Toxic Parents

PsychCentral is an excellent mental health resource, and a few days ago, they had a blog featured about how to deal with toxic people in your life.  It was very informative, telling people what the signs are of a toxic person (or relationship), and also what can be done to cope with this.

The final piece of advice was that, if all else fails, perhaps it’s best to go your separate ways and end the relationship.  This seems like sound, logical advice.

However, what happens if the toxic relationship is with a parent?

I’ve seen many patients over the years who struggle to deal with the fact that one of their parents has them locked in an unhealthy relationship.  If any other person – friend, partner, spouse, employer, or other family member – treated them this way, they would have cut ties long ago.  But the fact that it’s a parent behaving this way has a different meaning.

As children, we’re taught to obey our elders, often without question.  That way of thinking doesn’t simply evaporate and transform once we become adults.  To complicate things, the reverse is also true:  parents don’t always view their adult children as, well, ADULTS!  So, there’s a constant tug-of-war, where the adult child is struggling for recognition and respect, yet may feel guilty (“Maybe I’m being a bad child…”), and the parent is unable to view their child as a grown-up.

Of course, there’s usually much more baggage attached to the relationship, such as a history of child abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse, a parent with a personality disorder, and/or difficulty respecting boundaries, to name but a few.

The results?  Chaos.  Turmoil.  Drama.  Hurt feelings.  Resentment.  All of the things that make holidays and family get-togethers uncomfortable.

Some people do make the decision to discontinue the relationship with their toxic parents.  I’ve seen it happen many times, and it was never an easy decision nor was it easy afterward.  However, it was the right decision for those people.  Others continue to engage in the relationship with various amounts of contact (very little contact to complete enmeshment).  This also isn’t an easy decision to make.

There are many, I think, who would like to walk away from the toxic people in their lives.  However, when those people are your parents, it complicates things and makes it an even more painful situation.