Cutting ties with a toxic parent may give you space to heal, but it may also present additional challenges.
There’s still a fair amount of stigma associated with adults who choose to go no contact with a parent. A common assumption is that the decision to cut ties with a “toxic” parent is made from a place of anger and impulsivity.
For many, it can be an act of self-preservation or a careful consideration after attempting to make the relationship work.
Every situation is different, so the decision you make should be the one that fits your needs. If you’re currently considering no contact, it’s important to know that cutting a parent out of your life isn’t a quick fix for the pain they caused.
Still, there are benefits to making a conscious decision about whether you want someone in your life if you don’t like the way you feel when they’re around.
Here are some things to consider, both before and after going no contact.
I was 16 when I made the decision to cut my mother out of my life. I still remember the explanation I gave my father: “That woman took 16 years of my life, and she’s not going to get a 17th.”
Given my history with my mother, it was a rational decision for me. It was my attempt to protect myself from future abuse.
What I didn’t realize at 16 was that cutting ties wasn’t going to fix a lifetime of wounds. I still needed to embark on a healing journey.
If you can, try to base your decision on the type of relationship you want with a parent and the healing journey you want for yourself.
You might find that your parent isn’t able to provide the relationship you want. Their behavior may not be intentional, but you don’t have to accept poor treatment or abuse just because someone has the label “mom” or “dad.”
“Consider going no contact with a parent if your interactions with your parent are undermining your self-esteem, self-respect, choices, decisions, and/or relationships,” says Avigail Lev, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco.
Lev recommends doing a cost/benefit analysis on your relationship. See if your interactions are causing more harm in the long run or if the benefits outweigh the costs.
Here are some questions to think about:
- How does this parent make me feel when I’m around them?
- What positive elements am I getting from the relationship?
- Are there more negative experiences than positive ones?
- Is this parent causing a strain on my mental health? For example, does my anxiety increase when I interact with them?
- Do I dread talking to them and/or being around them?
“If you’re finding that most of your interactions end up causing you more pain than contribution, then going no contact — or slowly decreasing contact — with your parent may be the best option,” says Lev.
I didn’t have any bonding memories with my mother. The negatives far outweighed the positives, which made my decision to make a clean break easier.
There are benefits and consequences to going no contact with a parent. What you can expect will largely depend on the relationship dynamic between you, the parent in question, and other family members.
“No contact creates a strict boundary within the relationship, essentially by ending it or pausing it for a period of time,” says Ashley Hodges, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in Chicago.
If the relationship you’re ending was causing you distress, you might feel some relief in the immediate aftermath but soon after realize the challenges that lie ahead.
Fallout from family members
Your experience with a toxic parent can be different from the relationship siblings and other family members may have with them. So they might not understand why you want to cut contact. This could mean they may not support your decision.
It might be a good idea then to prepare for some relatives to side with your parent and think about what that might mean for your relationship with them.
I was able to keep a relationship with my brothers, even though they still maintain a relationship with my mother.
After disclosing to others that I don’t have a relationship with my mother, I’ve often heard statements like:
- “But she’s your mother, and you only get one”
- “You turned out OK, so she must not have been that bad”
Cultural stigma can be particularly challenging for daughters who cut contact with a mother. The myth that all mothers are loving, nurturing, and act in a child’s best interest is still largely accepted.
Often, people who haven’t experienced childhood with a toxic parent have a hard time understanding your experience.
You may find yourself feeling alone, but remember that there are many who share similar experiences.
It might help to set boundaries around who you talk with about your decision. If someone isn’t respecting your feelings, it might be a good idea to avoid discussing your family history or no-contact status with them.
Taking the leap to go no contact can unlock some complex emotions. You might feel guilt, shame, fear, regret, or an extreme sense of loss.
Even though I felt good about my decision, I still had to start my healing journey. That meant learning self-compassion and unlearning some behaviors I developed to cope with my childhood treatment.
Try to give yourself permission to grieve the childhood you wanted and didn’t get and nurture your inner child.
“The important work to do is to process the guilt, despair, and grief of not having the loving parent that you deserve,” says Lev.
Going no contact was right for me, but it may not be right for every situation. Your decision depends on how you feel and your relationship.
If you think you need a change to protect your mental health but don’t want to cut off your parent completely, there are other options.
Taking a contact break
Some people choose to stop contact for a period and then revisit the decision again. This can give you time to focus on you and learn some skills to help navigate challenging situations.
For example, you might work with a therapist to unpack feelings from your childhood and learn how to set appropriate boundaries.
Limited contact can be a good option if you don’t want to totally cut a parent out of your life but need space and structure to the relationship.
You might choose to see them only on certain holidays, or you may limit contact to a few infrequent phone calls.
There’s no right or wrong way to do limited contact. You can design the contact level that works best for you and communicate that to your parent.
Setting stronger boundaries
If you didn’t grow up with strong boundaries in the relationship with your parent, you can still set them as an adult.
“If a particular topic always leads to an argument and hurt feelings, choosing to not engage with those discussions and leaving or changing the subject might be a good boundary-setting alternative to going no-contact,” says Casey Tallent, PhD, Director of Collegiate and Telebehavioral Health Initiatives at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center in Colorado.
Going no contact isn’t a magic solution to dealing with a toxic parent; you’ll still have complex feelings to process, cultural stigma to contend with, and other family members who may not understand your decision.
When you’re considering no contact, try to make the decision that’s best for you. Consider setting boundaries that make you feel safe and respected.
“If you’ve clearly requested that your parent stops a particular behavior, and they don’t stop or change the behavior, then consider doing what you need to do to take care of yourself,” says Lev.