3 Tips for Managing a Toxic Relationship With Your Parents as an Adult
Confession: I succumb to click bait whenever the word “toxic” comes along, as my entire life has been filled with toxic people in starring roles. I can see that clearly now, having traded in my rose-colored glasses for magnifying readers.
As I skim articles asking, “Is Your Significant Other Toxic? 15 Ways to Know.” I realize for me, nearly every single one of them applies not to a romantic partner, but to both of my parents — which is devastating. I mean, if this article is right, I should “Walk away if…” if even one of those “ways” is apparent in the relationship. What does it mean when there are — according to this listicle — 13 things telling me I should have walked away from my parents, basically, at the age of six.
Biologically speaking, you are not who you are without your parents. They gave you life. Literally. Their chromosomes are your chromosomes. Your habits are their habits. Your laugh is their laugh.
Their reward for making little carbon copies of themselves is a never-ending job of caring for you. Parents, empirically, are supposed to nurture you, keep your best interests in mind and protect you from the outside world.
They are not supposed to feed you to the dingoes.
There’s a strange day in your life when you realize your parents are mere mortals, and not superheroes. On that day, they fall short of your expectations, and somehow, and it can change the dynamic between you. If you’re lucky, you meet somewhere in the middle with a common understanding that you’re both adults in this mixed-up thing called life and you are able to sludge though it together.
Other folks, like me, come to the realization that while you intrinsically love your parents, you don’t actually like them. They’re loud. And demanding. And passive aggressive. And narcissistic. And drunk.
Think about it: If you were to meet your parents as strangers at a party, how long would it take before you excused yourself to do anything else rather than talk to them for one more minute?
For me, it’s roughly 45 seconds.
But it took me a while to be able to say that. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me (which should have been the first indicator that our relationship was off) instead of asking what the hell was wrong with them.
As a child of toxic parents, I am always the first one to blame myself for anything that goes awry — as if beating them to the punch was a game I could win. It hurts when the people who are supposed to love you the most tell you how wrong you are on a constant basis. So if I said it first, “Ugh! Dummy! Why’d you do it that way?” it might stop them from pointing out my mistake. It’s like, “I know. I’m an idiot. You’ve told me so 100 times before. Please don’t tell me that again, People Who Brought Me Into This World. I already feel bad enough about myself. Please don’t make it worse.”
Consequently, negative self-talk is my constant inner monologue.
And that bitch is chatty.
However, over the years, (and through several, nay hundreds of therapy sessions) I have learned a few tips in how to deal with my parents in order to be able to move forward with our relationship in a reasonable and adult manner that isn’t entirely painful to me.
1. It’s OK not to have a relationship with them if you don’t want one.
This was the hardest one to learn and is why I’m leading with it. If the relationship is so toxic that you feel you cannot survive it, legally, depending on the state you live in, you can be emancipated from your parents as early as 14 years old. If they are harming you in any way, reach out to someone you trust and: get out. You have no responsibility to the people who share your DNA. None. This is as applicable if you’re 14 or 44. If there is a day when you are finally able to throw up your hands and say, “Enough!” it can mean you are taking charge of the feelings and emotions that have been neglected or manipulated or otherwise abused and you are standing up for yourself. And bravo to you! Most often, toxic people only recognize consequences and for parents, severing ties is often the most severe and eye-opening of them all. It may be a step toward reconciliation, but only if you want it to be.
Remember, from here on out…
2. You are in control of all communication.
If you do decide to keep a relationship with your toxic parents, I believe you must stay in control of all conversations. Depending on your level of communication, be it in person, phone, text, email, social media, etc., I believe you must be firm about this rule. First off, in this era of smart-everything, I believe you should start by being smart yourself. There’s no reason to answer a phone or respond to an email or text if you don’t want to. It’s perfectly acceptable to block numbers and unfriend people on social media. (In fact, I highly recommend it!) Next, if you don’t want to completely break ties, I’d recommend you start with an open and honest talk with your parents, perhaps with a mediator or family counselor to assist and discuss how their toxic activities trigger you. And going forward, you must be willing to call them out every time they slip. I’d be willing to wager that at least half of the toxic parents in the world don’t even realize how their actions are affecting their children (but then again, I’m a glass half full kind of a girl).
3. In some circumstances, you can either be open, or you can be practical.
In dealing with my own toxic parents, a friend gave me this wonderful advice and I now use it as a template for my own parental communication all the time. I find it most applicable when you are just starting to rebuild your relationship with your toxic parents, but you can use it for however long you need. Stick to the practical until you (and only you) are ready for more. Toxic parents can be skilled at manipulating us and making us feel terrible for things we are so proud of, so it’s crucial not to feed them unnecessary information until such a time that you deem safe. I believe once you open Pandora’s Box, it’s impossible to close it again. Words like “Fine” and “OK” are perfect answers for any question as long as you need them to be. Remember: you are in control of all communication. You don’t have to give them more than you can handle.
I’m not saying any of these tips are perfect solutions. Maybe your therapist/shrink/guru/friend will offer different and possibly more helpful advice.
As for me, I’m still wrestling with all of them, especially with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day having passed. It’s not because I believe my parents deserve accolades for all the poison Kool-Aid they made me drink over the years, but because I know I can leave that half-full glass on the table anytime I want to and simply walk away.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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Thinkstock photo via Any_Li.