“I remember my dad yelling and screaming at me while I was crying my young adolescent heart out to the point I started throwing up,” tweeted California mother Kassie Borba. She was replying to a thread from Dr. Nicole LePera, better known as @TheHolisticPsychologist on TikTok. “My dad owns a business and got a call during this [screaming] episode,” Borba continues. “[He immediately flipped a switch and] answered the phone completely fine; conducted a business transaction [like nothing had happened]. I remember thinking WTF.” And as it turns out, Borba isn’t the only one to experience this type of emotional whiplash as a child. She, along with hundreds of users who replied with similar stories, have all been raised by the same kind of person: a Jekyll and Hyde parent.
Raised by a Jekyll and Hyde Parent? Here’s How to Cope as an Adult and Break the Pattern
What Is a Jekyll and Hyde Parent?
The term stems from the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, an 1886 novella about one person with two personalities: Dr. Henry Jekyll, a well-respected doctor; Edward Hyde, a murderous criminal. According to Dr. LePera, a parent who is a Jekyll and Hyde type engages in unpredictable behavior that typically toggles in extremes. Think: the calm, affectionate parent transforming on a dime to the parent who yells, rages or even shames their kids.
How Jekyll and Hyde Parenting Impacts the Family
For children, this unpredictable nature is traumatic and can have long-term effects. More often than not, children of Jekyll and Hyde parents develop symptoms of hypervigilance, a condition that occurs from an overactive amygdala (i.e., the part of the brain that senses danger). “Growing up in an emotionally unstable home where you can’t predict how adults will react creates hypervigilance…the nervous system interprets this behavior as a threat, and you become hypervigilant of your environment in an attempt to self-protect.” This can lead to panic attacks, social anxiety, fear of new people, avoidance, people-pleasing and more.
Oh No, I Yell at My Kids a Lot
It’s worth mentioning that yelling at your 12-year-old because he stole your credit card to spend $5,000 on Roblox is not quite the same as Jekyll and Hyde parentings (even if you were happily catching up on Virgin River before you got the alert from your bank and blew your lid). No, we’re talking about consistent emotional inconsistency with no pattern of cause or effect. Because let’s be honest, Asher knew he was doing something wrong.
Hypervigilance in Adult Relationships
Dr. Leperla says: “Hypervigilance isn't just something we deal with in social situations; it's a major part of our intimate relationships as well.” Because of their upbringing, hypervigilant partners often feel unsatisfied in their relationships for fear that their partner will switch how they feel about them. “You have chronic thoughts of being abandoned or left,” she explains. “Hypervigilance makes social situations almost unbearable. You feel like you can't relax and overthink everything you say.” As a result, hypervigilant partners may self-sabotage with toxic behaviors (see below) or pull away out of fear that they’ll set the other person off.
10 Symptoms of Hypervigilance in Relationships
- Chronic fear of being abandoned
- Nagging thoughts of a partner doing something "wrong" or bad to hurt you
- Assuming your partner is upset with you
- Consistently questioning if your partner is OK even when they assure you they are
- Spying on a partner or violating their boundaries
- Controlling behaviors
- Forcing your partner to "prove their love"
- Inability to focus or concentrate when away from your partner (separation anxiety)
- Extreme neediness and codependency ("I'm not me without you")
- Viewing your partner's friends as competition or threats
5 Ways to Cope with Hypervigilance in Relationships
1. Talk About It With Your Partner
If you meet any of the hypervigilance criteria above, Dr. Leperla recommends that you share these symptoms with the people you love. “Let them know that you didn't feel safe as a child, and there are still impacts you deal with. This will create greater understanding and allow [them] to support you.”
2. Avoid Your Big Triggers or Bring Things That Make It Easier
Since hypervigilance symptoms are activated by external environments, you want to pay attention to your triggers. This could be loud sounds, yelling, chaotic environments or being around people you don't know well. “By knowing your triggers, you'll know when to self-soothe,” says the doc. For example: “[If] loud crowds trigger your hypervigilance, you might skip these or bring noise-canceling headphones in case you get too overwhelmed.”
3. Practice Deep Belly Breathing
While breathwork can be helpful in combating general anxiety symptoms as a whole, Dr. Leperla says it’s especially useful in cases of hypervigilance. “Slow, deep breathing from the belly sends messages of safety to the body. When we're hypervigilant, our breathing becomes shallow and quick. [Practicing] deep breathing regularly [can help neutralize this effect].”
4. Be Kind to Your Inner Child
Corny as it may be, Jekyll and Hyde parents leave a lasting impression of worthlessness and guilt on their children (which stays with them through adulthood). “Your inner child doesn't want to be shamed or mocked when you experience these symptoms. Show compassion to yourself and acceptance,” Dr. Leperla suggests.
5. Widen Your Window of Tolerance
Basically, you want to try and build up a tolerance for enduring triggers and learn how to remain neutral in stressful situations “By controlling our stress tolerance, [you] can allow your body to take on more stress with less reaction. Do this by relaxing in stressful, controlled situations, [including] cold plunges, exercise, breathwork, and meditation.”
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