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5 of the Best Self-Help Books on Overcoming Toxic Parents

Growing up with toxic parent can deal a serious toll, emotionally, physically, and mentally. Toxic parenting can take a range of forms, in some cases it is clear cut, such as physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, however in many cases it can be more oblique, such as emotional manipulation, controlling behaviours, and neglect. It can be incredibly difficult to put a finger on precise toxic behaviours, as many of them gain momentum through repetition over time. One bad argument or misplaced remark doesn’t equate to toxicity, but even relatively mild behaviours over time can snowball into more damaging expressions. What makes it particularly problematic to identity is that a child raised in a toxic environment will have very little frame of reference for normal and natural family relationships. This, coupled with typical secrecy of private family life and the conflicting feelings of love, mean that it can take a person a long time to identify what has been happening to them. To quote acclaimed psychotherapist Susan Forward

Most adult children of toxic parents grow up feeling tremendous confusion about what love means and how it’s supposed to feel. Their parents did extremely unloving things to them in the name of love.

This makes it so that unfortunately, despite some efforts to provide a checklist for those searching online, such as this one, there is no one clear-cut way to test experiences of toxic parents against. The signs can be subtle and variegated. Nevertheless, toxic parenting can have serious impact on a person’s life, their emotional and physical welfare, and their ability to maintain other relationships. This list of self help books is geared towards those who had to handle toxic parents as a child, and now as an adult are seeking help, to deal with their memories, to recover, and to find healing. If you are looking for accounts of toxic parents in memoirs and autobiographies you can find a list here, and if you wish to explore toxic parents in literature you can find lists here and here

Toxic Parents

This book is generally considered the seminal work on the topic of toxic parenting, in fact it was this book that Susan Forward coined the term ‘toxic parent.’ Drawing on her 18 years of experience as a therapist, Forward opens the book with a list of the general types of toxic parents. This list, which includes ‘Inadequate Parents,’ ‘Controllers,’ ‘Alcoholics,’ ‘Verbal Abusers,’ ‘Physical Abusers,’ and ‘Sexual Abusers’ to are used to help identify if this book is for you. Before devoting a chapter to each of these types however, Forward leads the reader through some introductions. She outlines the effects of toxic parenting, how and why it can manifest negatively in adult life, and the reason it should be addressed at its source. Crucially she also outlines what doesn’t constitute toxic parenting, her first chapter is titled ‘The Myth of the Perfect Parent.’ Her advice manages to walk the fine line between compassionate and practical. She brushes off the approach that children of toxic parents shouldn’t expect to be affected by their past, she clearly highlights that adult life is shaped by experiences endured as a child, for which parents are responsible. However, despite her urging to identify parents as the root to current problems, she takes no pitstops for self-pity or indulgence. She is working to help people take responsibility for their lives now. The second part of her book focusses on reclaiming your life and unhooking yourself from the negative cycle of destructive and hurtful behaviour. She brings her readers on a difficult journey, one which certainly requires compassion, but also motivation and clear direction. Forward’s book provides all these things, and is an ideal place to start unpacking the effects of toxic parenting, and freeing yourself from them.

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Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

While some experiences of toxic parenting are overtly destructive, such as physical and sexual abuse, there is still a great deal of harm that comes from less obviously damaging behaviours. Lindsay C. Gibson’s guide to dealing with the consequences of having an emotionally immature parent, takes readers through the ‘vague and private experience, not easy to see or describe’ of growing up without emotional intimacy. Emotionally immature parents are those that neglect their child’s emotional needs in favour of their own self-protection against emotional strain. Gibson identifies four types: emotional parents who constantly swing between over-involvement and dereliction of interest, driven parents who compulsively attempt to perfect their environs and children in order to stabilise their feelings, passive parents who avoid interacting with anything that might upset them, and rejecting parents who detach or become angry when faced with problems. While experiencing these kinds of parenting may not be excessively traumatic, they can still have a profound impact on the way a person develops habits and grows relationships. There is often a sense of loneliness and abandonment that can accompany a child throughout their life. Gibson provides an exploration into the reasons why parents can act like this, and so from there delineates appropriate responses and approaches to extricating yourself from these negative feelings. Gibson occasionally falls into melodramatic language, yet she still provides useful exercises in self-understanding to counter the habits developed in childhood to adapt to the types of parenting experienced. The book also shines a light on an often overlooked aspect of toxic parenting, due to it’s more slight appearance in contrast to other more clearly traumatic parenting failures.

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Children Of The Self-Absorbed

Tackling another aspect of toxic parenting, Children of the Self-Absorbed, takes a look at narcissistic parents and their toxic behaviours toward their children. The inwardly focussed nature of narcissists means that they tend to force their children to care for them, to give them attention, and to build up their ego, usually while being intolerant of criticism or the needs of others. Similarly, the narcissist’s need for attention and glory tends to mean that they have high expectations for their children, they expect them to succeed and achieve great things in order to reflect well on the parent. Nina W. Brown goes through the various types of destructive narcissistic behaviours while also highlighting the differences between healthy adult narcissism, and the pathological kind, she also provides guides on how to cultivate healthy approaches to narcissism in yourself. What makes Brown’s book a real gem however, is her approach to helping adult children with their ongoing relationships with their self-absorbed parents. She firmly believes that giving up on relationships is not something everyone need consider. Instead she takes readers through step-by-step guides on learning to cope with criticism and selfish behaviour. She even tailors her advice to specific scenarios that are likely to arise in a person’s day-to-day life, such as difficult interactions at holiday gatherings. Brown’s guidebook is not just for overcoming the negative feelings from childhood, but also for learning how best to manage ongoing issues in a way that is constructive and practical.

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Healing the Child within

A classic in the field of psychology, Charlie Whitfield’s book presents his pioneering concept of the Child Within. The concept centres on the idea that there is a version of ourselves within us that is truly us, at our most fulfilled, but this version can get lost through hurt and trauma, and so we must heal it in order to heal ourselves outwardly. First published in 1987, Whitfield’s concept has been widely popular, and has been supported by an ever-growing amount of medical backing. It also continues to be utilized by spiritual and wellness proponents such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Although Whitfield’s book was written shortly before the term 'toxic parent' was first popularized, it remains a useful and insightful tool for anyone looking to overcome the negative effects of childhood trauma and abuse. The first half of the book details the studies and scientific understanding of approaches to childhood trauma and family dysfunction. Whitfield describes the reasons children take these experiences into their adult lives, and the various ways this manifests. The book then takes the reader through a 12 step self-help recovery movement that is closely aligned with the alcohol-and-family treatment movement, and utilises spiritual and meditation practices. However, Whitfield pushes neither the 12 step programme nor the spiritual aspect, and provides useful solutions for anyone to work through their issues. His work remains a classic for a reason, it continues to resonate with its readers as an insightful tool in their journey of self-healing.

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If You Had Controlling Parents

The final book on this list is Dan Neuhart’s examination of the lasting effects of being brought up in a controlling household, with an adult or guardian who uses excessively overbearing, authoritarian, or manipulative methods of raising children. The use of controlling behaviour is closely linked to a variety of other types of toxic parenting, as many of them stem from an over-exertion of power. Indeed, Neuharth names eight different strands of controlling behaviour, from smothering parenting, to cult-like parenting, to abusing parenting, showing the range of ways controlling behaviour can manifest. Neuhart lays his information out clearly, providing tables that contrast healthy and unhealthy parenting behaviour, as well as bullet-pointed recaps and clearly labelled lists. He also devotes chapters to each of the steps in coming to terms with your parents; whether you should confront your parents, whether you can forgive them, and whether you can accept them, are each given space in their own chapter to help you come to terms with the approach that is right for you. Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming experiences of toxic parenting, Neuharth’s book allows you to tailor your approach to your own situation. There a great number of practical suggestions to help you break emotional ties with your past, and improve your own confidence, assertiveness, and sense of peace. This approachable and helpful guide is perfect for anyone looking to break the cycle of controlling behaviour and to break away from its lingering effects on their lives. 

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I love to read, cook, and travel. My favourite books are anything Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but I also love non-fiction history and self-help.


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