Healing from Toxic Parents
Updated: Feb 21
We don't get to choose our parents, and for some people, they're grateful they ended up with the parents they have. For others, their relationship with their parents has been riddled with emotional immaturity, lack of self-awareness, inability to self-reflect, and abusive behavior. When we're kids, we have little to no control over how our parents treat us. In fact, many of us accept abusive behavior from our parents as children because we don't know how not to; we think that however they treat us must be some version of love, even though it feels sad or hurtful or wrong. We grow up accepting and tolerating inappropriate and abusive behavior from our parents, and that follows us into adulthood. We may even find ourselves in relationship patterns that mimic how our parents treated us as children.
But what if I told you that you can heal from your parents? Would you believe me if I said that you're your own person now, with your own dreams, goals, visions, career plans, aspirations, hopes, family, and it's possible for you to create a life of peace within yourself now?
How to Identify Toxic Parents in Adulthood
As kids, we have a difficult time knowing if our parents behaviors are toxic because we accept how they treat us as an act of love; we don't know any better. We grow up thinking that being treated negatively is a warped form of love, and it takes awhile for us to disentangle ourselves from that unhealthy belief. Usually in middle school/high school, we start to realize that our parents seem to be very different from our friends' parents. When we visit our friends homes and observe how their family unit interacts, we notice that the interactions feel safe and kind. This is usually when children of toxic parents begin to recognize that their parents behaviors are unhealthy, emotionally immature, and abusive.
Every one on the planet has behaviors that are negative. We're human, after all. But what sets apart toxic parents from healthy parents is that toxic parents repeat negative behavioral patterns, despite being told that these negative behavioral patterns are hurtful and are negatively affecting their relationships with others. These behavioral patterns can look like gaslighting, manipulating, putting siblings against each other, screaming, blaming, criticizing, playing the victim, withholding love when something doesn't go their way, and inability to take accountability and/or see different perspectives.
Healing as an Adult
One of the first steps to healing is recognizing there's a problem with how your parents are treating you. It can almost feel like you're pushing back against all you know when you come face to face with this reality, because it's common to be taught, especially in religious cultures, to respect and honor our parents, no matter what. There's also an unspoken expectation that children are to care for their parents when they get older. By confronting the harsh reality that your parents are not treating you in a healthy way, you're pushing back against your familial and/or religious culture. It's not easy, but it's the first step to take on the path toward healing.
Once you recognize there's a problem with how your parents are treating you, it's important for boundaries to start coming in to play. Now that you're an adult, you have more power than you did as a child to be able to protect yourself against people who intentionally hurt you, including your parents. Boundaries are healthy, and they actually enhance relationships with others. All healthy relationships have some form of boundaries. Here are a few examples of boundaries you can set with parents who are toxic:
verbalizing to them when they act inapproriately
setting time limits on phone calls or face-to-face interactions
informing them of topics that are off limits for them to discuss with you
enforcing consequences when they break your boundaries (ex: "I've told you that this topic is off limits for our discussion today. If you bring up this topic, I'll have to leave.")
When dealing with emotionally immature parents, it's common for them to push boundaries and frequently break them. Emotionally immature parents lack the ability to self-reflect, be self-aware, or understand how their behaviors and words negatively affect other people. If you're dealing with emotionally immature parents who consistently break boundaries and treat you disrespectfully, the boundaries usually become more intense, such as:
suspending the relationship for a period of time
The wonderful thing about your boundaries is that you're the one who's in control of them. Only you know what's best for you to feel safe and to heal. It's common for people who have toxic/emotionally immature parents to intentionally create space from their parents so they can heal.
Preparing for the Guilt, Shame, and Inner Critic
When you make the decision to take steps towards healing from toxic parents, you might find that your inner critic is louder than it's ever been before. This is because even though our inner critic sounds like us, it's actually our parents.
You might be tempted to minimize their behaviors, and you may even start gaslighting yourself: "it couldn't have been that bad", "I'm making a big deal out of nothing", "I still love my parents so maybe I'm just jumping to extremes".
It was that bad.
You're making it a big deal because it is a big deal.
Loving your parents can look like creating intentional space so you can heal.
During this time, it's important to have a safe person walk with you. Whether that be a spouse/partner, friend, sibling, or a therapist, having a safe person sit with you and validate what you've experienced, while also teaching you what a healthy, love-filled relationship actually looks like, will be crucial for you to heal, as well as to help eliminate the self-gaslighting.
Care for Yourself
When we break away from the toxic behaviors of our parents, it feels complex: liberating, sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated, confused, freeing, happy, peaceful. Allow these emotions to present themselves fully. There's no right or wrong way to feel. Acknowledge how you're feeling and where you feel that in your body. Give yourself space to grieve, cry, laugh, rejoice, mourn, feel at peace. The little one in you is safe now, with adult you as their protector.
Turning towards self-care in a way that involves body movement can be especially helpful during this time. Yoga, pilates, and barre, all of which require a very intentional focus on the mind-body connection, are great ways of helping you connect with yourself internally and physically.
You're Going to Be Okay
Sometimes, it might not feel that way. This is some of the saddest work we might ever do on ourselves because it involves such an intense breaking from our relationship with our caregivers. In the days when you don't feel okay, allow yourself to not feel okay.
One day, the sun will shine again.
And you'll be freer than you ever were.
And the little one inside of you won't be able to stop doing cartwheels in the grass.
And you'll be able to look at them and say, "We did it, and you're safe with me now."
At Root Counseling, we understand the complex relationships that ensue from having an insecure attachment with emotionally immature parents. We care about helping people understand their attachment style, recognize emotional immaturity in their caregivers, and take steps toward healing. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.