J8’s Book Review: Toxic Parents Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life

by guest blogger Jade Miller, at thoughtsfromj8.com

Book Review: Toxic Parents

In keeping with recent events in my life, I picked up Toxic Parents Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life, by Dr. Susan Forward, about a month ago.  The book was a quick and decent read, but I think it was a little lacking for me.  Probably what I really need is something more specifically focused on narcissistic parenting.  Anyhow, here is a quick synopsis on it, with some commentary.

Toxic Parents, as most books like these do, starts with Part 1, which is essentially an introduction of their take on the various types of toxic parents, with a brief description of each. They are labelled The Inadequate Parents, The Controllers, The Alcoholics, The Verbal Abusers, The Physical Abusers, and The Sexual Abusers.  The author expounds on the types of covert or overt manipulation employed by that type of toxic parent, and the physical and/or emotional wounds resultant not only of the offending parent, but of the role that the non-offending parent plays as well.  Often the passivity of the non-offending parent, and their failure to acknowledge or intervene in the situation, can create just as many wounds as the primary toxic parent’s actions.

Part 2 of the book is about various strategies for reclaiming your life.  It walks through the ethics involved with forgiveness vs. non-forgiveness (note: the author is not a Christian, and forgiveness is not promoted as essential in this text), and then moves on to dealing with the emotional fallout from being raised by the various types of toxic parents. It works through the factor of responsibility, since most adult children of toxic parents have been raised to feel overly responsible, even for things that are legitimately not their fault. It helps define who is now responsible for what, once you are physically independent from your parents and out on your own.

The big recommendation in this book, which didn’t really apply to me since I’m no longer in relationship with my parents, was a confrontation with them about how their behavior affected you as a child and continues to affect you, with the intent to let them know you will no longer engage with them when they do x, y, or z or behave in other ways that are detrimental to your relationship with them. The author suggested that the confrontation could be in person, ideally in a therapeutic setting with a counselor or therapist as a supporting person. Or it could be a written confrontation, since writing was a guaranteed way to be able to express all thoughts and feelings with no interruption, and with the ability to revise and edit until you are satisfied with the message you are sending.

Book cover of Toxic Parents Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Dr Susan Forward.

Toxic Parents Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Dr Susan Forward.

Beyond the confrontation, Toxic Parents discusses ways to respond neutrally to emotionally charged situations with parents, and break the cycle of dysfunction.

I know my analysis all sounds rather dry, but that’s mostly because that’s the effect the book had on me… neither here nor there, really.  It was helpful to read something that marginally confirmed that I’m not crazy, but I feel like perhaps one of the types of toxic parents that wasn’t included (but should have been) was The Narcissistic Parent. Perhaps I will email the author and suggest a future revision.

My parents don’t really fit most of the categories of toxic parents discussed in this book. They were at times inadequate, at times controlling, with a little bit of covert verbal and/or emotional abuse here, a dash of neglect there, and heaping amounts of chaos and unpredictability everywhere.  My parents knew how to say a lot of the right words. But they only meant them about 24.8% of the time. The rest of the time, it was just empty words. But along those lines, they were good at building a false image of normality and the illusion of a loving, healthy relationship so no one on the outside would suspect how unhealthy things really were inside our house.

In keeping with their narcissistic tendencies, they tended to praise and/or give attention to the things I said or did that made them feel good as people or as parents. If I did something that resulted in positive feedback from others about myself or my abilities in a certain area, my parents congratulated themselves for having birthed/raised such a talented person, even if they didn’t understand or have any interest in said ability outside any vicarious attention they could attain from it through me.  They basically rode on my coattails, and worked hard to channel my interest and energy into things that ultimately benefited them. Any interests or successes I had that did not directly relate to them were either ignored, downplayed, outright punished, or slyly undermined until I let go of them on my own.  My life became about my image, or more to the point, their image as reflected by my successes or failures or strengths or weaknesses. I’ll likely write more about narcissism as it relates to my upbringing in a future post on my own blog.

Anyway, I can neither strongly praise nor sharply criticize this book. It was a bit “blah” for me, but hopefully for the reasons I described above, that might be understandable.  I’m glad I read it (I guess?) but I can remember nothing particularly memorable or supremely helpful about it.  Cheers. ~J8

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What does Healing from Abuse look like? Is it all about talking about memories of abuse?

Learning to heal yourself, and learning what is “normal” and “healthy” in relationships is not easy when you have never had chance to learn what healthy relationships, for instance if you were part of a dysfunctional household or were abused as a child.

The post also talks about unlearning the harmful messages that were learned during abuse. Without discussing the abuse in detail, this survivor reflects on situations and identifies thinking and core beliefs which resulted from emotional abuse, and by changing these he/she is learning the new way of thinking and a new, healthier way of managing relationships.

The most basic task for one’s mental, emotional and social health, which begins in infancy and continues until one dies, is the construction of his/her positive self-esteem.                    Macdonald, G. (1994) Self esteem and the promotion of mental health. Promotion of Mental Health. vol. 3, p 19

Healing from child abuse is not just about talking about the worst experiences, it is also about the here-and-now, and how the past has affected that, and how the present and future can be different.


Dynsfunctional families - don't expect a sane response from an insane system.

Dysfunctional families – don’t expect a sane response from an insane system.

honor thy children

‘Sarah’s Law’ – UK Law helps stop 700 pedophiles getting access to kids

Sarah’s Law – a UK law allows parents, carers, or guardians to ask the police to tell them if someone they know has a record for child sexual offences.

‘Sarah’s Law’: 1 in 7 Requests Reveal A Paedophile.

Which pedophiles tactics are you aware of?

Web of Lies and Tactics used by pedophiles

Dissociative disorders – Is abuse or biology the cause? Or is it more complex than that?

Research into Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders, particularly complex dissociative disorders such as Dissociative Identity Disorder and Other Specified Dissociative Disorder (formerly DDNOS) are poorly understood by many in the general population, and by some professionals. Complex dissociative disorders have been the subject of an increasing amount of research in the two decades, including neuroscience, treatment studies and studies looking at the link between child abuse and different mental health disorders.

So, what causes of dissociative disorders? Could there by a biological or genetic cause to dissociative disorders, as there are in some other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or psychosis? The research shows differences in the brains of people with dissociative identity disorder in particular, include decreased sizes of key parts of the brain.


Research has shown that the ability to dissociate (which we all have) may have a genetic or biological link, but the ability to dissociate alone cannot cause a dissociative disorder, nor can it cause persistent and traumatic memories. Dissociative identity disorder in particular is regarded as tertiary dissociation, rather than primary or secondary dissociation. as explained by the concept of Structural Dissociation we have blogged about before.

Whilst the brain alterations (show above) may seem to non-professionals to suggest a biological or genetic cause for DID, it actually parallels the changes in the brain also present in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder resulting from adult trauma. The consensus of research globally shows that dissociative disorders, especially DID, are extremely strongly associated with very early child abuse, and not genetic or biological factors.

Child Abuse and Mental Health

The link between complex dissociative disorders and child abuse goes back a long way, and is well documented in the history of psychiatry by well known figures such as Morton Prince (writing about Christine Beauchamp, 1906), Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet and others.

The trauma theory of dissociation is first documented in 1889, but only in recent decades has society begun to acknowledge how common child abuse is, in particular child sexual abuse and incest. The shocking results from Adverse Childhood Experiences Study also reflect the fact that adverse childhood experiences including child abuse had a negative effect on people’s lives even decades afterwards. Furthermore, the brain changes resulting from trauma experiences are believed to be reversible, and it has been clearly shown in clinical research that both trauma and dissociative disorders can be healed.

Abusive Families, the Cycle of Abuse and the Need to Discredit Children

Today’s post was inspired by Darlene Ouimet’s post The Grooming Process of Discrediting Children and the Cycle of Abuse. Darlene is a life coach and mental health advocate who has previous struggled with severe depression, dissociative identity disorder and the legacy of child sexual abuse (more on this later).

Darlene writes:

Grooming a child to believe that the child is the problem and communicating that publically serves several purposes one of which is that it discredits the child to other family members and friends of the family way before the child ever tries to stand up to abusive treatment which serves to insure that the abuser will never be questioned by other people. 

Her post reminded me of the history of Jennifer Freyd, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregeon and a survivor of incest and a very dysfunctional family environment. Jennifer’s father, Peter Freyd, founded the false memory syndrome foundation with his wife and step-sister Pamela Freyd when he realized that his brother and even his own mother believed Jennifer’s reports of incest. Jennifer’s childhood journal revealed her distress, she wrote:

My parents oscillated between denying these symptoms and feelings…to using knowledge of these same symptoms and feelings to discredit me… My father told various people that I was brain damaged.

Jennifer also describes how her traumatic childhood experiences link to her development of PTSD as an adult, and the continuing impact of her dysfunctional parents on her career and adult life.

At times I am flabbergasted that my memory is considered false,” Jennifer says, “and my alcoholic father’s memory is considered rational and sane.” She does not, after all, remember impossible abuses: “I remember incest in my father’s house…. My first memories came when I was at home a few hours after my second session with my therapist, a licensed clinical psychologist working within an established group in a large and respected medical clinic.

“During that second visit to my therapist’s office, I expressed great anxiety about the upcoming holiday visit from my parents. My therapist asked about half way into the session, whether I had ever been sexually abused. I was immediately thrown into a strange state. No one had ever asked me such a question. I responded, no, but…”. I went home and within a few hours I was shaking uncontrollably, overwhelmed with intense and terrible flashbacks.” Jennifer asks herself why her parents are believed. “In the end, is it precisely because I was abused that I am to be discredited despite my personal and professional success?

Another clear finding from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study was that emotional abuse and a dysfunctional family life had a long lasting and significant link with poor adult health (both physical and mental). Jennifer’s experiences as an adult disclosing her childhood abuse led to her parents’ attempts to harm her career and publicly discredit her.

Darlene writes:

It is important for the controlling or abusive person to discredit the child in case the child ever tells or exposes the truth about the dysfunction in the family. Read more from Emerging from Broken…

Related posts
Child sexual abuse (RAINN)

Hippocampal and Amygdalar Volumes in Dissociative Identity Disorder (download, American Journal of Psychiatry)

PTSD is the amydala hijacking Joe’s brain (psychology today – explains neuroscience and that PTSD is the brain in survival mode rather than brain imjury)
Adverse childhood experiences and mental health (Mad in America, discussing psychosis and schizophrenia)

Growing not Dwindling worldwide phenomenon of Dissociative Disorders (eassurvey.wordpress.com)

Child abuse and dissociative disorders (tellaboutabuse.com)
The war against the CHild’s and Victim’s Credibility and the Truth (Screams of a Childhood)

Helpful citations

Brand, Bethany L. “What we know and what we need to learn about the treatment of dissociative disorders.” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 13.4 (2012): 387-396.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging-Based Measurement of Hippocampal Volume in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Related to Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse—A Preliminary Report

Vermetten, E, Schmahl, C, Bremner, JD “Hippocampal and Amygdalar Volumes in Dissociative Identity Disorder” American Journal of Psychiatry April 2006, issue 1634

Weniger, G., et al. “Amygdala and hippocampal volumes and cognition in adult survivors of childhood abuse with dissociative disorders.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 118.4 (2008): 281-290.

Felitti, M. D., et al. “Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.” American journal of preventive medicine 14.4 (1998): 245-258.