Toxic parents – how to survive them
What is a toxic parent?
A parent who won’t compromise, take responsibility for their behaviour, or apologize is a toxic parent. They often have a mental illness or serious addiction. They can cause a lot of pain and lasting psychological problems for their children.
Read more about: Are your parents toxic?
Do you have toxic parents?
Here are some questions you can answer that can guide you if they are or not:
Adapted from ”Codependency for Dummies. 2nd Ed. 2014. John Wiley & Son, Inc.” by Darlene Lancer. 2108
According to Erin McKelle and Takeallah Russel, it is not the same thing. They say toxicity involves a highly temperamental, critical and judgmental environment that might lead you to feel invalidated, ashamed or uncared for by your parents. It is harmful behaviour that leaves emotional scars as abuse does, but there is a difference. In abusive relationships, your physical, emotional (or both) well-being is threatened. All abusive relationships are toxic. But not all toxic relationships are abusive.
A person is usually not in danger of a toxic relationship. If you feel you are facing a threat, you have to speak out and ask for help – from an adult/friend/family member you trust or your local domestic violence agency who will handle your call with confidentiality.
How does a child react to toxic parents?
For many children, this is the only type of parenting they know – and they accept it as this is how parents are.
They try to stay connected:
In this confusing world, a child will often try to be what the parent wants him/her to be to keep the peace. Eventually, they lose their sense of Self. They become a bandage for the parents wound.
They develop anxiety and depression.
They give up their sense of self to survive – they eventually become aware they feel anxious and depressed.
They develop anger
In rare cases, a child will be aware the parent is doing wrong by them—the stew in anger for years. Anger may cause them to indulge in self-harm behaviour.
Even more rare are children who truly understand that their parents are wrong, mentally ill, and they wait patiently to just getaway.
”One of the great things about being an adult is that you get to decide what kind of relationship to have with your parents”, says Sharon Martin. ”Your relationship with your parents doesn’t have to be like this. You can begin to break your family’s dysfunctional patterns. You get to decide how and when to relate to your parents. You get to decide what’s right for you.”
What to do to survive?
Detach or distance yourself: Detachment means not react or take things personally while staying close to the toxic person. Stop trying to please them. It’s normal to want your parents’ approval, but toxic parents are nearly impossible to please. This is often what school-going youth have to do. You can learn to detach ( not react) when someone pushes your buttons. You are not responsible for the feelings, wants or needs of the toxic person. Limit what you share with them about your life. When things start deteriorating, take that as your cue to leave.
Always have an exit strategy. It is okay to leave a toxic person. Sometimes people are so damaging to you that you have to go to protect yourself from further harm. You do not have to accept belittling, shaming or constant humiliation. You may end it. Remember what you allow to happen, will continue. Remember you won’t heal just because you cut them off – you still need to recover your power and self-esteem.
It is also okay not to leave. Maybe the toxic person is your parent, who you love despite the toxicity. You love them, but you don’t have to like them. Maybe you are still dependent on that parent financially, and you have to stay. You do not have to feel you are weak because you cannot leave. You can still survive the relationship and become a stronger person if you are willing to work on getting to know yourself and minimising the damage. For example:
- Limit the amount of time you spend together
- Remain confident when talking to them
- Keep things as respectful as possible.
- Remember, this has nothing to do with you.
- Remember you can’t change them
Take care of yourself.
Any person needs to become self-sufficient and independent as an adult. It gives you choices in life. As long as you are dependent on someone, they have the opportunity to mistreat you or abuse you.
Allow yourself to live life on your terms and that it is okay to make mistakes. It is human to make mistakes. e. We all do. It doesn’t make you worthless or useless. Maybe that is what your parents told you about your whole life. The fact is, you will never know what you are capable of if you don’t go out there and try.
If the thought of living life scares you – sit down and write down the beliefs that are holding you back. Beliefs can be rational or irrational. The irrational thoughts are the ones that are holding us back. Next to the view – write down what the cost of the belief in your life is? Does it cost you, friends? Is it preventing you from being happy, from being confident or comfortable? Is it preventing you from exploring life? This is your story, and you can change it. You can choose to do things differently. Try to write a new way of doing something next to each belief that is holding you back. It means to change an irrational thought into rational thought. An easy way to do it is to question the idea or thought that is holding you back. For example:
- Irrational thought: My parents always say I am useless
- Question: Am I useless?
- Rational answer: I am good at several things like I get good grades, I enjoy my sport, and I enjoy my hobbies. I am responsible, and I have a few good friends. I can’t entirely agree with their statement that I am useless.
Remember that the human brain can shut itself down in a toxic environment to protect itself against others’ toxicity. This can have adverse effects because when shutting down, the brain produces fewer neurons. This can make people more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, cause memory loss, reduced immunity, and reduced resilience to stress and physical illness.
- You are not your parents.
- You cannot change you or rescue your family members.
- Indifference, not hatred or anger is the opposite of love.
- Hating someone interferes with loving yourself.
- Unresolved anger and resentment hurt you.
The good news is that the damage can be turned around by good eating habits, meditation, exercise, self – and therapy. You have to build yourself back up when you realize your parents are toxic and are harming you.
Connect with positive people. Reach out and rely on other family and friends for support in times of trouble. A support system is a valuable tool to help you get through this. If you have a family member or adult you trust, you can consider having a deep conversation with such a person about your parents’ feelings and experiences. Such a person can serve as a mediator between you and your parents as well.
Get to know yourself.
Although you might think in terms of genes that you are just like them if we look at personality traits and habits, you are in fact your own person, and you can choose what kind of person you would like to be one day. You do not have to follow the same behavioural patterns. Learning what not to become can be a more significant influence in life than good role models.
Maybe you grew up in a household where you could not show your emotions because any situation where you would normally share what you feel caused a blow-out. Locking away feelings (pleasant or unpleasant) to keep the peace will, in the long run, deny the essence of who you are. Find a way to let out emotions somewhere else. One can write about feelings in a journal or diary, blogging, or other creative practices like painting, drawing, singing or playing music. It is essential to stay in touch with emotions and learn how to voice them.
It is also important to know that you have the right to love and respect from people you allow close to you. You may set the boundaries and conditions for your relationships – just as others may set theirs. We are all to treat others with kindness, care and respect. If those conditions are not met, you may close the door. It is also not your responsibility to keep other people happy – every person is responsible for their own happiness.
What traits do you have that make you easy prey? Learn to recognize them. They may be your fear of speaking out, of not making them happy, of conflict. Sometimes it is your naive belief that things are getting better when they are nice to you. But their niceness is just part of the perpetual cycle where nothing has changed. It is called intermittent reinforcement. Challenge these fears by setting boundaries to how much you will allow, how they may talk to you and practising to stand up for yourself, without encouraging a fight.
It often happens in a family that we say things we don’t mean and regret. It is, however, never customary to treat another person poorly most of the time. Toxic treatment of another should never be accepted or excused. That would mean we are normalizing toxic behaviour. Many young people feel so broken down that they feel they will never escape this. Some start self-harming, others become addicted to something. And then some feel like giving up on life and who become suicidal.
Remember you are more than all of this, more than every bad memory, every insult, every misunderstanding. A mentally ill person inflicted the hurt. Have the guts to look ahead and become who you were destined to become. There is help available to support you in this.
Avoid becoming them and repeating their patterns when you are with other people. It often happens that we are drawn to people very similar to our parents. The reason is that we are looking for the love and nurturing we never got from our parents. It is easy to repeat toxic patterns with similar people, but the endings are also unhappy ones. It is important to be aware of this. Questions to ask yourself are: What do they do that is similar? What are the needs of mine being met? What keeps me there? Asking questions and being aware will help you make rational decisions that are not driven by historical wants.
You may chat with an online counsellor for support and guidance. You may remain anonymous if you chat with us. The chat is text-based.
Just click on LIVE CHAT.
Healing from toxic parents
Healing is a grief process. The stages of grief are denial, anger, sorrow, bargaining and acceptance. When in denial a person might think: ”This is not happening”. Anger might say ” I am so mad at them”. Sorrow might say: ”I am so sad, they don’t love me.” Bargaining might say” If I can do better, they might love me. I must try harder.” Finally, acceptance says: ” My parents are who they are, but I can survive this.”
During the bargaining stage, a child may become everything the parent wants him or her to be to win the parent’s acceptance – which, of course, never happens. But it can cause the child to display all the symptoms of the parent’s mental illness and allow the parent to get away with denying their own mental illness. The toxic parent blames everything on their children. The child thinks if he or she is just very quiet, very polite and pleasing, it will prevent the parent from having an anger melt-down. Sometimes children even take over the parenting role – to care for younger siblings and the incompetent toxic parent. As this bargaining stage runs its course, the child realizes his/her efforts are futile. Everything stays the same. They are still unloved and unaccepted by the parent.
The child then becomes sad and depressed – loses hope. They have perhaps at this time already lost their whole sense of self. The child now realizes that his / her parent is a toxic human being. Some children become so depressed. They develop feelings and thoughts of suicide.
The thought of having a parent that harm you more than they care or nurture you might trigger anger in them. It is described as an I AM anger – ”I am here’, I am honest and I matter”.
Now only the child might move to acceptance. With that comes the realization that this is not their fault and that they may protect themselves to survive this. They learn to care for themselves. To know care for your self is self-healing.
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