The most toxic parents are the parents that do not at all look toxic. To the outside world they appear as the most normal parents of all. Children of such parents do not even know that they are being poisoned. Nor does anybody else, until it is too late.
Some parents are obviously abusive, either sexually or physically. In this case it is also obvious that they are toxic, and children have less trouble understanding this kind of abuse and realizing how they have been harmed by it. They can therefore predict and learn to control such abuse to minimize its harm.
The most toxic parents are all about appearances. The are often leading citizens of their communities. They serve on committees. They give to charities. They are deacons of churches. They convince themselves, their children and everybody else that they have only the best intentions. And they really believe it. Their toxicity becomes lethal because it is hidden. Nobody would ever think that such people have a single bad thought because they themselves would never think it.
In one case to which I became acquainted a disturbed mother treated her oldest daughter as if she was disturbed. The mother projected her own disturbance onto this particular daughter. The mother was in complete denial of her own disturbance. It was her daughter who was disturbed, and this is how she “cast” her from the beginning. As the daughter (we’ll call her Megan) grew older, her younger brothers and sisters were made aware that Megan had problems and they treated her the same way her mother treated her.
In normal, healthy parenting, a child’s ego is supported and she is encouraged to be who she is and made to feel that she has great judgment, healthy instincts and is someone who is trustworthy and sensible. In the kind of twisted upbringing I am referring to, the child is made to feel abnormal, to have crazy judgments, unhealthy instincts and is deemed untrustworthy and not sensible.
Megan’s mother played the part of the long-suffering mother. She went to doctor after doctor and was extremely concerned about her daughter. This only made the daughter more disturbed, because deep inside Megan knew that her mother was being hypocritical. Megan had tried over and over to demonstrate the traits her mother seemed to value in her siblings, but her mother never noticed. In kind of disturbance, the parent has a need to demonize a certain child, and nothing can dissuade the parent from that goal. The need is unconscious and is often generated by an upbringing in which something similar happened to the parent. This is a particular kind of narcissism that I call the Demonizing Parent Syndrome.
To her mother, Megan was inexorably, inexplicably twisted. Eventually Megan gave up trying to be good and began being the demon her mother wanted her to be. Eventually she began to hate her mother. “I want to kill her,” she told doctors. The mother responded, crying. “I just don’t know why she got that way. My husband and I have tried everything we could to help her.
Megan started acting out at home and at school, and by the time she was an early adolescent she was put into a mental hospital. Her mother sobbed uncontrollably when she signed the papers to put her into the hospital. Her Dad was stoic. Her brothers and sisters were not surprised. Megan felt relieved. In the hospital there were fellow patients who listened to her and tried to understand her and also understand how she got that way. Some staff members listened too, and saw that the family was toxic to Megan, and they recommended keeping her in the mental hospital, where she was flourishing. Megan always knew that she was not as disturbed as her mother made her out to be. But because of crowded space in hospitals she was sent back to the family and became even sicker.
Such cases happen all the time and nobody knows about them. A disturbed parent—it can be a mother or father or other guardian—will project their disturbance onto a particular child. Often it is a beautiful and smart child, someone who is threatening to the fragile, disturbed ego of the parent. The parent perhaps had a childhood in which the same thing was done to them. These things can be passed on from generation to generation.
Emotional abuse of this kind is hardly ever detected. When a parent takes a small child to a pediatrician, who is the doctor going to listen to, the parent or the child? The parent cries and shakes and says he or she has done everything possible. “What else can I do? Please tell me, Doctor?” The doctor is going to listen to the parent. The child is too confused, too discombobulated to speak in a coherent way about what is going on. If the child says something like, “She is making me crazy. She acts nice to others, but she is making me crazy,” the doctor will reply, “There, there, I’m sure your mother (or father) means well.” No one wants to hear what this child is saying.
In such instances, the parent’s disturbance remains hidden, projected onto the child. On some level the child sees this deception and become confused, angry and eventually enraged. The parent expresses deep sympathy for the targeted child and her siblings express deep sympathy for her and the submissive parent, to whom she turns for solace, tries to support her, but the submissive is under the sway of the dominant parent. There is nobody to whom the child can turn.
Such children spend a life feeling they have been unfairly miscast by the casting director. They become the disturbed people their parents cast them as, and they begin to act more and more disturbed. The toxin is deep inside them and has rendered them helpless. And the world sympathizes with the poor parents who have to deal with such “disturbed” children.