How to respond to toxic parenting

My last two columns have explored toxic parenting and emotional abuse of children. Emotional abuse can cause deep and long-lasting pain, contributing to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and various other psychological problems.


However, it’s important to remember things can and do get better, if you take the right steps in your adult life. You can learn to handle a difficult parent in new, healthier ways. You can – and should – aim to live a free, full and independent life.



The first step: recognise it’s not your fault. Maybe a parent neglected or ignored you. Maybe they criticised, insulted and blamed you. Maybe they made you feel deficient, fragile, weird, a disappointment. Maybe you see they’re unhappy and dissatisfied, and this leaves you feeling guilty, as if you are in some way responsible.


Well, you’re not. No child is responsible for a parent’s toxic behaviour. If your parents were difficult, it’s not because of you; it’s because of them.



Secondly, stop trying to please them. All children want their parents’ approval, but if you didn’t get it in childhood, you probably won’t get it in adulthood. Some parents are impossible to please. And even if you do get conditional love and approval, this isn’t going to bring anything other than a short-term boost. The problem with conditional regard is, well, it’s conditional.


Remember, it’s your life. You need to live according to your goals and aspirations, not theirs. To quote psychologist and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) founder Dr Marsha Linehan: If you’re a tulip, don’t try to be a rose.



Thirdly, aim to accept you may never be treated the way you deserve to be treated by a dissatisfied parent, that he or she may never change. As Dr Susan Forward writes in Toxic Parents, let go of the struggle. This doesn’t mean you must let go of your parents, she adds, but it does mean you stop trying to get them to change; you stop trying to figure out how to please them; you stop being so emotionally reactive to them; you give up on the fantasy you will one day get the support you deserve. Don’t play a game you can’t win.



Fourth, accepting some parents will never change their ways doesn’t mean you let them engage in damaging and controlling behaviours. Instead, set boundaries with them. Take back control of your life and make clear what is and isn’t acceptable.


In Toxic Parents, Susan Forward gives helpful advice on the importance of confronting one’s parents. The purpose of a confrontation isn’t to punish them, she writes. No, the purpose is to face them; overcome the fear of facing them; tell them the truth; and determine what kind of a relationship you want to have with them from now on.



Fifth, aim to steer clear of family dramas. Emotionally toxic families are characterised by endless dramas and shifting alliances. You may be invited to participate, to bond and side with a parent or sibling over some apparent transgression committed by another family member, but you don’t have to accept this invite. Focus on your own life rather than getting embroiled in unhealthy emotional tangles.



Finally, always remember your family is not representative of the wider world. Invalidating and abusive parenting causes people to develop negative core beliefs (“I’m useless”, “No one cares”, “I must be on my guard”, and so on). These beliefs drive unhelpful behaviours, such as social withdrawal, being hyper-vigilant, people-pleasing, etc. All too often, these mental and behavioural habits follow people into adulthood. Aim to become aware of and challenge these automatic thoughts and behaviours. You can’t change your past, but you can change how you think and behave in adult life.



Ultimately, your goal should be emotional independence. Being part of a family doesn’t mean you have to compromise your independence and integrity. Emotional independence means recognising you can change yourself without changing your parents. It means recognising your well-being isn’t dependent on their well-being, and that you don’t require their approval to live a rich, fulfilling life. It means recognising that you are responsible for your life and happiness, not your parents’.


A painful past need not condemn you to a painful future. Remember, it’s your life.