.

Overly Critical

It is especially challenging for children to cope with criticism and verbal abuse. Do you like your mom and dad when they always point out what’s wrong?

The parents of children growing up in dysfunctional homes may criticize a child’s looks, intelligence, value, or abilities. Criticism can take various forms. Some of are direct, while others, such as teasing or put-downs, are subtle. 

No matter the delivery, persistent criticism from parents can have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem and development.


Members of dysfunctional families display a lack of empathy amongst each other. Parents sometimes become judgmental instead of loving their children. 

A dysfunctional parent might use anger or derision instead of understanding the child’s feelings, making the child feel guilty or humiliated. Children internalize negative feelings when their parents do not show them emotional empathy.

Key Takeaways

A toxic parent can be difficult to identify. You can’t tell if they are toxic parents because you’ve lived with their behavior all your life. 
Some parents may exhibit unhealthy patterns such as addictions, violence, exploitation, lack of support, and control but this doesn’t mean that the family is dysfucntional. 
A dysfunctional family is one in which unhealthy patterns significantly inhibit a child’s feeling of safety, love, and care. The impact of unhealthy patterns on a child’s body, mental health, and emotional well-being will greatly affect how they live their lives and how they relate to others.

Learn more about Parenting here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Written by Hazel Caingcoy · Updated Jun 21, 2022

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