Toxic parents seem to have this gift of explaining away their behavior, minimizing the impact it has on their children if someone brings it up.
In this case–take toxic “jokes.” A toxic joke is a joke made at somebody’s expense–specifically to get a dig in at them (for whatever perverse reason). But, if you dare to protest the joke, they’ll just say, “But it was just a joke!” That’s the beauty of the “joking.” Toxic parents see it as an automatic out. No way can they be held accountable for it, right?
This is not the occasional teasing. Parents do like to tease their kids sometimes, spouses tease each other, but it is enveloped in a pattern of love and trust. When there is not a pattern of trust between a parent and child, then teasing is harmful, meant to eventually undermine your sense of self. It makes it hard to stand up to others who make cruel jokes about you, because you DON’T KNOW that it is abusive. You’re so used to this form of abuse. It takes a long time to figure it out.
In my experience, if I didn’t laugh at the joke or felt bad, it is a direct affront to my dad’s brilliant sense of humor because I didn’t laugh. When I didn’t laugh, I made him look bad, which made him look like a bad parent, and I am never allowed to do that. It might lead to the silent treatment, or it might lead to him to blow up at some other minor misstep I later made.
But I thought this was normal for parents to do this. That it’s normal to feel bad and ashamed. At least, until my dad made a “joke” about me in front of my now- husband.
We were dating, and I spent so much time at his family’s house (gee, I wonder why?) that I felt like we should try to hang out at my family’s house for a while. We talked awkwardly with my dad in the living room for a while, and then I had to go to the bathroom. When I came back, my boyfriend looked distinctly uncomfortable. He started having an asthma attack from all the anxiety and stress from being around my dad, and we cut the visit short. Actually, he thought we’d been there for HOURS instead of an hour because it was so uncomfortable.
It turns out that dad made a joke about women being expensive and whiny, that he had to give me $20 to pay for the skirt my sister’s dog poked a hole in. I was upset since I had saved up for the skirt, and asked my sister to train her dog. My dad thought I was whining, and had my mom give me $20 to shut me up.
My boyfriend had a really hard time not being visibly upset about the misogynistic comment that it sent him into an asthma attack from the stress. We made excuses and left early. Actually, he thought we’d been there for hours when it was only an hour, because it was so stressful being around my dad.
It was then that I realized more a) just how stressful it was at home if he couldn’t handle it for a long time, and b) just how toxic my dad’s jokes were. He saw it as incredibly, unbelievably offensive, but I was used to such things being a joke.
Because I grew up with it.
P.S. If you can’t wrap your head around the idea that a parent can make harmful jokes, you are very fortunate.
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