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Coping with A Self Destructive Parent

Updated on January 22, 2016

What is self destructive behaviour and how does it affect a child?

When a parent ages it is often one child out of several that aide the parent, helping with doctor visits, finances, other appointments and daily living tasks. What about grieving for a parent that is still relatively young? Parents have major impact on the development of children long term. "Parenting and the Child's World: Influences on Academic, Intellectual and Socioemotional Development," to be published next year by Erlbaum."Parenting matters," says developmental psychologist John Borkowski, PhD, co-editor of the book with Sharon Ramey, PhD.

In this article, destructive behaviours of the parent and how they affect the long term development of children will be covered. Self destructive behaviour is a widely used phrase that conceptualizes certain kinds of destructive acts as belonging to the self. It also has the property that it characterizes certain kinds of self-inflicted acts as destructive.

Self destructive acts include:

  • Pushing away loved ones
  • Self harming (i.e cutting)
  • Over eating or under eating
  • Harming others
  • Self pity
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Alienating and isolating oneself
  • Refusing to ask or accept help
  • Over spending
  • Neglecting personal health
  • Sabotaging relationships
  • Self sacrificing then feeling overwhelmed
  • Lying, cheating and stealing

A child that is affected in this case can be a child of the parent at any age, as the affects of a self destructive parent can be seen long term, causing serious psychological issues and possible self destructive behaviours in the child that can carry on into adulthood.

Side affects and personal experience

Compassion fatigue is something that is caused by caring for another individual without caring for oneself. This often results in destructive emotions and self destructive behaviours and worsen over a period of time. As a result of dealing or living with a self destructive parents children can acquire post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbances, flashbacks (usually fights), extreme anxiety, and depression.

Guilt, depression and fear play a major role in the life of a child with a destructive parent. They often feel guilty that "this" is happening and that they cannot find a way to fix the "problem". Depression and fear happen when a child is constantly worried about a parents health and that they may die.

As an adult child of a parent who has self destructive tendencies, I personally worry about the health of my father. Watching a parent smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, drink, and eat an unhealthy diet takes it's toll. When I lived with my father I would listen to him cough severely every morning, throughout the day, and at night before bed. The sound of him coughing was enough to install fear into the deepest part of my stomach. Knowing that one day he will probably develop lung cancer, liver problems, bowel problems, a heart attack or stroke. About a year ago, I found out that my father had suffered a minor heart attack, It was terrifying. Soon after he changed his ways for a little bit and cut down on drinking, tried to quit smoking, and ate healthier adding more fruits and vegetables to his diet. Although over the last year things have not only gone back to normal they seem to be worsening, often leaving my father depressed and drinking even more. As someone who is often too involved, too caring for her own good, I had to learn not to parent my own parent, and that their life is exactly that, their own life. I sill tend to worry sometimes, but know now that I am powerless over what others do, say, think and feel. To cope I have gone through lots of therapy and group sessions with other people who are affected by similar issues, and it has helped greatly.

Children who have parents that are substance abusers are more likely to become victims of physical and sexual abuse, and four times more likely to develop substance abuse issues themselves.

The long term effects vary but are not limited to:

  • Patterns of fear and lack of trust
  • Difficulties with emotional regulation and stress management
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Distorted sense of self
  • Trouble with relationships
  • Behavioural issues
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Poor decision making skills
  • Giving into the will of the parent, not following their own life path

Are You A Parentified Child?

Nina W. Brown, Ed.D., L.P.C., N.C.C., has developed a list of questions which identify wether a child has become the "parent".

A parents role is to help a child become independent, self sufficient and have an autonomous unique sense of self. Sometimes a parent may feel threatened when a child starts to develop independence resulting in becoming an over controlling parent or putting the emotional, physical and psychological responsibilities of well-being onto the child. The child is then in the role of the parent.

Read the following questions and see if any fit your experiences with your parent.

  • Were you made to feel responsible for your parents feelings, well-being and/or general welfare?
  • Did your parent seem to be indifferent or ignore your feelings much of the time?
  • Were you frequently blamed, criticized, devalued and/or demeaned?
  • When your parent was upset or displeased, were you the target of his or her negative feelings?
  • Did you feel that you were constantly trying to please your parent only to fall short much or all of the time (i.e. you could never please him or her)?
  • Do you recall hearing one or both parents say any of the following?

• "Don’t you want me to feel good?"

• "You make me feel like a failure when you do"

• "You ought to care about me.

• "I feel like a good parent when someone praises you."

• "If you cared about me, you would do what I want you to."

You can also review the characteristics of a parent with a personality disorder that results in self destructive tendencies and parent role reversal:

One or both of your parents:

• constantly sought attention and admiration

• wanted to be considered unique and special

• tried, or did, exploit others

• lacked empathy

• was emotionally abusive

• gave orders and expected immediate obedience

• had an inflated self-perception

• was arrogant or contemptuous

• exhibited an entitlement attitude


Responses To Parental Role Reversal:

• spend a great deal of your time taking care of others

• are constantly alert about acting in a way to please others

• are very conforming

• feel responsible for the feelings, care and welfare of others

• tend to be self-depreciating

• rush to maintain harmony and to soothe others feelings

• seldom get your needs met

There can also be:

  • Defiance
  • Rebellion
  • Withdrawal or insensitivity
  • On the constant look out for manipulation from others

Throughout life you may deal with:

• Generalized dissatisfaction with self and the course of your life

.• Trying, but not succeeding, to be in emotional sync with others.

• Constant reflection on your flaws, incompetence, and other faults

• Lack of meaningful and satisfying relationships

• The inability to allow others to become intimate or close

• Meaning and purpose in your life is lacking

• There are interpersonal problems with family, friends and/or work relationships

• You constantly feel isolated and alienated (i.e. not connected to others)

• You are overwhelmed by others demands or expectations

Information can be found at: http://www.wmeades.com/id211.htm

Recovering From A Toxic Parent

It is okay to let go of toxic people including parents, even if it just for a short time period, until you become stronger and better able to put down firm boundaries.

Setting boundaries are tough at first and if you fail a few times don't be discouraged because setting good boundaries come with a lot of practice.

Boundaries sound like:

"I am not comfortable with you drinking around me, when I come to visit please don't drink around me, if you do I will have to stop visiting"

"I have an appointment at 3 so I can't give you a ride, I hope you can find other arrangements"

If someone asks you about something personal and you don't wish to share you can simply say "I am not comfortable talking about that at this moment"

and always remember NO is a complete sentence!

This isn't being mean, this is putting yourself and your needs first, because no one else is going to do it for you.

Learn to love yourself again. This can take on many forms but often it means taking care of your physical and mental well-being first, because if your not healthy your no good to anyone else.

It may also mean setting up a personal date where you do something alone that is nurturing to your inner child. Try something you have always wanted to do, or something that you have been neglecting, make it fun, creative and light hearted.

Practice self soothing words and really pay attention to what is going on in your head on a day to day basis. Don't let the "gremlins" inside of your head get to you, know that somewhere inside of you is a strong, competent, loving person that is ready to come out.

Start eating a healthy diet full of omega 3, finer, fruits and veggies, and cut out unneeded sugars and fats. Eating a poor diet can make you feel fatigued and have a lower mood over all.

Exercising, meditating or any other form of relaxation can greatly improve the body and the brain's ability to function and cope with stress and recovery.

Try not to fall into toxic behaviours yourself .

Review what toxic behaviours are and any that you may have.

Learn how to root them out and possibly seek professional one on one counselling.

Learn about co-dependency, what it is and how it plays a role in toxic parenting.

Above all else, don't be too hard on yourself, your human to you know.

Professional Help


Many counsellors have extensive training in developmental issues such as childhood trauma. They can help to identify coping strategies, behavioural patterns, insights into better parenting for children you may have, and overall recovery from some of life's toughest issues.

They may offer one on one counselling, group therapy, psychologist visits, self help strategies etc.

Forgiveness is not for the other person (like we have all heard before and rolled our eyes) but no, seriously, yes the person wronged you. Yes it was horrible. But we don't have to live in that anymore. They don't get to have power over us any longer. Forgiveness is the act of taking your own personal power back. It is an on-going process. Letting go of resentments, anger, frustration and guilt is like losing 50 pounds and feeling amazing. Those toxic feelings do not need to be ruining other parts of our lives and our relationships with others. Forgiveness is perhaps the strongest tool in your recovery box. Don't be surprised if from day to day you forgive, then take it back, then forgive, then take it back. Forgiveness as with many things, takes time and patience, but it's reward is tenfold.

How to deal with difficult and toxic people

If you have a toxic or self destructive parent what are you using to cope?

See results

Recovery Is Possible, Trust me.

Recovering from a toxic and self destructive parent can be scary at first. It means breaking out of that false comfort zone that we have lived in for way too long. It means daring to change, daring to be great, daring to break the cycle. It means overcoming your fears and finding your self worth and confidence again. It may mean letting go of toxic parents or distancing yourself for a period of time. It might mean groups and therapy and lots and lots of talking. But in this sometimes messy journey we learn to love ourselves again, we create bonds with others who have had the same experiences, we make friends and learn to help others who are new to recovering as well.

We learn that our past experiences don't make us who we are today, we are not what we did in the past. We learn that our past experiences can help others and that it was not all for nothing. We may even find that by taking the first scary leap towards recovery some of our parents are encouraged by our strength and want to recover too.

If it is any help at all, I have been there, I have done all the recovery techniques and coping strategies, I now have a relationship with both my parents that are structured around strong boundaries, the belief that we are only human, and lots and lots of love. There is a magnificent and better way of living. Don't be afraid to ask for and receive help, don't be discouraged when you fall a few times, the strongest are those who get back up and try again, because every fall, every attempt at victory brings us closer to healing.

Contact me directly to talk, share and discuss at carleecolico@yahoo.ca or on twitter https://twitter.com/carleelynnlloyd

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    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 19 months ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      This is a very informative article. I began reading it, fearing that I might be a self destructive parent.

      As I read, I realized that growing up, my parents exhibited many of those traits. Now, as a parent of eight children, three of whom still live at home, I am trying to empower them to be independent and self reliant.

      But I still struggle with my own self worth and value.

      Thanks for shedding some light.

      Namaste