So you were ignored by your father? Or suffered a daily barrage of tongue-lashings from your mother? Maybe you were fed cream cheese-and-jelly sandwiches for a decade. Or were at the perpetual mercy of both parents' indecisive whims.
And although you're now an adult, you still blame your parents for your problems. Maybe it's time to stop.
It's not that what they did to you was right or even that their behavior was not seriously wrong. But, overcoming abusive parents and taking responsibility and control of your own life might just be the perfect way of getting back at them.
There are varying degrees of abuse. A parent who lets a child watch television constantly, or doesn't keep nutritional food in the house, or allows the child to stay up late every night, or pays little or no attention to the child's schooling is negligent, as is the parent who physically abuses a child. In essence, these "toxic parents" pollute the child with their own hazardous waste.
" 'Dysfunctional' sounds so dry and clinical," says Susan Forward, author of "Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life" released in paperback by Bantam this month. "I chose 'toxic,' " says Forward, "because it means 'seeping' and 'poison.' "
According to Forward, toxic parents include:
Inadequate Parents -- they "focus on their own problems, forcing their children to worry and take care of them";
Controllers -- use "guilt, manipulation or even over-helpfulness to direct their children's lives";
Alcoholics or other substance abusers -- they "don't have the energy for parenthood and their children endure radical mood swings";
Verbal Abusers -- "Whether overtly abusive or subtly sarcastic, they demoralize their children with constant put-downs";
Physical Abusers -- "Incapable of controlling their own rage, they often blame their children for their own uncontrollable behavior";
Sexual Abusers -- "the ultimate betrayers, destroying the very heart of childhood -- its innocence."
"The psychology of toxic parenting is not a new phenomenon at all," she says. "But the term is. So too is the growing recognition in today's society that trauma and legacies are not just limited to alcoholic families."
In the Washington area, social workers Irene Hayden and Marsha Campbell of The Women's Center in Vienna realized the need to address the issue of toxic parents. This Saturday they're holding an "Overcoming Toxic Parents" seminar.
A majority of the women Hayden sees at the Center say they "don't feel like they are a good parent or that they're not good enough," she says. "They intuitively know something is wrong but they don't know what to do about it."
Very possibly they have been immobilized by their own childhood.
"Washington is a hotbed for these problems," Campbell says. "Politics, Foreign Service, military and big corporate jobs are conducive to existences that are hard on children because family needs are often sacrificed for the 'organization.' Perfection is demanded because appearance is so important that speaking about problems is taboo. And when you wake up to the fact that you're not from 'The Brady Brunch,' it's a traumatic experience."
In many ways our culture has supported dysfunctional patterns, Hayden says. "Rules like, 'Children are to be seen and not heard' are archaic but to a lot of people, children really are second-class citizens."
While we've come a long way from when Freud first discussed the unconscious and dismissed his patients' childhood trauma as fantasy (even though Jung and Adler disagreed with him), there are still laws that provide loopholes for negligence.
Many people, in fact, suggest that animal-rights organizations have been more successful than child-advocacy groups because, as one writer put it, "while the law protects dogs by requiring their owners to obtain licenses, it imposes no such obligation on prospective parents." Corporal punishment too often is considered a parental prerogative.
"Every parent makes mistakes. The big difference is a toxic parent never acknowledges that they've done something wrong," says Forward. "Or if they do, they then go back to the same behavior."
There is a healing process, however, that is within every toxic parent's grasp. "And it's not about parent-bashing," says Campbell. It's a process that involves identifying what toxic parenting is, the adult behavior as a result of it and the options for hope.
Forward stresses that people recovering from toxic parents must focus on accountability, not blame.
"I think the real truth is that everybody has a tragic, hard life," says Louie Anderson, comedian and author of "Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child." "It's just a matter of degree."
Anderson, who was the second to the youngest child in a family of 11, had an alcoholic father who verbally abused his children. Anderson's compilation of letters written to his father is part of his self-prescribed recovery treatment. "It was therapeutic to do it since he was no longer on this planet, and I had a lot to say to him," he says. "In one sense it's good to show your serious side but as a comedian I was very worried about how people would take it."
People took it well. More than 100,00 copies of "Dear Dad" have been sold and it is being released in paperback by Penguin in March.
As Anderson says, he broke a lifelong pattern of denial and learned to deal with his past:
"Dear Dad ... When you have a view as far as you can see, there don't seem to be any limits. Growing up as I did, I thought of nothing but limits.
" 'Be a good child, Louie,' Mom always told me. 'Don't cause problems. Don't act up. We don't want your father to start drinking.'
"What a bunch of crap, making me think that my actions caused you to drink. Your drinking has always been the riddle of my existence ..."
Anderson hopes to help others with his letters because he believes we're living in an increasingly more abusive nation. "It's hostile and hateful," he says. "The drug abuse, the crime, the violence is directly related to the high rate of child abuse."
The hardest thing for someone to do, he says, is to figure out that they come from a dysfunctional family. "But you've got to face it," he says. "Because the longer you wait the more disruptive to your life it will be and the more abusive to yourself or others or both you will become."
The road to recovery isn't easy but social worker Campbell says if you can interchange the word 'respect' for 'love' you're on the right track to becoming a healthy parent.
"We're reaching a crisis in parenting," she says. "We don't value the child. We've put our institutions, our addictions, our careers, our material needs first and we're living with the results."
Forward says a sensitive parent will recognize his or her own tendencies toward some of the behavior categorized as "toxic," but she's quick to point out that no one is perfect.
"I've made some horrible mistakes," she says. "I was very nonprotective of my children with their stepfather -- who was a tyrant. I really failed to step in and protect them, which is exactly what my mother had done with me. I thought, 'A good wife doesn't contradict her husband.' As a result my children didn't feel that anybody was in their corner."
Hayden and her husband made some errors, too. "We moved to California from Nebraska when my son was 16," she says. "We had to look at the situation: how it really was and how we wished it to be. We ended up sending him back to Nebraska to finish up high school."
Today toxic parents have more options than ever to prevent contaminating their children: 12-step programs, therapy, support groups and reference materials in bookstores and libraries.
"You can't cop out on your life," Forward says. "You are responsible for yourself and there are so many resources available that there's just no excuse."
It's never too late for an adult to stop blaming his or her own toxic parents.
"I've tried to turn my experiences growing up into something productive," says Anderson. "Whatever has happened has happened and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. You can't predict the future nor change the past but if you can get into the present you can get on with your life."
Overcoming Toxic Parents seminar, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Church of the Good Shepherd, 2361 Hunter Mill Rd., Vienna; $15. Information, 703-281-2657.