7 Tips For Dealing With Toxic Parents

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The unusual thing I discovered after writing about the experience of having a toxic parent — other than that writing really is as cathartic as everybody always says it is — is the number of friends, acquaintances, and Facebook buddies who looked at the list of characteristics and emailed me immediately about their own parents. Turns out toxicity isn't as isolating as it may seem. Many of us, particularly daughters and their mothers, appear to be working through difficulties of behavior, emotional priority, guilt, shame, and general manipulation. But once you've figured out that you have a toxic parent — what on earth do you do with them?

If I had a blueprint for the situation, believe me, I'd give one to you. I'd put it on billboards, hire cheerful urchins to distribute it on street corners, and generally market the hell out of it. This Is The Cure-All For Your Toxic Parent Needs. Take Twice A Day With The Advice Of Your Therapist. Regrettably, this is not something I can provide, but there are tips and tricks from the battleground. Some of them will seem like common sense, others may take a bit of work to accept, but you'll get there.

You're not alone, and you are not crazy. (You're also not going to go to prison for parent-murder. I hope.) Take these seven tips and use them to make a slightly better future.

1. Get Therapy

I can't emphasize this one enough. Don't believe in therapy? Give a highly recommended therapist a chance. Don't have the money? See if your GP knows any clinics with student pricing, whether your insurance might cover a certain kind of counseling, or whether you can get into a local college's therapy services. Do some investigation into the average pricing in your state, and call some therapists to see if you can negotiate.

Getting professional help to advise you on dealing with toxic parents isn't going to magically solve anything — therapy tends to bring up old wounds and may make you feel worse before it makes you feel better — but it's damn good practice to have a pro in your corner. (There was, however, a famous article in the New York Times in 2009 pointing out that therapists often want you to have a relationship with your parents — even if, ultimately, it may not be the best thing for you. Be open to talking about this.)

2. Discover Your Boundaries

Boundaries are not, typically, things that toxic parents have a lot of time for, at least in other people. So you may not have fully developed or understood your own no-go zones, your space, your limits. What treatment are you willing to put up with, and what makes you draw a line in the sand? Are you OK with a bit of good-natured ribbing, but will pull out the second a hint of passive-aggressiveness hits your interactions? Are questions about your relationship or health off-limits?

Limits are healthy; separating yourself from your parents' toxic idea of you is very dependent on your finding what they are.

3. Find Space For Your Own Emotions

Toxic families, rather like Tolstoy's unhappy ones, are all toxic in different ways, but chances are pretty good that you weren't given much of a chance to express your feelings about what was happening to you growing up — or not in any helpful way. It can be hard to carve out space as an adult to feel this stuff when it's been stuffed under the dysfunctional rug for so long. A therapist will help you get it out rather than conforming to the old patterns.

4. Find Good, Loving Support

Do not do this on your own. Dealing with toxic parents in any capacity — even if it's maintaining an everyday routine with them while quietly dissecting the patterns of your relationship — is draining. It's emotional labor. You're going to need people in your corner. Often other family members will not want to get involved (and likely for good reason), so look for people outside your family circle, from close friends to partners.

There's no shame in telling them you're going through some parent stuff. If they think you're just having an adolescent rage 10 years too late, drop 'em, or at least give them a talking-to.

5. Read About It

One thing that has been seriously helpful in diagnosing the toxicity in my family dynamic has been going back to the sources. Aside from Susan Forward's seminal Toxic Parents, available in PDF online, psychological articles about toxic families and dysfunction and books like Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, Healing The Child Within, and the more recent Difficult Mothers have all been helpful in different ways. More generally, books like Nancy Friday's My Mother, Myself have been recommended as helpful for general dysfunction involving mothers and daughters, with the caveat that it is slightly dated.

Go trawling the literature for something that really seems to hit home for you — it'll help more than you know.

6. Get Backup On Family Occasions

Backup can be physical — literally having another person, a best friend, or partner there to have your back — or it can be less tangible.

A friend introduced me to the concept of "scripts" when dealing with potentially toxic parents: already rehearsed responses, often neutral as well as assertive, to whatever they may throw at you. There's an excellent set of suggestions for all occasions over at Captain Awkward, and it will help to you to feel prepared and adult, as opposed to the small child you're used to.

7. Figure Out What You Want From The Relationship

I'm lucky. I'm not dependent on my parents for either money or love, so whatever I have from them can be seen as a bonus rather than a necessary part of my life. But there can be a large gap between what you really want from your relationship with your parent — a mom who allows you to be angry, for instance, or a dad who doesn't prioritize himself over you — and what your parents can realistically do.

Stepping out of toxicity is a significant change, and challenging a family dynamic is always going to meet with resistance. What you want may not be what you get, but figuring out what sort of parent you'd like, and communicating that, may help close the gap.

Images: AMC/Mad Men; Giphy