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When it’s Time to Cut Ties with Toxic Parents

When clients come into my office and are struggling with difficult or abusive parental relationships, they often express a similar underlying feeling of shame. We are told that our parents are supposed to love us, support us, and take care of us. What happens when they don’t? Unfortunately, for most, the impulse is to looking inward with blame and disappointment. It’s harder to take their parents off their pedestal and admit their wrongdoing than it is to believe that oneself is not worthy of their love. In turn, this leads many people to act in self destructive ways when it comes to forming their own adult relationships. They have internalized the unhealthy patterns they learned growing up, and without taking a long hard look at the motivation behind these behaviors, it’s unlikely that they will ever connect their difficulty with that of their parents.

Understandably, people are fearful about the ramifications of cutting off a parent. Unhealthy boundaries in childhood lead to unhealthy boundaries in adulthood and many express feeling fearful of losing their parents love forever or exposing the disfunction they’ve lived with for many years.

In these situations, I work with clients to try to create healthier boundaries and see if they can improve things before totally cutting things off. This looks like:

1) Helping them understand that people (even parents) are limited. As sad and hard as it is to accept, sometimes the only way to have a relationship with someone who is toxic is to know that they never learned how to have a healthy relationship, and thus, are incapable of giving you the things you expect and want. They may be emotionally immature and have no idea how to keep their emotions in check- so to deal with feelings; she may resorts to unhealthy coping mechanisms like controlling, anger, manipulation etc.

2) Know the form of communication that works best for keeping things copacetic - if you know that things escalate quickly over text, reach for the phone even if it's not your chosen for of communication - also consider frequency. Aim to communicate enough so that you maintain a connection and don't create tension, but not too much that the toxicity threatens to impact you more than necessary.

The same goes for approach in person. Be thoughtful about how much time you can reasonably spend together before you start to lose it (or more accurately, before they starts to lose it) and think about setting. Maybe they’re on her best behavior meeting you for a drink on neutral ground or maybe you know that they behave best when they are on their own turf.

3) Plan ahead- when you are going into a situation with a difficult parent, treat it like a game plan. Get in, do what you have to do and retreat. Make sure that you have support on speed dial that can talk you down when you get aggravated. An outside person who knows the situation well can provide much-needed reprieve and put things in perspective for you.

4) Don't forget you are separate from your parent-child dynamic and the role they have assigned to you. Keeping this in mind will help you from slipping into old roles and will enforce your connection to the life you have created for yourself which is separate from your life with them. Don’t minimize the value of this mindset.

5) Try to understand that if you have this much conflict with your mother, it is highly likely that it exists across her relationships. Try to have compassion for her and the fact that she likely experiences this kind of angst and difficulty in her day-to-day life, whereas for you, it's contained to your relationship with her

We all have different rule books- the moral model says that if people behave poorly it's because they're evil. The medical model says that people behave poorly because they have some kind of psychological difficulty- the acuteness of their psychopathology will determine if you chose to have a limited relationship with them or no relationship at all.

When it comes to deciding how much ( or at all) a person can keep a toxic parent in their life, I encourage people to take honest stock of how this relationship is impacting their life. Maybe first we do a series of experiments to see how effective boundaries and diminished expectations can be. If that proves futile, it’s important, but certainly not easy to practice acceptance- you may not be able to have a close relationship with your parent. I remind them that there are many people who have wonderful lives and develop relationships with "surrogate" mothers or other close support people.

When to cut ties:

  • You’ve tried everything you can imagine (implementing strong boundaries), and you can't seem to make any improvement

  • When it markedly impacts your relationships negatively or prevents you from creating healthy relationships with your closest supports

  • When they’re so mentally ill/abusive that their behavior can't be contained using any of the above tactics

Abandonment, betrayal, neglect and abuse is a direct reflection of deficits in the adult, not the child. However, its impact on children is often long lasting and significant. I work with people to help them be fully conscious of how this formative relationship functions in relation to their thoughts and behaviors as an adult. Getting in touch with this can be very therapeutic and allows them to have a life that they choose.

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