7 Ways To Have A Relationship With A Toxic Parent

by JR Thorpe

I have toxic parents, but that isn't the biggest issue in our relationship; it's that when they're not being Absolute F*cking Horrors (TM), my toxic parents and I do manage to have fun, and I'd like to keep having a relationship with them. How the hell does that work? How do I keep the Absolute F*cking Horror behavior at its absolute minimum, give their best qualities a time to shine, and still get whatever I possibly can out of a very flawed, deeply weird parent-child relationship? Reader, I'll be honest: I'm still figuring it out. But there are good ways and bad ways to pursue a relationship with toxic parents, and in the course of attempting to pursue a relationship in the good way with my parents, I've collected some tips.

As far as toxicity goes, there are many degrees and types. As ever, Susan Forward's seminal work on toxic parents is required reading if you think you may have some. But some toxic relationships are more salvageable in adulthood than others. Abuse, emotional bludgeoning, control and boundary problems come in all shapes and sizes, and the more serious they are, the less likely you'll be able to eke out a decent relationship with the parent(s) who did these things to you. There's absolutely nothing wrong with deciding that having no contact with your toxic parents is for you. But if you do want to have interactions and try to make sure that they are fulfilling and positive ones, there are ways to try and make it work.

But whatever you do, do not expect sunshine and rainbows. Toxicity is a long-term and deeply entrenched problem, and you've been part of this toxic dynamic for a very long time; it's expected that there will be some very rough periods. But if you want to build (or rebuild) a relationship, here are a few bits of advice.

1. Limit Their Opportunities To Be Toxic To You

What gives your parents the fewest possible opportunities to act out their negative dynamic with you? A public place? The presence of many witnesses (like a partner or other family members)? A Skype call where the time is limited by outside factors, like that you have to leave in 10 minutes to go to work? A set, specific activity where they can't easily be assholes? Don't feel bad for insisting on a specific situation; you want to get the best out of the experience, so you have to make sure it's going to give the best results. Think of it all as putting down the safety bar as you board the roller coaster.

So put yourself in charge of scheduling your activities with your toxic parents, and don't leave it open-ended. If you have to enter "their territory" (i.e. their house or other places they consider their turf) for holidays or whatever, do your best to mediate the entire experience so you have the power to leave at any time, and do whatever you can to organize things so that your parents have as little opportunity as possible to get awful.

2. Engage In Very Defined Activities With Specific Time Limits

Limits of all kinds are very important with toxic parents. And that goes for time limits on activities during visits, too. Don't leave the possibilities of your interaction open-ended; there have to be set beginnings and ends (and middles, too, if that helps your particular situation). That way, there's a distinct sense of structure and a sense of how much you have to endure. Pro tip: go for activities that are Fun But Not Interaction-Heavy. Go see a film, play, or baseball game! Have dinner with friends who tell incredibly entertaining stories and will distract your parents entirely! And if you need extra help sticking to time limits, get a scheduling app.

3. Recognize What They Can't Do

Every toxic parent has things they are simply incapable of doing. Maybe they need to constantly control you, or don't know how to see you as a fully evolved adult human being, or have addiction issues. Unfortunately, unless they are putting in a lot of work, the toxic parent is not likely to change a great deal; the serious emotional labor is probably almost entirely in your court.

If they've never been able to have a civil conversation with you about your partner or job, or get through a dinner without getting drunk, or keep themselves from sulking, they're not going to start. Being aware of these limitations — and knowing that you will have to work within them if you want to maintain a relationship — will go a long way towards helping you set realistic expectation and finding activities you can do together that might not allow for these hurtful behaviors happen (or, at the very least, happen as much).

4. Mourn For What You Could Have Had

On a scale of one to suck, your parents err more towards the "suck" end, and that's a horrible thing. But you need to let go of the idea that you're ever going to have a perfect all-singing-all-dancing child-parent relationship, and really grieve for those things you needed and didn't get. That process is very important, and will actually help you have a relationship with the people who are actually there, not the ones you might keep hoping will turn up.

5. ... And Do Your Best To Find That Elsewhere

This might initially sound like a remarkably strange bit of advice, but find other sources of parenting. I don't exclusively mean older people who dispense wise advice and give you hugs (though those are great; my mother-in-law is the best). I mean people who give you the love, support, unconditional affection and genuine concern that parents are supposed to give, but that yours, for whatever reason, couldn't quite offer up. A support group that loves and cushions you will make you feel far more protected when you hang out with your parents, because you'll understand that your parents are not your only option for real help and support — so you don't need to put up with all of their sh*t.

6. Always Prioritize Yourself

When your toxic parents are being awful? Walk out. If they've crossed lines you've deliberately and vocally established about what can and cannot be discussed or done? Leave. Put your own feelings first — and if you're feeling unsafe or miserable or vulnerable or seriously upset, get out of there. Toxic parents can be extremely wounding things, and as an adult, I'm sure you've suffered quite enough of it. Do not ever be afraid of getting yourself out of there, and make preparations before you go so that you always have an exit plan if things go south. (Taxi money, the number of a friend with a car, a friend's spare room on offer, whatever you need.)

7. Break It Off If Necessary

Look, if you've given it your best shot and they're being assholes anyway, there's no shame in cutting things short, and even cutting off contact for a little while. You tried and it didn't work! That's OK. Now you've just got to sit down, reassess, and give yourself a lot of self-care in the process. Is it really going to be possible to have a relationship with these people, or is it going to be wasted effort? Could you try something else next time that might have a better outcome? Is doing that worth it?

If you meeting with your parents goes well, congratulations! You had a Successful Toxic Parent Interaction. Gold star for you! It may still leave you feeling upset and empty afterwards, even if it seemed to have all the hallmarks of a good time while it was happening; that's because there is a lot of background emotion involved in dealing with toxic parents, even if they're not being awful at that precise moment in time. So it's likely to be a confusing experience, no matter what. But with some limits and effort, it may be genuinely possible to have the sort of relationship where you see each other face-to-face and have a good time together. Maybe.

Images: Fox, Giphy