7 Tips For Rebuilding Your Relationship With Toxic Parents
My articles about toxic parents and how to identify them in the wild have been the most popular things I've ever written. And that is, fundamentally, a rather upsetting thing. Men and women have contacted me constantly via Twitter since I went on the record about my own particular brand of familial toxic nonsense, and this is what you learn: everybody's situation is subtly different, many adult children of toxic parents don't understand what's wrong until the label "toxic" makes it all clear, and people in this position are often deeply, heavily torn. Our parents have treated us badly, and we can want them around in some (defanged, non-threatening) capacity. How do we reconcile those two contradictory elements?
Not everybody will want, or should have, a relationship with their toxic parents. Toxicity comes in a wide range of varieties and degrees, as we'll discover, and in some circumstances experts recommend that total ceasing of contact is necessary for the adult child's mental health. If that's your situation, Psychology Today's advice on cutting off "poisonous parents" may be a good place to start, particularly because the author, Mark Sichel, tried without success to heal his relationship with his parents before finally making the choice to cut them off. For some of us, rebuilding may only offer temporary fixes to entrenched problems that merely shift focus. And that's OK. It's not a solution for everybody.
If you do want to rebuild some kind of decent relationship with a toxic parent or parental duo, it's not exactly going to be a bed of roses. But there may be ways to make it work that don't require you to be unsafe, threatened, abused or controlled.
1. Figure Out What They Can And Cannot Give
The seminal text on toxic parents, Susan Forward's Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Toxic Legacy And Reclaiming Your Life , is one of the best resources for any person with a seriously poisonous parent, regardless of the present state of their relationship. (A friend sent it to me as I was cowering in the airport at 10 p.m. waiting for a flight after fleeing my parents' house in secret. It could not have appeared at a better time.) The key thing to take away from Forward, other than the crucial information that you are not alone, is that toxicity can take many forms, each of which dictates the particular capacities of your parents and what they are able to provide their adult children.
What can your parents provide? There are many different toxic "types," from the outright abusive parent to the deficient or absent one, the highly controlling one, and the deeply self-involved. Psychology Today's Peg Streep lays out at least eight patterns that are particular to toxic mother-daughter relationships, including narcissism and dismissiveness. Look at the patterns of your relationship with your parents. What have they been excellent at giving, and what hasn't been visible or present? Is it possible to have the good parts without necessarily engaging with the toxic behavior?
My own parents find it extremely difficult to see me as an adult, emotional being — rather than an extension of their own egos and tendencies. So any kind of emotional support? That's out. But they can be funny at arm's length, and charming, and have good taste in food. That's what they can provide; that's all I can reasonably ask.
2. Avoid Entanglement
This is a point that applies to dysfunctional families in general, but can be very particular to the dynamics of toxic parents: you play a certain role in their lives, are expected to provide certain responses and react in certain ways. If you can have them in your life without engaging with those expected roles, then you may have the possibility of a limited relationship.
The Texas Women's University counseling team has an excellent set of resources on how to attempt a relationship with seriously problematic families, and one of their core recommendations is something taken from Alcoholics Anonymous: the principle of "detachment". "Work on avoiding entanglements in your family's problems," they suggest, but add a caveat: "You are fighting a lifetime of training in getting hooked into their problems." If you can't seem to have a relationship with them without automatically getting pulled back into old patterns, you're not weak; you're just highly trained, from birth.
3. Keep Strict Boundaries In Conversations And Otherwise
This relationship is on your terms. You may want to post that above the phone or computer: THIS IS ON YOUR TERMS. If there's anything that toxic parents do best, it's pushing your boundaries and preventing you from feeling totally in control of your own life and choices. In pursuing a relationship with them, you will need to maintain a delicate balance of boundary-keeping: you choose when the conversations happen and where, you choose how they go, you choose how they end. An excellent resource for this is the Huffington Post's Catherine Chen's guide to toxic parents, which includes both conversation "diversion tactics" (avoiding your normal reactions to provocation or upsetting statements and doing something else) and the advice to "gently, but firmly, end the conversation on your own time and terms."
This doesn't mean taking their sh*t and being cool with it. If they say something unacceptable, leave. Hang up the phone. Keep doing it. If they won't follow your rules, they don't get to play. The buck stops with you; you are the one setting the agenda, even if you use that power gently.
4. Don't Feel Guilty For Loving
Peg Streep's treatment of toxic mother-daughter relationships contains one extremely penetrating insight that should stay with you, even if you yourself are dealing with a different gender dynamic. The societal expectation, she says, is that it's "natural" for parents to love their children, and so we find it difficult to understand or cope when they fail to be good at it, but this isn't actually the defining characteristic of the relationship; children are the ones who love and rely upon their parents almost absolutely. "Human offspring are hardwired to need and seek proximity to their mothers," Streep points out.
This is an important lesson to take in. If you miss your parents even though they've been absolutely horrific to you, if you try to seek their approval even if it's rarely forthcoming, if pleasing and attending to them was the shape of your life, you are doing what kids do: loving your parents. And that's not a bad thing. It doesn't mean they should get away with hurting you, but it doesn't mean you're an idiot or a doormat. People with normal, loving parents don't fully understand what insufficiency in that area is like, and why you might desire their presence in your life even if your history is incredibly difficult. I get it. I'm with you.
5. Beware Parentification
This is a particular kind of emotional phenomenon related to one kind of toxic parent, often an absent or self-centered one. Parentification involves making the child into a parent, giving them emotional jobs or asking them to take care of the parent or siblings, and generally placing them in a role for which they are grossly unqualified. Psych Central defines it as a kind of role reversal of responsibility, and it can have devastating results: a 2015 study found that new mothers who'd been "parentified" as children found it difficult to engage with their own kids. Emotional parenting can be a comforting role in a toxic parenting relationship; my own mother is deeply psychologically and physically weak and prone to needing "care," and often that has been the basis of earning her love and attention. If that's your pattern, take note of it, and refuse the opportunity to parent your parents.
6. Recognize That You Cannot Make Other People Change
If your parents wish to change, that is excellent. It is amazing. And they damn well should, because you're awesome and deserve far better than what you were getting. Ultimately, though, you can't force that upon them, and the basis of your relationship cannot be coaching them into change. Regrettably, the toxic parent may always be the toxic parent, and your relationship will just have to build in understandings of those terrible weaknesses and abuses. Brown University's advice on keeping yourself safe in dysfunctional family relationships places a large emphasis on the fact that they are likely not to change; what can change is your own level of engagement, boundary reinforcement, and resistance to old patterns.
7. Remember That You Cannot Give What You Haven't Got
I have found this particular piece of advice, from Uncommon Practitioner's guide for therapists helping clients with toxic parents, extremely useful. Toxic parents of the narcissist kind, the ones that require constant giving, endless attention, and what Uncommon Practitioner's Mark Tyrell calls "vampiric demands," can be exceptionally difficult to deal with. Seth Meyers over at Psychology Today explains that "narcissistic parents don’t have children because they want to nurture and guide their offspring through life; they have children so that they have an automatic, built-in relationship in which they have power." But many kinds of toxic parent require something of you, whether it's soothing them, keeping their secrets, playing into their guilting and aggression, or fitting into their dynamic. So what can you do?
Tyrell tells his clients: you cannot give what you haven't got. You don't have endless time and attention to devote to your parents. You do not have a saint's patience and a rhinoceros' hide to deal with their insults, anger, or threats. You do not have the capacity to be in a toxic relationship with them as an adult. They can demand it all they like, but you're not able or willing to give it any more. Recognizing your own limits and desires is a key part of the toxic parent relationship. If they can respect that, and if you can handle reminding them, then you might be able to have some kind of role in each others' lives moving forward.
Images: FOX; Giphy