- People don’t sever family relationships casually; it’s usually a long, painful process of recognition and internal struggle.
- Family estrangement is often caused by the negative behavior patterns of toxic parents, which can include manipulation and mockery.
- The decision to cut off toxic parents is a heavy burden, and it brings with it feelings of loss and sorrow.
- The adult children of toxic parents have options, from cordial contact to no contact, as they take the necessary steps to heal.
This is not a fun topic to write about. Parent-child breakups are painful for everyone involved: for the adult children who feel torn between filial duty and self-protection; for the toxic parents who can’t understand what they did wrong; and even for the children those parents once were, who were probably emotionally abused by their own parents in kind. And then there are the spouses, friends, and family members who get caught up in the grief and anger and confusion and sorrow. They might not be able to grasp the extent of the historical damage. They might make things worse with a dismissive attitude that says, “Can’t you just get over it?”
But that’s not how the heart works. As primary attachment figures, parents can exert lifelong power over their children, even from afar. They shape the way we relate to others, even as grownups, even when we have our own kids to try not to mess up. So no, children who haven’t faced their formative hurt can’t just get over it, even when they’re independent and have families of their own. They have to do something in order to evolve emotionally. And sometimes, tragically, for everyone involved, that something means cutting off a toxic parent.
Family Estrangement Is a Process
Family estrangement usually doesn’t happen overnight. There may come a sudden tipping point, but adult children often experience a long, slow process of recognition that comes with personal growth. They may discover that what happened within their family wasn’t the “normal” they’d always assumed it to be. “Wait, my wife’s mother didn’t gaslight her and sabotage her happiness and make her feel worthless? That was just my own toxic mother’s day-to-day behavior when I was in kindergarten?”
So there’s this process of discovery and illumination, and then there’s the conflict about what to do with one’s newfound knowledge. Let’s say you finally realize the extent of the damage. Your toxic parent’s behavior might be responsible for much of your anxiety, low self-esteem, relationship issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc. But they’re still Mom or Dad. So now you’re torn between two formidable values: family obligation and personal-growth/pursuit of happiness. What if you feel that you can’t claim your authentic identity when your toxic parent is always chipping away at you? But what if family obedience has always been part of your identity? And what will other people think if you refuse to talk to your parents?
See how this is not fun? To sum up, you have the original childhood trauma or toxic stress, then you have the distress of deciding what to do. Then you have other people–like siblings or spouses–weighing in, giving you contradictory advice like “Stand up for yourself!” or “That’s just Mom being Mom–don’t let her get to you.” But of course it’s too late; she already got to you.
What Is a Toxic Parent?
Children have an innate need to bond with their primary caregivers. At a young age, children have no idea what constitutes healthy emotional attachment and what doesn’t. All they know is that they’re attached. So it doesn’t matter how toxic a parent is or how poor their parenting skills; their kids are still going to want to please them.
Toxic parents display a pattern of negative behavior that’s driven by their own needs, not their children’s needs, and they’re bound to have some of the following characteristics:
- Drama addiction. Trivial issues are blown out of proportion. Toxic parents tend to be highly emotionally reactive, whether problems are big or little. It’s all life and death, and it always demands your undivided attention.
- Self-centeredness/narcissism. Toxic parents probably don’t care about your feelings. They lack real empathy and remain focused on their own feelings. You seem to be an extension of them.
- Negativity. They’re negative about you, about others, about the state of the world, etc. They keep score. They might be harshly critical and even emotionally abusive. You don’t receive the affirmation and security you need. And you’re not allowed to express negative emotions.
- Negative manipulation. Toxic parents are notorious for guilt-tripping and exploiting your emotional “weaknesses”. You’re responsible for their happiness. They seek to control you by threatening or creating fear. They might use money to control you. They may even be physically abusive.
- Passive aggressiveness. They’re probably going to avoid direct confrontation and intimate conversations. Instead, they’ll find alternative ways to express their dissatisfaction with you. Parents with toxic tendencies will often withhold love and affection and even their words (through silent treatment/stonewalling) as punishment.
- Gaslighting. Toxic parents might deny that something happened. They might tell their child they’re lying, or blame them for something that wasn’t their fault. This rewriting of history can make a child doubt their own feelings and perception.
- Marginalization. A toxic parent might mock or humiliate a child. They might make one child the butt of all the jokes, or make them the scapegoat for family issues so everyone else looks better. They may show clear favoritism, treating siblings differently, or pitting them against one another. Toxic parents might roll their eyes and accuse you of being oversensitive when you say you feel hurt or undermined.
- Lack of boundaries. Toxic parents rarely respect a child’s boundaries. They may even become unhealthily enmeshed in your life, acting as burdensome “friends” rather than parents.
- Oversharing. Toxic parents often betray your confidence, telling extended family members your intimate business even when you ask them explicitly to keep something private.
- Discomfort with your happiness. Toxic parenting behaviors might flare up when you’re doing well. A parent may try to sabotage you or even co-opt your goals.
- Unwillingness to accept blame or apologize. Toxic people don’t usually say they’re sorry. They don’t understand how they could possibly have hurt you, when they’re the martyr. And sometimes you learn to rationalize their behavior as well.
Why are these traits toxic, exactly? Because of the lasting negative effect they have on children. Toxic parental behaviors can cause children, young and grown, to experience the following:
- Stress and anxiety
- Fear of abandonment
- Feelings of being unworthy of attention
- Hunger for love and validation
- Internalized self-criticism
- Sense of doom
- Difficulty trusting other people, especially romantic partners
Family Estrangement or Measured Contact? You Have Options
Will you find your freedom in estrangement from your family, or in accepting your family as they are? Only you can make that determination. But therapy helps. In fact, this is the kind of gut-wrenching, fraught, deeply personal decision that therapists are trained to help with. Whatever you decide doesn’t have to be forever. Families reconcile. Sometimes they break up again. Adult children may keep “going back to the well” with the expectation that things will be different, then need to excommunicate their parents all over again.
Other adult children might successfully change their expectations about the adult-child relationship, settling for less but keeping their parents in their lives. To do this they may have to let go of the hope that their parents will ever see their childhood the way they do. They may have to let go of the dream that there will ever be an emotional or historical consensus. And that can feel crushing.
This may be hard to hear, and I’m so very sorry, but secure attachment with your toxic parents may never be possible. You can try to find the emotional safety and support you deserve in your other relationships, and meanwhile you can find workarounds to deal with the toxic parents who raised you:
- Cordial contact. This means that you maintain your relationship with your family members, but you keep things pretty superficial and positive, i.e., artificial. If you have the emotional wherewithal not to get sucked into any drama, then this option might be for you.
- Low contact. This means that you see your parents at holidays and special occasions, but you carve out your own space. Space which your toxic parents will probably try repeatedly to invade.
- Measured contact. This means firmly setting boundaries, both physical and emotional, for your toxic family member. Toxic parents have a hard time with boundaries and will probably push back on them.
- No contact. This means that you don’t respond to their calls. You might even block their phone number. You maintain physical distance. If you choose to break off contact altogether, experts recommend that you state your intentions first. And prepare for society’s judgment, even though it’s nobody’s business but your own. Have some responses ready, i.e., “I choose to spend Christmas with my chosen family.”
- Reconciliation after estrangement. Estranged parents and adult children sometimes reconcile. This usually means that you’ve done some emotional work and you feel ready to plunge back in, but with clear boundaries and conditions.
As you consider these options, think about what you need to heal. Practice voicing your needs with loved ones. Process your trauma with a therapist so it doesn’t trigger you to the same extent. Work on improving your self-esteem. Care for your mental health. Pay attention to your body and your feelings. Find out what safety feels like for you. And going forward, try not to blindly replicate the negative behavior patterns that you used to think were normal. Change the narrative by not repeating the same toxic behaviors in your own intimate relationships, or with your own children.
My heart goes out to everyone caught up in these toxic parent-child relationships. In researching this article, I read an essay by Raksha Vasudevan, an Indian immigrant to the United States who became estranged from her family. Her relatives pressured her to reconcile with her abusive father. “Didn’t he deserve mercy?” they demanded. And Raksha wanted to respond, “Didn’t I?”
- Types of imperfect parenting. If you find yourself rebelling against strict punishments and your feelings don’t seem to matter, you may have authoritarian parents. Harsh parenting styles can affect your self-esteem and your academic performance. Parenting styles: Where do your parents land?
- Learn to recognize parental manipulation. If you feel anxious or self-conscious around your parents, manipulative dynamics may be in play. Standing by your truth and prioritizing your own wellbeing can make a crucial difference in countering parental abuse. What is parental gaslighting?
- Parenting and addiction. Parental alcoholism and addiction issues can take an extreme toll on children. Your parents may act inconsistently or aggressively when they’ve been drinking. Remember: You’re not personally responsible for the addiction in your family. Understanding addiction.
- How to heal your rage before it hurts you. The author Eckhart Tolle once stated, “Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.” But you can learn to express negative emotions in healthier ways, even when your feelings are directed at your parents. Manage your rage.
- Alternatives to parental support. If you don’t get along with your parents, you’re definitely not alone. I hate my parents: Is that normal?
- Strengthening your own romantic relationship. You don’t have to repeat the same cycle of anxious attachment in your own relationships. America’s widespread relationship anxiety: A guide for anxious partners.
- How to handle emotional abuse at home. In many ways, emotional abuse can be harder to recognize than physical abuse. Emotional abusers use techniques like gaslighting and emotional blackmail to control their victims. But you can learn to resist these tactics. Tips on fighting emotional blackmail.
- Do your parents keep you in a golden cage? When parents coddle their children, it can set them up for future failure. Find out how the “golden cage” of overprotectiveness can lead to low self-worth, anxiety, and depression. Learn the effects of overprotective parenting.
- Fixing communication breakdowns at home. You know that your parents shouldn’t scream at you or intimidate you. But what happens if they do? You can use assertive communication methods to respond to combative people. Useful responses to verbal intimidation.
- When parents damage your self-esteem. Parental involvement—or lack of involvement—can directly influence a child’s self-confidence. Hypercritical parents and coddling parents don’t give their kids the proper opportunities to develop self-worth. Find out if you have low self-esteem.
- Getting stuck in the middle. Sometimes it’s a sibling or another family member who’s estranged. When family members stop speaking: What do I do? Should I pick a side?
- Discover a better way to love your people. If your parents haven’t modeled healthy relationships for you, you may be confused about what constitutes loving bonds. Here’s a primer for what you can hope to achieve in your future relationships. 8 criteria for healthy relationships.
- Parents, boundaries, and your love life. It can feel maddening when your parents interfere with your life choices. Maybe they disapprove of your peer group or your significant other. But there are healthy ways to handle parental boundaries. What to do when your parents reject your SO.
- Family counseling isn’t so scary. Family therapy is when an expert helps you and your family members discuss your problems in a safe, compassionate, nonjudgmental environment. Family therapists listen closely and help you find practical ways to resolve family issues. How family therapy can help.
- A more mystical approach to family therapy. And (perhaps) best of all, your family members don’t need to be in the room! What family constellation therapy can reveal about intergenerational trauma.
- A primer on manipulation. Learn to recognize the signs that someone is manipulating you. Psychological coercion, dark traits, and emotional safety in relationships.
- Stop the cycle of abuse. Though this article deals with the fallout from a romantic partner’s physical and emotional abuse, it applies to any situation where you’ve been hurt and betrayed by the people who are supposed to love and care for you. The road to recovery from abuse.
Ongoing family dysfunction and unmanageable anger at your parents can inflict severe harm on your psyche. If you’re ever feeling suicidal, go to your nearest emergency room, call 911, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-272-8255.