Last week I went to the cinema to see the film ‘Rocketman’ (2019). I’ve long been a fan of Elton John’s music, but I didn’t know much about his life. Mainly because when he was the ages depicted in the film, I wasn’t really old enough to care about much more than my own life, and Howard Jones was the focus of all my obsessional fan research. As a pre-teen I had barely an idea what drugs were and once into my teens I only became aware of homosexuality once the AIDS epidemic hit the news. Before I reached my 20s, the phrase; sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, had little meaning. Until recently I enjoyed the poetry of his and Bernie's songs, but had no idea what had been endured to get there.
Now, I’m going to make a confession here, I absolutely LOVE this film. So much so, I’ve seen it more than once, so there may be mild spoilers. The music, the performances, costumes, the heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting tale of a life turned around. Also the delightful, platonic, love story between Elton John and lyricist, Bernie Taupin.
A thread that runs throughout the story is Elton John’s tumultuous relationship with his parents. After seeing the film for the first time, I delved into learning more about the truths of that storyline (see reference to fan research above) and recalled some of the many items I have read on behalf of clients after hearing about the lasting impacts of parenting styles, it is clear that his parents would have fallen into, what is known a ‘toxic parenting’.
The film has really got me thinking about this pervasive style of parenting, which isn't as uncommon as you'd think. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, after all there are at least two books written about it (this one and this one). But here's a list of the things that may indicate toxic parenting and a couple of suggestions on how to deal with it; if you think it may be something that is present or influences you:
...blame you for things you have no control over?
...respect your emotionally and physical boundaries?
...respect your feelings and needs?
...make unreasonable demands or create a scene by overacting?
...scare you, even as an adult?
...respect your choices?
...refrain from physical comfort giving?
...use physical pain for punishment?
...try to manipulate you, use guilt, or play the victim to your choices?
...compare you to others and criticise you?
...apologise or take responsibility when they make a mistake?
...try to control you?
...make hurtful jokes at your expense?
Young Elton: 'When are you going to hug me?'
Stanley Dwight (Dad): 'Don't be soft'.
When we are raised in an atmosphere that has repeated abuse, lack of love, manipulation, judgement, criticism, and an expectation to be just a little better all the time, we learn that we are never good enough. You get an A, an A+ would be better. You get told you look like a sack of potatoes in new cloths. Punished with pain, such as being hit with a hand or belt. You’ll never be as good as your brother or sister at X. This type of childhood has the ability to shape our developing brains to accept this behaviour that we may replicate later in life in our romantic relationships and friendship as it is often the only type of relationship modelled to us. This can also result in poor personal boundaries and a desire to please, to keep the peace with everyone. Even though there's an awareness that it will never be good enough.
Other ways a person raised in a toxic environment is to feel like an imposter in the job, even when very good at it. They may become a perfectionist or ‘control freak’. They may experience fear of abandonment or being hurt by those closest to them, and this may impact the ability to form lasting and deep bonds in healthy relationships.
In other words, this type of parenting can have a multitude of impacts that not only affects a child, but lasts into adulthood.
Can it be fixed?
It absolutely can be fixed, but you can only take action for yourself. You can break the cycle. Often toxic parents have also had toxic parents.
But first you’ll need to allow yourself to move on from the pain and suffering that you have been experiencing because of their behaviour. To do this you’ll need to stop playing the game of trying to get them to change or trying to get them to understand you. It can mean changing habits of a lifetime because you’ll need to allow yourself to understand that they will react in certain ways and that will not change, but metering your own response because you know you will never get the reaction you desire, one of love and pride.
Removing a toxic relationship is never an easy thing to do and can be especially difficult when it’s a parent. However, without removal it can be a harder and longer journey to work on the emotional damage that has been done and may continue. This is never an easy decision.
None of this is not an easy thing to achieve and the books and readings will often suggest working with a therapist to help you through. If a toxic parent is willing to work on changing their negative behaviour, they can also work with a counsellor or psychologist. This can be done individually or in family therapy.
Of course, as seen in Rocketman, and admirably demonstrated by Elton John, the fallout from this type of parent/child relationship doesn’t have to last a life time. It does however, need to be dealt with, psychologically and physically to achieve a sense of ease and an ability to hug oneself.
Subliminal message time: If you haven't already, see the movie!
These also link to interviews with cast members about playing the characters and the research they did.