Can Toxic Parents Cause Depression ?

Share this Therapy Blog:

In this blog, I will focus on Five reasons concerning - can toxic parents can cause depression including how:

  • Polyvagal Theory can provide some answers
  • Painful Emotional Loneliness can impact you 
  • Not being able to express anger can cause depression 
  • Complex PTSD from Toxic Parenting relates to depression
  • Your relationship with Your Toxic Parents can cause depression

How Polyvagal Theory can provide some answers

Our automatic nervous system is the foundation on which we understand, feel, respond and experience the world. 

It is our early experiences with our parents that shape our automatic nervous system as well as our ongoing life experiences with it. It is there to help us to respond appropriately to things we see as a threat or a trigger. 

We as human beings and all animals all have an automatic nervous system that responds in a similar way when we perceive a threat. Our automatic nervous system is there to help us respond to keep us safe or defend ourselves.

Our automatic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic system is linked to our fight or flight response where we can take action to fight back or run away from danger.

With the Parasympathetic nervous system, the second of the two branches is where the Freeze response is activated. The freeze response is activated when you perceive that you can’t fight back or run (Fight or flight).

Those of us with toxic parents often experience more intense, extreme autonomic responses, which affects our ability to manage our emotions. You also would be also “normalised” to respond with that sense of hopelessness as a child because as children we are generally powerless to cope with many of the things we go through.

When we go through trauma as a child, we can get locked in the Freeze response because for most of us as children, we are powerless to fight back or we have nowhere to Flight or run to. 

Depression is linked to Freeze response where the dorsal vagal pathway of our parasympathetic branch is. 

This is classed as the path of last resort. When all else fails, when we are trapped and action-taking doesn’t work, we involuntarily shut down and then experience despair, hopelessness, apathy, lethargy, etc.

Polyvagal theory helps explain the question, can toxic parents cause depression and how it is linked to your biological makeup that is there to protect us but the great news is, we can change it. 

I have just very briefly outlined this but will explain this further in another blog. Please look out for it.

Painful Emotional Loneliness can impact you

Part of experiencing depression is feeling lonely, isolated, inferior, and Emotional Loneliness is the main reason why you feel that way.

Emotional Loneliness comes about when you are not adequately responded to on an emotional level by your parents. That could be for a variety of reasons including your parents not being emotionally intelligent enough, having so many issues themselves to deal with that they haven’t got the capacity to deal with you. 

Whatever the reason, those experiences would leave a gap in your heart that needed to have been filled by the affirmation, affection and attention of your parents. We needed all three as children and young people. 

A lack of affirmation (i.e. praise, validation) affection, or adequate attention would lead to emotional loneliness. 

Not having all three is a bit like trying to build a house with bricks, timber, slate for the roof but not having the mortar to bind the brings together. Everything is needed for the house to be stable.

Not being able to express anger can cause depression

There is nothing wrong with any emotion that we express.
Whether we feel joy, sadness, anger, fear, peace, or power, we all need to be able to respond to life with a balance of these different emotions. Depending on the situation of course.

Life would become difficult however if we are stuck in any of these emotions especially sadness when it comes to depression.

Polyvagal theory as explained above, shows on a biological level why we can get stuck with sadness but why did this happen in the first place?

For many children maybe your parents would punish you severely if you expressed annoyance or anger. Maybe you witnessed anger from your parents even if it wasn’t directed at you but this could have put you off showing any anger because you don’t want to cause any pain that you witnessed. 

It could be a number of reasons that are worth exploring.

What happens here, because you don’t know how to or maybe you don’t want to show anger, any fear, hurt, frustration and rage become internalised, and start to direct it at yourself. 

Because everything becomes your fault and responsibility, you then feel more anxiety as you feel totally overwhelmed. Shame and guilt as to do this constantly give you an impossible task.

Anger does have its benefits as it helps you to stand up for yourself, and defend yourself against others to motivate you to do what you need to do. It helps to also be OK with what others need to do for you.

If your anger button is switched off, you won’t be able to have that balance between what you have done and what others do as well so you begin to repress and deny it. Your emotions need to come out in some way so it often comes out as depression.

Complex PTSD happens as a result of Toxic Parenting

Complex PTSD is where you can’t link your childhood trauma or difficulties to one incident as it is with normal Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For someone with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most of your childhood experiences and life were difficult. It affected you, even if you don’t remember most of those experiences.

There are so many facets to this, that’s why it is called complex trauma because it is generally many traumatic experiences that to an extent it became normalised for you as a child.

The traumatic experiences do not necessarily need to be the big ones that we know of, in many circumstances, it is smaller trauma that occurs frequently for which as a child you can’t escape from. As the fact is, for many of us as children, we don’t have the resources or power to escape what is going on with our lives.

We then develop defense mechanisms and symptoms that in some ways might have helped us as children but as we get older, they become less productive.

As adults, symptoms of Complex PTSD related to depression can include:

  • Toxic Shame where you don’t just feel ashamed of some of the things you have done, you often feel total shame for who you are as a person.
  • A severe inner critic where we have internalised the demeaning voices and opinions of our person
  • Feeling empty and hopeless
  • Difficulty controlling your emotions
  • Feeling that nobody understands you and many others.
  • Relationship problems
  • ETC

Your relationship with Your Toxic Parents can cause depression

The points above highlighted things that have happened to you as a child that could lead to you feeling depressed as an adult.

However, for many, your experiences with your toxic parents now can cause depression.

There are many parents that do learn from their experiences when they parented when you were younger and make attempts now to change. However there are many parents who don’t learn and still remain toxic.

Dealing with your childhood experiences and how your parents are now would understandably be completely overwhelming and triggering.

Helping you heal your past, even knowing that it won’t change your parent’s behaviour, would help you to release some of the pain that you are experiencing. To no longer experience depression and improve your current well-being.

It would at least leave you with room in your life to cope with many of the difficulties you are now facing.

Another benefit of healing past trauma is it would help you to develop self-compassion. A lack of self-compassion is at the root of depression as you constantly beat yourself up severely and don’t feel that you are worth much.

Healing past trauma would help you learn the realistic truth that you are worth more.


Having a toxic parent can cause depression both on an emotional, psychological and physical level. Some of these issues is so inbred that they are almost normalised that we respond in these ways instinctively and may feel that it is part of us and we can’t change it.

Change is possible and all of these are learned responses or programming which can be unprogrammed.

A great way to do this is through therapy but I have listed many resources following to get you started. I would suggest reading through some of them and then journaling your thoughts and feelings about some of the points raised.

Many of the books come with exercises that will help you as well. 

Please remember that if you use some of my links, I would receive a small commission which doesn’t cost you any extra but it helps me to continue to provide free content.

Useful Resources

What to do next

What do you think about the contents of this article. Feel free to contact me to let me know and also let me know of other articles you would like to see on this website.

Have Your Toxic Parents Affected Your Life? TAKE THE QUIZ.


NEED ONLINE THERAPY? I offer a free 15-minute consultation for you to discuss your needs. Click here to learn more and get started.

Follow me on Instagram @dawn_croydonfowler

Get on the List

Do you have a Toxic, Emotionally Immature, Narcissist, Co-dependent, or Parent with an Addiction? Have you struggled with their behavior for most of your life? Maybe your Childhood wasn’t the best but you want to make sense of why it still affects you now.

You may find yourself struggling in so many ways.

I am an experienced and qualified Online-Therapist based in the United Kingdom helping you on your road to healing from your Toxic Parents. 

Healing is Possible! I’m here to walk with you on your Journey

Read Latest Articles from Dawn’s Blog

characteristics of a narcissistic mother
How your Toxic Parents Affect you

25 Characteristics of a Narcissistic Mother 

Recognizing a narcissistic mother’s traits is crucial for understanding and healing. From extreme self-centeredness and lack of empathy to manipulative behavior and emotional neglect, these 25 characteristics highlight the profound impact on her children. Awareness is the first step towards breaking free from the damaging cycle and fostering healthier relationships.

Read More »