by Jeanne Denney

It happens less than it used to, but still more than I wish. Often it happens so suddenly that it catches me by surprise and I have no idea where it came from; and leaves just as suddenly, like a hit-and-run driver or a short-term hijacking. I have lived with it for most of my life as a parent. It’s a condition I’ve nicknamedToxic Parent Brain (TPB) – that sudden state of revulsion – of myself as a parent and my children as children. It’s a jumbled state of fear, panic, shame, self-recrimination, over-analysis, anger, projection and worry, shaken and stirred into a toxic cocktail that occasionally overshadows much of my happiness and joy in being a parent. It is a dark cloud that I am suddenly enveloped in and then have to find a way to navigate through. My work with other parents has confirmed to me that I am not alone in this brain state. There are legions of us that struggle to manage it in guilt-ridden silence.

Encountering Toxic Parent Brain

Almost every parent will have to deal with Toxic Parent Brain at one time or another. In my case it is what happens when I find myself confronted with an experience of parenting that is not in accord with my inner image of either the Good Parent or the Ideal Child. Usually TPB strikes when my personal resilience and emotional resources are low.

messy_kitchen1That this state of mind has to do with my brain neurology is clear to me from the years I have spent as Mark Brady’s friend, bolstered additionally by my own study in neuroscience and somatic psychology. It is often highlighted by the sudden onset and the irrational conclusions I draw from seemingly innocuous events. For example, walking into the house and finding my thirteen year old children (I have twin boys, Gil and Peter) playing computer or video games, candy wrappers strewn across the floor, while still in their pajamas at two in the afternoon. Other examples: my older kids leaving me the car with no gas, or our kitchen looking like it needs federal emergency funding.

Doomsday Scenarios

Some wild neurons in the deep recesses of my brain fire “Danger! Danger!” and start a cascade of doomsday scenarios which result in imagining all kinds of disastrous futures:  my children grow up to be social lepers, nincompoops living dependently at home well into their 40’s, unable to be responsible,  hold a job, pay bills or do their own laundry, prepare their own meals. I imagine media-saturated, consumer-driven, ecologically-disastrous half-citizens who have no interest in engaging the world or moving their bodies out of bed,  living like puppets in the constant distraction of text messages, driven solely by the lust for the next Big Entertainment Thing. This isn’t the picture of children I want to devote my life to raising. I feel angry and betrayed. By whom, or what though,  is not quite so clear.

That I leap from the simple experience of seeing my children playing the Wii, or spying dishes in the sink, to “this means I am a complete failure as a parent in raising socially responsible, spiritually and emotionally astute adults” is clearly a gross distortion. Even though, in my more mature judgment, I might choose to find an opportunity to set better boundaries about use and timing of video games and family cars, Wii baseball in pajamas in any moment is clearly not immediate danger requiring either sudden rescue or hand-to-hand combat. There is no real evidence that their life is in peril, nor that my parenting, as a result of this short-term adrenaline-fueled distortion, has been a total failure. In a Toxic Brain state I cascade from small pieces of self-defined imperfection to the children’s ultimate demise. I cannot see them or myself compassionately as works in progress or in any way see the much deeper truth of their nascent beauty. I compare them to mental pictures of what I wanted my children to be like, the deal perhaps I thought I got into when I signed on. Why aren’t they dressed? Cleaning their rooms? Learning woodworking? Practicing viola? Reading the New York Times or playing outside?! Things that would make me feel like I really am a GOOD parent (since I’m clearly not feeling like too much of one).

Doing Psychic Harm

This sudden hijacking, as Mark likes to call it, is the state in which I am most likely to do psychic harm to my children. This is the state where I speak in frustration, judgment, anger. I shout, stomp, slam and humiliate, or conversely, I  sink into the passivity of depression, or both. My Toxic Parent Brain permeates their world and becomes a natural disaster, one that they are hyper-vigilant to avoid or resist. For many of us, the fear of being stuck in Failure Projection Mode is the most painful part of parenting. Our heart knows how painful this is for them even as we often lack the resources in the moment to effectively inhibit it.

Examining the Causes

After a recent three day, post-holiday episode in this state, I took the opportunity to witness and observe some of the anatomy of this upset.  Here are some of the things that I noticed about myself and others:

1. In almost all cases TPB occurs much more often when I am in a state of relative self-neglect and/or feeling low in confidence.

2. It occurs more often when I have not moved my body, expressed my emotions,  or listened to or spoken personal truths to myself for an extended period of time.

3. It is often true that my children are trespassing on some sacred, but unconscious images I have of children I had hoped that I would raise.   This ideal seems most likely to have its origins in some wound in my own soul, my own heart. It may also be a vestige of an unconscious parent judgment I carry from my own childhood, or perhaps some quality in myself that I unconsciously expect them to replicate (Gee, I was already a great seamstress at their age, why aren’t they?).

4. It occurs when I am feeling isolated or alone in the experience of parenting.

5. It also often occurs around experiences in larger community, such as extended family, school meetings or social gatherings when children are being judged or compared, either obviously or covertly, by a group (Awards Ceremonies are but one egregious example).

happy26. It occurs when I’m confronted with over-idealized images of family life in media or culture (for example, do you believe that when hunting for a photo for this column I could not find even one picture of  families who were not completely happy like this?). 

7. It often occurs when I am either obviously or covertly being criticized as a parent, for example by a teacher or other adult, or I’m asked to produce an outcome that is not within my control.

These last three experiences are remarkably common in our culture, and part of what I have previously written about.

What I can share, as part of my own experience as a parent and a parent counselor, is that this is a very common experience, one that our intellects alone cannot fully address. We can’t “think” our way out of the Toxic Parent Brain state. It takes great care and awareness of my own body, emotions and spiritual life. Perhaps it also really does take a village.

I hope to write more about some of the things that help me recognize and work with this painful condition in a future column. Until then I am offering you help with Number 4: You are not alone. Oh, and the other thing 21 years of parenting has finally taught me:  your children will invariably also surprise you.