As an adult do you feel emotionally abused by a parent? This could be a sign you are dealing with a toxic parent. All family relationships can be fraught, so what defines a toxic parent?  Identifying signs of a toxic relationship with a parent is about their behavior toward you, not what you have done to cause it, or who they are as a person.

Characteristics of toxic parents include putting their needs ahead of their children’s, not respecting boundaries and lacking empathy. Their behavior can be erratic, unpredictable and indifferent. They can be controlling and emotionally abusive by shaming, belittling, criticizing, or ignoring their children.  The root causes of toxic parenting often include their own dysfunctional childhood, accompanied by substance abuse, addiction, or mental illness.  While it may help to understand the origin of your parent’s behavior, the purpose of this article is to give you concrete ways to cope.

Five Coping Strategies

A Toxic parent can have a devastating effect on your emotional well being. You are under no obligation to interact with someone who mistreats you, but rather than cutting a parent out of your life, try setting boundaries.

  1. Learn the signs. If your parent drinks in the evenings, know that’s not a good time to call.  If they have a mood disorder, learn the signs of when their illness is active and be prepared.
  2. Don’t take it personally.  So easy in theory, so hard in practice. Think of it as aspirational, even a small improvement in your ability to realize their behavior is about them, not you, can be incredibly helpful.
  3. Set limits. While it’s difficult to plan exactly how a conversation will go, determine what you are comfortable speaking about and what you would like to avoid. Stay away from loaded topics that create any sort of conflict and don’t hesitate to say, “No, I’d rather not talk about that.”
  4. Have an escape. Don’t let yourself get trapped in a bad situation, especially if you must travel to visit your  parent or are traveling with them. Create an alternative plan for where you will go if things get heated.
  5. Don’t engage. Of course your parent will still have their opinions. Try not to engage or become defensive. Respond by telling your parent the conversation is unproductive and be clear about how it impacts you.

It’s Lonely Outside the Herd

If you are the first in your family to set healthy boundaries it may get lonely or worse. Be prepared for your siblings and/or other parent judging or criticizing you. The best way to handle this is to show, not tell. It might inspire other family members to recognize they too can set boundaries. All it takes is one person in a family system to make a change.

Don’t Expect Miracles

When adult children set boundaries with their toxic parents its best to set realistic (low) expectations. One of my clients was raised by a narcissistic, detached mother, and she only experienced a breakthrough after decades of setting boundaries. Recently, her mother began saying she loved her at the end of every phone call. That’s progress.

Suzanne Goodwin

Author Suzanne Goodwin

More posts by Suzanne Goodwin

(914) 589-6629
Email Suzanne

88 West Ridgewood Avenue
Ridgewood, NJ 07450

Hours: M-F, 9:30am – 7pm
Weekends available by appt.