Review of Dr. Forward’s “Toxic Parents”

Toxic ParentsIn 1989, Dr. Susan Forward, a therapist and psychiatrist, published her case studies that she had accumulated after years of counseling adults who grew up with abusive parents. The title of the book was Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. It was a New York Times Bestseller on the subject of self-help; and from what I can see, has a very liberating and truth-telling character about it. From a Christian perspective, I would not recommend kids to read this, because it has some profanity that come out in the case studies. This is more appropriate for people in their 20s or 30s or older. She records the words of some very angry adults: men and women who feel like their childhoods as well as their adulthoods have been ruined by miserable, controlling parents. Profanity is an all too natural reaction for angry, unsaved people trying to blow off steam when reminiscing about the way they have been treated; and then having to come to terms with the fact that their parents really are to blame for their cruel behavior. There is a show on RLTV that comes on occasionally called Outlaw In-Laws and it touches on similar themes.

Much of the book seems to revolve around the theme of identifying inappropriate parental behavior, judging it, condemning it, and blaming parents for wrongs they have committed, yet continue to do without acknowledging. The path to emotional healing from such hurtful behavior, Forward says, is in identifying the wrongs of your parents and not blaming yourself for their wrongs. Abusive parents lack sensitivity and usually do not apologize for hurtful behavior; they also tend to blame their children for the hurtful things they say, so they feel justified in acting meanly to them.

Forward spends several chapters on subjects that would not apply to the masses, such as alcoholic parents (ch. 4), physically abusive parents (ch. 6), and sexually abusive parents (ch. 7). These are less common situations, but for those who might have been in those situations, she has answers for you too. My main concern here is on the subjects of controlling parents (ch. 3) and verbally abusive parents (ch. 5). I think that if there is a more popular type of toxic parent, then it is the psychologically abusive one that uses control, manipulation, and verbal abuse to keep even adult children under their thumb, and ultimately ruin their lives, and potentially break up their marriages. If we want to be good parents who do not provoke our children or adult children to wrath (Eph. 6:4), then I think it would be great to keep some important things about parenting in mind. And it can help to break any generational curses of bad parenting that we might have inherited from our parents and grandparents. Curses can’t be broken without repentance from sin and faith in the blood of Jesus; and Forward does a great job at identifying such parental sins.

In the Introduction, Forward shows the types of behaviors and character traits that you might find in an abusive parent:

1. Bad temper and relentless criticism.

2. Career idolatry.

3. Extreme physical punishment for small failings.

4. Intimidation and constant fear in children.

5. Jokes about child being ugly, stupid, or unwanted.

6. Manipulation with threats, guilt, or money.

7. No matter what, the child can never please them.

At one point Forward breaks and says, “Our parents plant mental and emotional seeds in us—seeds that grow as we do. In some families, these are seeds of love, respect, and independence. But in many others, they are seeds of fear, obligation, or guilt” (p. 5). It’s not hard to figure out which are seen as the good and bad parents in this quote. She takes an anti-spanking stance which I disagree with (Prov. 23:13-14), but she is doing so in the context of loose-cannon fathers beating their kids with belts for getting “Bs” on their report cards instead of “As.” She also admits that even good, healthy parents get angry at their kids and yell at them sometimes, but they are quick and sensitive enough to apologize to their kids when they go overboard. Again, the good parent is loving and sensitive enough to balance out nurture with admonition (Eph. 6:4), unlike the abusive parent who entirely neglects nurture, and only practices admonition in the most extreme and hateful ways. I would encourage the saints reading here to note that Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi had fathers like this; as did many Christian saints throughout church history…too many to name. Know that you are not alone: God is willing to adopt you as a Father! (Rom. 8:15). She nearly ends her Introduction with (p. 11):

You are not responsible for what was done to you as a defenseless child!
You are responsible for taking positive steps to do something about it now!

How sad it is that parents can do such a bad job at raising their kids, so that when they grow up, the only way they can move on with their lives, is to go get counseling from a therapist, who helps them to realize that their whole lives up until now, their parents have been mistreating them! They had known in their hearts something was wrong, but they fell under the illusion that this was how all parents are with their kids, and that they just needed to accept the negative behavior. Not anymore! Dr. Forward is forward enough to point out those wrongs and right them. But if parental wrongs are not identified as sinful, then no measures will be taken to avoid them or repent from them for future generations.

In chapter 3, which deals with controlling parents, and is titled, “Why Can’t They Let Me Live My Own Life?” she shows the specific motives that lie behind the actions of controllers. At the bottom of it, controlling parents feel inadequate about themselves and try to “feel needed” by their children. When the children become adults, the immaturity of this mentality comes to the surface, as they try to make their children feel insecure without them. No matter what they choose or think, it is made out to look like they are going to fail without their guidance. The children are meant to feel like morons who cannot think for themselves and need their parents’ wisdom all the time. Misery desires company: “I’m doing this because I’m so afraid of losing you that I’m willing to make you miserable” is the basic mentality of a controlling parent (p. 51). This can cause depression, schizophrenia, and even suicide!

Controlling parents will use an endless array of guilt-trips on their adult children. It is expected that you are to show up at Christmas,[1] and every other special occasion that Mother wants you to attend—regardless of your geographical location, and regardless of your personal commitments to your wife and kids. If you don’t comply, things can be said such as, “You’re killing your mother. She was up all night crying. I’m afraid she’s going to have a stroke” (p. 52). Since they have developed a lifelong pattern of disapproval, controllers often reject the fiancés or spouses of their adult children. This is usually the breaking point for the adult child, when he/she either realizes that something is seriously wrong with the parents; or when the realization comes that it causes strain on the marriage relationship, sometimes concluding in divorce.

Rather than being happy at seeing their adult child find a good spouse and be happy, they spite the child, and try to make him feel miserable and inadequate. They are parasitic and negative almost all the time; and very self-centered, only projecting their own unhappiness onto others, assuming that if they can’t be happy, then nobody deserves to be happy. This, of course, strikes at the very purpose of marriage: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). They are ashamed to admit that they are jealous of their children’s marriages, that they are so happy and things are turning out so well for them: at least they can try to make them unhappy a little bit through rude, controlling, and demeaning behavior, and “even the score” a little. The reality is, nobody is perfectly happy. Even in the best marriage relationships, husbands and wives still have to face financial, medical, and social struggles. Purposely trying to make anyone’s life worse is never justifiable. What is worse to think about, is when toxic parents are wasting their years acting like bratty eight year olds, their adult children are sitting there waiting for the day when they will grow up and provide the love, encouragement, support, respect, and guidance that they would expect out of any normal, healthy parent; but instead they get ripped off from this privilege, often waiting in vain for change.

One thing that Forward warns about at the close of chapter 3 is the error of “self-defeating rebellion” committed by adult children. It’s one thing to rebel against parents in order to avoid the influence of their sins on you, it’s quite another to overreact and rebel against their excesses in such a way that it would hinder your own happiness and independence. For example, if you have a controlling parent that is obsessed with your financial security, and he is obsessed with money all the time, and is greedy, and miserly, and snobbish—it would be a big mistake to overreact and intentionally live in total poverty just to spite the parent. That would have a lasting effect on your own personal happiness. That would be a self-defeating rebellion; or, a form of rebellion that actually ends up hurting you in the end, rather than helping you out.

In chapter 5, which deals with verbally abusive parents, and is titled, “The Bruises Are All On the Inside,” she shows in laymen’s terms that in the psychiatric community, the term “verbal abuse” generally means insult. The word insult can be defined as “speaking to or treating with disrespect or scornful abuse.” When parents insult their children, they are verbally abusing them; they are attacking them, wounding them, hurting their psyche, their sense of value, self-worth, and self-esteem. Often when these emotionally battered children grow up, they have difficulties working with managers in the workplace, because they overreact to corrections and interpret them as insults: this is called having an “authority problem”—being unable to tell the difference between a respectful and disrespectful use of authority (p. 109). In the minds of such victims, all authorities are disrespectful and insulting, and should be disrespected in return. But this is not reality. While Lord Acton’s dictum rings true, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” it is also true that there are some people in places of authority that know how to respect those under them; but this is usually due to the grace of God working in their lives, and them having suffered personally from other tyrants in their lives. Such men have been healed from their wounds; and long to show others how proper authority can be exercised.

Verbally abusive parents insult their children openly and indirectly. They might make brash out-in-the-open statements about the child being ugly, stupid, worthless, or unsuccessful in something. More often they might make indirect statements out of the corner of their mouths, in order that others in the family don’t recognize it as abuse—such as teasing, sarcasm, insulting nicknames, put-downs, or cracking cruel and belittling jokes at the child’s expense (which goes against Ephesians 5:4). This sounds a lot like Proverbs 26:18-19: “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death, is the one who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’” Forward says, “Positive humor is one of our most valuable tools for strengthening family bonds. But humor that belittles can be extremely damaging within the family” (p. 98).

If a father treated his son this way all the time growing up, wouldn’t it sound like a joke to him, if God expected him to “honor his father,” without hesitation? (Exodus 20:12). How can he do this? He can bear it patiently, get out of the house as quickly as possible, and pray for him; but he doesn’t have to pretend that his father has behaved honorably; nobody is saying that God wants you to honor men who have shown you nothing but disrespect and stirred up hate in your heart. God would expect you to remove yourself from them—“Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1:1)—but God would want you to say, “I forgive my dad, because he didn’t know what he was doing,” and try to move on with your life without his negative influence (Luke 23:34). Of course, the same thing applies to mothers and daughters.

Verbally abusive parents often feed off of a sense of personal failure and personal inadequacy. They often get it from their own parents’ ideas of perfectionism and competition; and as their children grow older, they also hold them to these unreasonably high standards, which are often impossible to measure up to, and the kids are then belittled for their constant failures to meet these standards, which are often vague and locked up in their parents’ minds. This is why these parents need to be forgiven, at least in the hearts of their victims: because they are acting foolishly: they literally don’t understand what it is they are doing wrong. They have been brainwashed to think perfectionistic and competitive, and to harshly judge and evaluate their children based on those so-called high ideals (which are often not based on the Bible and certainly not on the Gospel). I agree with Forward when she says:

People can forgive toxic parents, but they should do it at the conclusion—not at the beginning—of their emotional housecleaning. People need to get angry about what happened to them. They need to grieve over the fact that they never had the parental love they yearned for. They need to stop diminishing or discounting the damage that was done to them. Too often, “forgive and forget” means “pretend it didn’t happen” (p. 189).

Confronting toxic parents is the only road to personal independence in your life. If you want to forgive them, and get your anger out, then you need to frankly tell them what they did that hurt you, how it bothers you now, and that you want them to change—if not, oh well (p. 239).

[1] Under a heading that says, “’Tis the Season to Be Melancholy,” she says, “Manipulative parents have a field day on holidays, spreading guilt as if it were Christmas cheer. Holidays tend to intensify whatever family conflicts already exist” (p. 61). Merry Christmas! seems like a mockery to people who live in families like this. Wary Christmas! would seem more fitting.

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