How to deal with toxic parents once you realize they are toxic can almost seem like an impossible task. You can love them but don’t like how they communicate or treat you. A person can feel torn inside. On one end of the scale, you want to be treated fairly and with unconditional love and respect. On the other end of the scale is fear. Fear of the unknown reactions to setting healthy boundaries and sticking to the limits one has set. There can be fear of retaliation, rejection, abandonment, financial support threats, insults, mockery, the parent’s self-doubt in one’s abilities, and the fear that it will all just be a big waste of time. Taking the first few steps to stand up for yourself, speak your truth, and set limits can be scary. Some parents will laugh in your face, while others will ignore your requests. Then some parents will make someone feel so small, weak, not strong enough, and incapable that these types of parents will talk you out of your plan. Some might treat you like a baby and to just please mom, you go along with it to avoid hurting her tender feelings. Then some might make up excuses or bring up past failures to keep someone compliant with the toxic parents’ demands. Dealing with toxic parents takes courage, strength, and consistent resilience. It is a lifelong struggle. Some people will give it a go and then give up. Others will cling to the hope that the parent might change or will be willing to change. The problem I have heard and seen repeatedly is clinging to hope that the toxic parent might change only ends up in heartache. Our expectations can destroy our dreams. I would like to give you an example.
How to deal with toxic parents
I worked with one client that had extremely toxic parents. She read books, attended classes and workshops, and did all the work to have a healthier relationship with her parents. She spent thousands of dollars and a few years in therapy. She tried to get her parents to attend therapy with her, but they always had an excuse or emergency arise. She was ready to give up. She discovered my work and decided to give it one last attempt. The problem I found is that she did not know their weapons of choice when controlling and manipulating her. Since she did not know the weapons and was not given the tools to deflect those weapons, she failed again and again. Here is the steps she took.
- Think of three to five of the most painful scenarios in dealing with her toxic parents.
- Journal what happened in specific detail. Write down what was said, not said, the looks, tone of voice, body language, how it made her feel, what got resolved, and so on.
- Review her journal entries with the list of how to spot toxic parents. Write down the weapons or games they use in this section.
- Review her journal entries with the list of how to spot if someone is narcissistic. Repeat the weapons and games.
- Look over the list in how to deal with a toxic person during the holidays. Repeat again.
- Put a star next to the patterns and weapons of choice that feel like a nuclear bomb, and she caves.
- Write down your typical pattern in reacting, responding, and being triggered by each weapon.
- When do you cave in the most? (Stress at work, not enough sleep, not enough self-care, or is it out of guilt, shame, gaslighting tactics, or threats?)
- Can you see any patterns that are stuck on recycle and repeat? If so, what have you done in the past to get unstuck? What worked and didn’t work and why?
- Discover what fearful thoughts hold you back or prevent you from being successful. Be honest with yourself and write it down.
How to deal with toxic parents
It was like the light bulb went off in her head once she finished her homework. The biggest lesson she learned was changing her responses and reactions to their toxic communication and replies. Her parents knew what buttons to push and when she would accept defeat and allow them to win. It took practice, patience, determination, calming techniques, a box of Kleenex, and tough love. She also let go of the dream of them changing for her happiness and well-being. In the end, she had to become a parent to herself. For example, I had her ask herself when she felt rejected, belittled, or sad, “If you were the loving, nurturing parent and the young adult, what advice would you give? How would you nurture them? What do they need from you to feel heard, loved, accepted, and seen?” This approach helped her get unstuck because she would spiral down into shame every time she tried and failed. Moving forward, we worked on the following areas of how to deal with toxic parents because guilt trips and games of “well if you really loved us you would….” were used against her on a regular basis.
25 Tools for dealing with toxic parents
Here are some tools for dealing with toxic parents.
- Stop trying to change them.
- Set and enforce healthy boundaries. Set a timeline to track your progress. If limits were crossed, write it down in your journal and make modifications if needed.
- Remember your feelings, thoughts, and experiences are valid and real.
- Be mindful of what you share with them. At times oversharing can backfire or it can be used against you as a weapon later or your parent might gossip about you, using indirect reactive abuse.
- Create a healthy support system and routinely seek support to keep your sanity.
- Don’t try to reason with them. A toxic parent when angry or irrational will be stuck in black and white thinking patterns. You will never win. Therefore, at times it is best to agree to disagree, even if they won’t.
- Have realistic expectations and track progress each time.
- Practice self-care before and after each visit.
- Have an action plan before visiting parents.
- Work through your feelings and care for yourself on a regular basis.
- Learn to manage your stress so you don’t get overwhelmed.
- Know your parents limitations and work around it. For example, if your parent has a drinking problem, plan to connect or communicate when you know they will not be intoxicated. If certain holidays trigger your toxic parent, be mindful of the triggers. You could plan a visit before or after the holidays if this helps to reduce the triggers.
- Live how you desire without worrying about what your parents want.
- Talk to other people who’ve dealt with toxic parents to gain support. Swapping stories can be very enlightening and educational.
- It’s not your fault that your parents are toxic. You can’t do anything to change them. However, you can feel better by focusing on your own mental health and gaining tools to keep your sanity.
- Always have an exit strategy during difficult situation. You can create a code words with a friend or partner when it is time to leave. You are not obligated to stick around just to be polite or to make your parents happy. Your sanity comes first.
- Don’t be afraid to tell your parents, No. There are several more examples in how to communicate with toxic parents.
- You do not have to be at your parents beck and call. When you are asked to do anything and your knee jerk response in the past is to drop everything to appease this parent, stop. Give yourself 24 to 48 hours to think things over. Think about what you are being asked to do. What are you giving up and how much (time, money, sanity). And in the past, how many times when you said yes, did you get taken advantage of? Did what they asked of you match what they expected from you? If no, take this information into consideration. Can you set limits and boundaries without being verbally abused or manipulated?
- Stop trying to please them. It’s normal to want your parents’ approval, yet toxic parents are almost impossible to please. For example, when you do try to please them and its not good enough or satisfactory, you can end up feeling like a failure. Do not take it personal and remember to do what makes you feel good. It’s not about them feelings good because the majority of the time, they truly don’t feel good about themselves or life in general. Therefore, remember you have choices. You get to decide what right for you. Some toxic people will always be miserable and will use that misery as a weapon to manipulate or control.
- If you’re living at home, you may feel like you’re trapped and things won’t get better. This isn’t true and your situation is temporary until you can find other living arrangements. Just holding onto the thought that this situation is temporary can provide some mental and emotional relief. You can use detachment, boundaries, and self-care to help your situation. Things will get better.
- You are not required to spend the holidays with your parents. You can create your own family holiday traditions or go on a vacation.
- Remember, change starts with you.
- You don’t have to immediately respond to every text message or voicemail. If you must, set limits on how many messages you are willing to respond to a day.
- Emotionally detach from your parents. Creating space is healthy, but some toxic parents can manipulate you when you try to detach by faking an injury, self-harming themselves, or trying to blame you for their injury. If they play these games, avoid taking responsibility for their actions and do not allow them to make you feel guilty.
- Warning: In general, cutting off your parents may not be the best option. However, it may be what’s best for you in the present moment. Make the choices that you feel support your overall happiness and well-being. If you need to let your parents know that this break is only temporary can sometimes get them off your back and reduce retaliation or threats.
How to communicate with toxic parents
Commination is key. First, you have to realize that your toxic parents are communicating in a manner that can appear to be childish, selfish, and unhealthy. It can be challenging to communicate with someone who you know is toxic, but you still care about them. I have spoken about the sandwich approach and would advise that approach. The bread is the positive and the sandwich filling is the issue. Always use I statements, instead of you. If you must use a you statement, just know that instead of using the word you, in its place can be us or we statements. For example, “We need to communicate better with one another, instead of you need to communicate better with me.” The blame is not solely on the toxic parent and saying it in this manner makes it less personal. I also highly suggest practicing in advanced what you want to say. Learning how to use the sandwich approach is never easy. Why? Well, growing up most of learned that it is easier to blame another person that take responsibility for our own actions. So, we learn to communicate by using a lot of “you” statements. When we use “you statements”, it can feel like blame, when there is no blame. So here are some you replacement examples.
- You need to be more mindful of what you say to me. Instead say: “We need to be more mindful of what we say to each other”.
- You really hurt my feelings when you said ____ to me. Instead say: “It really hurt my feelings to hear ___________”.
- You always treat me like a child. Instead, say: “Last week at Aunt Sally’s house, I felt like I was being treated like a silly schoolgirl in love. It really hurt my feelings. In the future, I would like my personal life not to be shared with everyone in the family. I know you love me, and I appreciate your support.”
How to communicate with toxic parents
I will say that toxic parents are in my book the most difficult to communicate with. They know your buttons and triggers. They know how to manipulate one into compliance. Therefore, if you ever find yourself being asked to do something you do not want to do or feel trapped to comply, try saying the following first before saying, YES. Try saying the following to a toxic parent:
- No, my busy schedule does not allow me that freedom at the moment.
- Let me think about it. I will get back to you tomorrow.
- Thank you, but right now is not a good time for me.
- I need time to think this over please. I will give you my answer later.
- I am feeling overwhelmed at the moment and I want to make the right decision. Let me think it over.
- Thank you, but I am not interested.
- Thank you. Maybe another time.
- Thank you, but I have other plans that I cannot modify.
- That’s very kind of you, but I am not available.
- I realize that I have other commitments. Maybe another time.
- No. I am sure someone else can accommodate you. What about __________________?
- That sounds interesting. I need to have a family meeting first, so we can all vote on it.
- I need to clarify things with my partner, sibling, or spouse first. I will let you know what they say.
Now, at times some toxic parents do not like it when others are included in the decision making process. Be warned that they might try to talk you out of their vote or opinion. What I have learned is to use their same tactics against them. Let me explain. If you want or need your spouses vote, use your wedding vows and the commitment you made. If your toxic parent is religious, you can use that as well. Here are some examples.
- I made a vow to Claire on our wedding day that I would always include her in any minor or major family decisions. I refuse to break my vow to her. I know mom would never want her wedding vows broken. Therefore, I must speak to Claire about this.
- I know Sam has some major plans coming up and I do not recall the exact dates. I need to speak to Sam first. This marriage means a lot to me and I do not want to upset Sam by going behind his back. I love him very much and I know you want me to be happy in my marriage.
- I made a promise and commitment to my family that when we take our next family vacation, everyone’s vote is included. This make the grand kids feel loved and proud to be included in all the major family fun.
How to help toxic parents
Now, 40% percent of the population want to know how to help toxic parents. The best advice I can give is to just accept them for who they are. They became toxic because that is how they were raised or they experience trauma, did not get help, and it has altered them. They might be toxic, but it does not mean they should be erased from one’s life. There are exceptions, but we have to remember that everyone has flaws. People as they get older can become rigid in their mindset. How much can one person tolerate? How one can help a toxic parent is by being your authentic self. You can be the living proof that you refuse to be controlled and manipulated. Your toxic parent will either do two things. They will either be proud of you in the end or the jealousy might be too much for them to handle. They might think, if I couldn’t have it, they can’t either. They might sabotage you, so be warned. Lastly, it might help to think of them as little children that never grew up. Like adults in diapers having a temper tantrum when they don’t get their way. That image seems to help some clients. I know I am using humor here, but laughter is better than tears. So, be patient with your toxic parents. Be the living example of a decent, kind, and caring human being. Remember, actions speak louder than words.
How to deal with toxic parents
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post about how to deal with toxic parents. Any comments are welcomed and appreciated. Take care.