Toxic families, where the dynamic between parents and children involves significantly more damage than it does support or love, are more common than they seem. Mothers and daughters are often pointed to as a family relationship with toxic potential, but parents and children of any gender can have relationships marked by issues around guilt, shame, manipulation, or emotional regulation. Diagnosing the problem, though, is one thing — figuring out strategies and methods of dealing with toxic parents, experts say, is another thing entirely.
"Healthy families are not always ideal or perfect," wrote the authors of one 2017 study on dysfunctional family relationships. "They may infrequently possess some of the characteristics of a dysfunctional family; but not all the time." The study, published in Journal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention, also notes that toxic families are ones where there may be emotional abuse, or where love was given conditionally, or where boundaries are not respected.
The variability of a toxic family relationship means there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with them. However, experts say there are tips and tricks that can be adapted to meet each particular toxic family's needs. Therapy, support, research, and scripts to help deal with specific situations can all be helpful, if deployed in the right way.
Here are the best ways to deal with a toxic family member.
1. Go To Therapy
It can be tempting to ask a toxic parent to seek out therapy, but therapist Heidi McBain, L.M.F.T., tells Bustle that they're unlikely to go. "They feel like everybody around them is to blame," she says. Instead, she recommends therapy for anybody who is dealing with a toxic parent themselves, to help them cope with the fallout and learn about strategies to deal with their particular brand of behavior. If therapy is expensive, there are many options to find more affordable professionals for mental health, including online programs like Talkspace and Open Path. It's important to find a therapist that understands family issues and won't just recommend that clients have a relationship with their parents regardless of their needs.
2. Discover & Enforce Boundaries
Boundaries, McBain says, are often not the most comfortable thing for toxic parents, and they may spend a lot of time crossing them. Learning how to build and cement firm boundaries around behavior can be difficult if it's never been done before, but it's an important step for preserving emotional and mental health in a toxic family environment. Start small; "I can't talk on the phone while I'm at work, Mom," can set the stage for bigger ones, like "I will be spending the holidays with my partner's family this year." Actually enforcing these boundaries — setting your parent's calls to do not disturb while you're at work, informing your parent early in the year about your holiday plans — can help develop expectations for how you will enforce your limits.
3. Find Space For Emotions
In toxic families, McBain tells Bustle, the emotions of everybody aside from the toxic family member may be ignored or sidelined. This means that there isn't space for those emotions to be expressed or met with any kind of support. It can be hard to carve out space as an adult to feel these things when they've been repressed or discounted for a long time. Journaling about your feelings can be a way to start giving yourself that space; spending time asserting these feelings in other supportive spaces, like at brunch with your friends, is another. A therapist can help explore ways to express emotional needs and have them met in other ways.
4. Find Outside Loving Support
McBain advises therapy as a first line of defense against toxic parents, but another system of support is also necessary. Dealing with toxic parents in any capacity — even if it's maintaining an everyday routine — is draining. Support communities, understanding friends, family members who understand that the dynamic is difficult, and partners who are in the loop can all be excellent helpmeets.
5. Read About It
Knowledge, they say, is power. 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 can be helpful in terms of how you understand your family's dynamic in a psychological context. 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.
6. Get Backup For Family Occasions
Family events like weddings or reunions — or even just Sunday dinner — can be places for toxicity to flourish, since you're all crowded in a room together. Making sure you have backup can help you manage the emotions that might come up. Backup can be physical — literally having another person such as a best friend or partner present — or it can be less tangible. Mental health professionals often recommend having a script for difficult occasions, where you memorize and rehearse your responses before handling a triggering or upsetting situation. Captain Awkward has a popular set of scripts for dealing with toxic parents that can be adapted to many situations.
7. Figure Out What You Want From The Relationship
McBain says that hoping that a toxic parent can change may be counterproductive, and that adult children may need to lower their expectations. There can be a large gap between what is really needed in a child-parent relationship and what a toxic parent can realistically do. A therapist may be able to guide adult children towards a more realistic recognition of their parents' capacities and failings, and what they can and cannot produce.
Heidi McBain LMFT, therapist
Al Ubaidi BA (2017) Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family. J Fam Med Dis Prev 3:059. doi.org/10.23937/2469-5793/1510059
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