The Marks Left on Our Brain from a Toxic Upbringing

· February 7, 2016

Toxic mothers, authoritarian fathers — parenting styles that don’t encourage personal growth, autonomy or a healthy relationship with your children, and which destroys them in many cases.

We could talk about various types of parenting, education and transmitting values, and while it’s true that no one comes into this world knowing how to raise a child to be happy each day, every parent knows that at the root of it all is love.

However, the problem lies precisely in the way such people understand the word “love.” Does loving mean protecting a child from harm and putting him or her inside of a bubble forever? Is loving a child punishing them for everything he or she does, says or chooses with the hope of ​​getting them to go down that path that I consider acceptable?

And what can we say about the toxic mothers that weave their narrow cocoons in order to meet their own needs, preventing the child from coming out of their comfort zone. Without a doubt we all know how to identify this type of toxic parenting.

The experiences of childhood are printed marks in our brain, stains of misunderstanding, an abyss of insecurity and sometimes memories full of hatred that will determine much of our adult life.

Let’s talk today about that harmful education, and how it can be reflected in the brains of children.

A brain under stress

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Stress is not a state that is exclusive to adults. Absolutely not. A crying newborn who goes unattended is under stress, a baby who does not receive love and affection also suffers from stress.

But what happens in the case of a parenting style influenced by a toxic mother, a toxic father or authoritarian parents?


The child is subjected to high pressure every day. He or she knows that each of their steps, words or choices will be analyzed and even punished. They are subjected to a continuous state of insecurity that eventually plunges them into a state of stress and anxiety.

Also, they often experience a complex mix of emotions. On the one hand they want to break free of those threads of the toxic mother who watches everything they do and states everything he or she should do. However, the idea of ​​leaving that area of ​​influence, that comfort zone makes them too afraid.

He or she fears that any challenge to the authoritarian father or toxic mother, creates serious consequences. They fear punishment, and also fear disappointing or letting their parents down. All this creates stress.

Stress and the brain

Children under stress from a very early age to the time of adolescence, for example, show very high levels of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. These hormones and neurotransmitters make minor alterations appear in structures such as the hippocampus, amygdala and the frontal lobe.

What does this mean? How does it translate to the behavioral or emotional level? There are deficits in working memory such as the ability to solve problems.

The hippocampus, for example, is related to emotions and memory, while the frontal cortex is what does the decision making. This means that children subjected to very high stress tend to have certain problems when deciding things, resolving problematic situations, and maintaining an internal regulation and self-control when they must carry out a task or solve a problem.

It is clear that everyone will have their own personal stories, and therefore we cannot standardize this data. However, intense stress early in life is often associated with insecurity and the difficulty of solving or getting out of difficult situations.

dff6e4b4026a5d9a74b94d2f42cff042The emotional brain in children

Toxic parenting will generate a turbulent torrent of conflicting emotions in children. Toxic mothers, for example, often provoke a love-hate relationship, while at the same time creating a complex unit in which need, fear, hate and love alternate.

With an authoritarian parenting style, the power of fear is exercised, and this causes very negative emotions that stick with children for a very long time. While it is true that as we grow we can react against this influence, it is something that always leaves its mark on the brain.

Let’s take a look.

Fear and anger and the brain

The most negative and most intense emotions are certainly fear and anger. These feelings are very common in a toxic parenting style, in which there may be moments that are more relaxed. The interesting thing is that in a child’s brain, negative memories tend to have a much stronger impact.

Fear and anger are concentrated in a small primary structure called the amygdala. It is part of the limbic system and is located deep in the temporal lobes. Its function is to store emotional experiences, and settle the so-called fear conditioning.

The amygdala also helps us secure long-term memory, so, all those negative events that we live in our childhood that caused us discomfort, fear and made us angry are feelings that usually stay for life.

The amygdala leaves a “mnemonic” footprint, so that when we are adults, we use many of those memories or to react and avoid certain things, or to remain prisoners of the same fears.

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We are all prisoners of the past, of those toxic parenting styles. However, we also have the right and duty to be free, to heal the wounds of childhood and continue to grow fully.

Image Courtesy: Anna Radchenko