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Co-Parenting — 6 Toxic Parent Tactics & How To Respond.

Modern Parent

Hannah Rodrigo

When two parents stay friends and successfully co-parent their children, it’s absolute bliss. I realize this now, having co-parented relatively well the first time, then an unnecessary fiasco the second time around.

We all have our little toxicities we’re trying to manage; well, most of us hope to improve on ourselves.

Good co-parenting involves a little negotiation and some sacrifices. There are no such things as toxic co-parenting, no negotiation, and one parent ends up making all the sacrifices.

Toxic parents place constant demands on everyone, create unnecessary drama, micro-manage every aspect of their children’s lives, and consistently change or ruin plans.

Tiny children can do little to combat toxic behaviors, but they can learn how to respond effectively by picking up on the emotions and responses of a stable parent.

Let’s get straight to some of the most common tactics of toxic parents and how you can prevent intoxication:

1. Constantly Canceling, Postponing, or Changing Plans.

This is part of life, we’ve all had to change plans now and again. However, with a toxic parent, the plan is never the original plan. They always have to control things, are usually the ones making plans, and their lives are the most important, so everybody is expected to work around them.

Broken promises break children. A child’s emotions develop according to the emotional stimulation they receive from their primary caregiver/s. A parent who consistently breaks promises teaches a child that it is acceptable behavior and is not worthy of keeping promises.

The child learns to distrust the parent and other authority figures, potentially leading to behavioral problems such as becoming defiant or people-pleasing in an attempt to gain the trust and respect of others.

“When we keep promises with our kids, we help them to develop an understanding of trust and respect for others,” — Jodie Benveniste, Psychologist and Director of Parent WellBeing.

The best way to deal with this is to be firm with the toxic parent about not affecting plans in the future, pointing out every person involved, and checking that it works for them slowly and considerately.

The toxic parent won’t pick up on it, but your child will. Slow and steady will keep you calm enough to set boundaries around the next time plans are changed with next to no notice, i.e.

“I would rather [child’s name] have some stability, could you make sure you are firm on the next plan?” and don’t be afraid to suggest legal support, “These constant changes aren’t working, shall we consider setting some firm times with a mediator so [child’s name] can gain some stability?”

2. Micromanagement.

Controlling parents micromanage of a child’s life so much can damage their self-identity, self-esteem, ability to manage themselves, and their physical and mental health, particularly for children in the vital birth to five year age group.

A controlling parent can stunt a child’s behavioral and emotional development, limiting their personal and social skills, impeding their opportunities in education, relationships, and job prospects from adolescence to adulthood.

Children of strict or helicopter parents that do not learn negotiation skills can end up oppositionally defiant. An oppositionally defiant child reacts similarly to children who have suffered trauma, they are quick to anger, blame others, disruptive in class, emotionally reactive, and vengeful.

Beth Arky describes 5 age-related parenting therapies for oppositionally defiant children that provide strategies for preventing and managing such behaviors. Parent-child interactive therapies are great tools to keep in the back of your mind when facing conflicts with your children.

Negotiation skills are effective techniques for you and your children to cope with controlling people. Having the ability to stand up for yourself and your principles while appreciating opposing views strengthens confidence in addressing conflict. I love Sorin Dumitrascu’s 3 negotiation techniques; paraphrase, share, and ask questions in “Preparing for Difficult Discussions.”

3. Deny, Blame, Lie.

This is a cyclical tactic where promises are made then denied, the other parent or even the child is blamed for getting it wrong, then if that lie doesn’t cut it, they’ll cover it up with another lie.

This tactic is also used in gaslighting, which causes a child to distrust their perceptions. The cycle will continue if you engage.

Gaslighting is a complicated tactic to spot, even for someone aware of the technique and the damage it can cause.

An example of a gaslighting situation would be making a time to meet, not turning up, then claiming to have never arranged the meeting, sometimes laughing or suggesting the child or parent is ‘crazy’ or ‘losing their mind.’

We’ve all been afraid to admit mistakes and wanted to cover them up with lies. Many of us have a healthy enough level of guilt and shame to navigate the fear and tell the truth from the start; toxic people do not, their fear is all-consuming.

Carol Lennox suggests humor, mindfulness, compassion, boundary setting, conflict resolution, behavior modification, and Imago Dialogue therapy to combat gaslighting from toxic parents.

4. Criticizing the child and parent

This is a typical tactic used against another parent in association with the following triangulation and smear campaigns.

When the child is criticized, that is abuse. It emotionally and psychologically damages a child’s self-concept and ability to interact with others.

When the parent criticizes the other parent, that can go as far as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). This is a situation that requires professional support. I was accused of PAS, however, continuous criticisms from the other parent and family in court proved that it was the other way around.

Learning to identify criticism as an opinion and of little value to your overall well-being, which should always be your utmost priority, can help counteract the effects, at least in your mind, until firm boundaries are set around positive talk.

Being empathetic and as present as possible, available and open with communication, willing and eager to hear their thoughts and opinions, and generous with your own can help you and your child build a strong relationship and the self-esteem to disregard toxic criticism.

5. Triangulation & Smear Campaigns

Triangulation is the subtle use of a third person to manipulate another person. In toxic co-parenting, this would be when a parent constantly passes on messages to the other parent through the child, competes with the child or other parent, or tries to pit the child against the other parent.

Smear campaigns are similar but go further. It's the smearing of the parent’s or child’s reputation through gossip and lies, bringing others into the co-parenting situation (often called flying monkeys) who cause further instability to an already unstable situation.

When things are this bad, keep records of your interactions that signal triangulation and smear campaigns, get support, and discuss what’s happening with someone close to you.

Show your child that you are not willing to play into the games and focus on having positive quality time with your child, unbothered by background noise.

I say unbothered lightly, I know the struggles of triangulation and smear campaigns left me on the edge of panic attacks, on and off for weeks on end.

Suzanna Quintana sheds some light on the effects of smear campaigns from her experience in “The Smear Campaign of a Narcissist.”

6. Forming Trauma Bonds

A trauma bond is a traumatic attachment to a parent through trauma and intermittent reinforcement. When we’re given praise and accolades that gradually reduce and happen sporadically, we begin to accept toxic behaviors without question, pining for a return to the pedestal we were once on.

That’s one of the reasons victims stay with abusers. The occasional treat between the abuse gives the impression change is possible.

“If you don’t believe someone will ever change, you probably won’t stick around.”— Crystal Raypole.

Toxic parents place stress on a child’s regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters, leading to alterations to major structures of the brain. A child in a trauma bond will have difficulty regulating their own emotions, having lost their self-control to the whims of the controlling parent.

Any of the above lead to trauma bonds: cancellations and lies force a child to crave attention and honesty; control makes a child dependent; gaslighting, triangulations, and smear campaigns lead to a child becoming defensive and confused, suffering from cognitive dissonance where opposing thoughts cause them to mistrust their own perceptions.

Trauma bonds must be taken seriously, both physically and mentally. If you or your child shows any of the following signs, you should see a doctor or mental health professional:

  • There are sudden changes in behavior from a confident to an insecure child or a normally polite, humble child arriving home with new gifts haughty and arrogant.
  • Lying, keeping secrets, and denying problems.
  • Pushing people away, especially those who might try to change, break the bond.
  • Putting one's own needs behind those of the person they’re bonded to.
  • Becoming overly defensive of the toxic parent.

As a parent who underdisciplined, according to my older children, I do my best to understand that not disciplining or setting strong routines with boundaries and rules can be frustrating for the other parent, and apparently the children.

This time around, I practice setting rules and boundaries, still working on a routine and discipline. The eldest have all turned out great, so I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I also appreciate I did have the help of two wonderful co-parents, their father and step-mum.

If toxic behaviors begin to impact the children's or your own well-being, it may be necessary to seek professional advice. Legal support is not scary, they can offer mediation, which will place firm boundaries around behaviors that disrupt a healthy, happy, and peaceful childhood.

Many family law attorney blogs provide valuable information about toxic co-parents from a legal perspective:

Happy Parenting:)

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