If you haven’t read my earlier post on this topic, 8 Signs of Toxic Parents, stop what you’re doing, go back and read that post, and then return here. If any of the 8 signs remind you of your relationship with one or more of your parents, then keep reading below for tips on what you can do to deal!
Develop a support system outside your family.
In some cases, you might have a sibling or even another parent who’s highly sympathetic to your situation and likely is going through it him/herself. In some cases, such a relative could be the best support system you could ask for. But often, other family members have really sticky, complicated relationships with your toxic parents, as J.R. Thorpe explains: “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.”
Other family members might feel anything from fear of disloyalty when it comes to your parent(s), so they might shy away from helping you or even try to invalidate your feelings. You know your own family best, but it’s worth carefully thinking about who you could look to for support outside your family circle.
Be assertive, not aggressive.
This advice comes straight from Charles L. Whitfield’s classic book Healing the Child Within, which is worth reading in full if you have a fraught relationship with one or both parents. According to Whitfield, aggression involves a feeling of attack, but assertiveness makes both parties feel like they had a valuable, fruitful interaction. The difference is in your approach: if you’re being aggressive, then your goal is to hurt someone, whereas if you’re being assertive, then your goal is simply to make yourself understood.
Children of toxic parents often have a difficult time understanding this difference because they rarely saw examples of healthy assertiveness while growing up; toxic parents are much more frequently openly aggressive or passively aggressive than assertive. Describing children who grew up in dysfunctional families, Whitfield writes, “They almost never see assertiveness being modeled, are rarely taught to be assertive and thus grow up to be adults who operate by being either aggressive and/or manipulative or passive, ‘people pleasers,’ or a combination of these.” For this reason, it can be incredibly helpful to get yourself into group therapy where you can practice being assertive in a safe space before trying it with your parent(s).
Avoid rushing into forgiving toxic parents.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? Forgiveness is the goal that most books, tv shows, and movies lead us to believe we should always be pursuing any relationship if we want to heal and move on. According to Susan Forward, author of Toxic Parents, however, popular culture might just have this backward. Forward writes, “People can forgive toxic parents, but they should do it at the conclusion – not at the beginning – of their emotional housecleaning.”
If you rush yourself into forgiveness before allowing yourself to actually feel emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration, Forward explains, you ultimately won’t be doing yourself any favors. Those emotions have to go somewhere, so if you don’t experience them toward your toxic parents, they’ll likely just turn inward and you’ll experience them toward yourself. Furthermore, Forward notes that she believes forgiveness should only be granted where it is sought and earned. If your parent(s) isn’t even looking for forgiveness in the first place, then it is not your obligation to give it.
Consider the possibility of distancing yourself from toxic parents.
Many children of toxic parents love their parents deeply despite the dysfunction in the relationship and therefore are looking for a fix rather than the advice to let the relationship go. Similarly, many psychologists are eager to advise preservation of relationships. However, if you’re in a situation where you’ve tried in many different ways and many different times to repair the relationship and your parent just isn’t interested, then it might be time to consider putting some distance into the relationship.
Dr. Richard Friedman, M.D. learned this when he was treating a client for depression, as he explains in his New York Times article; his first instinct was to try to repair the relationship and he even tried to incorporate his patient’s parents into therapy sessions. But when he saw his patient’s parents’ disinterest in change and repair, he realized his advice was misguided rather than helpful. He notes that distancing should usually be used as a last resort (except in cases of abuse, in which it should be used as a first resort), and that it should never be thought of as a necessarily permanent situation – people can always have changes of heart. But there might come a time when the relationship is doing you more harm than good despite your very best efforts, and that’s when it might be time to distance, at least temporarily.
If you are interested in talking more about the effects of toxic parenting in your own life and what you can do about them You can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult