6 Ways to Deal with Toxic Parents
Updated: Apr 24
Our relationships with our parents have the potential to lift us up or tear us down like none other. I don't know about you, but one of the most difficult realizations that dawned on me as I slowly transitioned from being a teenager to a young adult was the shocking realization that my parents are not always right. Hard pill to swallow, isn't it? The metaphorical knife that parents wield cuts especially deep when coupled with the crushing disappointment of realizing that they, too, have lots of baggage. So what can we do?
Likely the pandemic has changed your living situation: maybe you've had to move back home, and are cooped up inside with your parents for countless hours a day. Or maybe the toxicity and pain in your relationship with your parents has been around for a while. I don't know your situation. But what I do know is that at the end of the day, we can - unfortunately - only change ourselves and choose how we react. My hope is that these suggestions might 1) help you cope with the relational toxicity in a realistic and approachable way, and 2) healthily address the pain, frustration, or other feelings that you're been coping with as well. Let's dive in.
Set Healthy Boundaries
You can say "no" - even to your parents. Identify what's worth having conversations about. Know that you don't have to share everything. This might feel wrong or weird, especially if you used to share a lot in the past. But realize that part of the difficulty in your relationship might be because your boundaries haven't been recalibrated to who you and your parents are today - not five or ten years ago.
Make it Relational, Not Topical
This one is a tricky one as it does require a certain level of open and mature communication. If there's something that you don't agree on or that creates tension, it might be the most productive to make a mutual decision to agree to not discuss that topic. For example, your parents are constantly criticizing you for your choice of career, and it makes you feel terrible! Whenever you mention anything remotely career related, they jump on you and wax poetic about how you haven't made the right decisions in life, how you should be doing something else, etc. These conversations might always end up the same way - with them harping on you and you feeling discouraged and frustrated. Maybe this grows over time, and you're unable to have a conversation with your parents without remembering the feeling of inferiority that comes with trying to share. If both parties can't come to an agreement on the topic and are clearly not going to change their stance, try looking at the issue a different way. You're not denying or sweeping under the rug - this is making a conscious decision to prioritize and heal the relationship by acknowledging that it's not productive to keep rehashing differences that won't be changed at this point.
Find Ways to Self-Soothe
What are some things that you can do to boost yourself up? Make a list of calming, mood-boosting activities that you can turn to. Come up with some that can be done anywhere (ex. deep breathing exercises, an affirmation that you can repeat to yourself in the moment) as well as more involved exercises that you can invest in should you need more time to yourself (ex. a walk outside, playing the guitar, working on art). Write them down so that they are readily available in moments of emotional distress.
Temper Your Expectations
This one goes back to what I was talking about at the start of this article. Do you expect your parents to always have it together? Acknowledging that our parents are humans who make mistakes doesn't justify their actions, but makes more space for us to objectively cope with the toxic behavior. By tempering our expectations to avoid overwhelming disappointment, we make more space to actually address what's going on and to find ways to handle it proactively.
Identify a Support Network
Identify the people in your life who you can turn to for help in times of crisis. This isn't just finding friends to feelings-dump to - identify people in your life who aren't enablers, but who will be there for you objectively and remind you of your coping strategies. It may be helpful to not turn to family friends or people who are also close to your parents in this instance in order to get the most unbiased opinion.
Seek Professional Help
Sometimes we just need an objective third party to help us work through issues most effectively. A therapist can help you process your feelings and create mental coping strategies. It can be helpful in some instances to really look into the roots of our relationship with our parents - there might be some stuff there that's getting in your way as well.