If interactions with your parents continually leave you feeling drained or overwhelmed, you may be dealing with toxic parents. Here’s how to cope.
The word “toxic” is often used to describe someone who may behave in a way that’s hurtful to others. Their repeatedly negative behaviors or words may lead to feelings of stress or anxiety.
You may have encountered someone with these types of traits at work, in a relationship, or within your group of friends. But what happens when it’s a parent?
Toxic traits can be subtle and hard to identify, particularly when you’re in a close relationship with this person.
But knowing how to identify the traits can help you learn to cope with them.
Identifying toxic behaviors in your parents may not be easy. It might be more helpful to first acknowledge how interacting with them might make you feel.
Your parents may have toxic traits if interactions with them leave you feeling:
- confused and unsure of yourself
- bad about yourself in some way
- continually judged
- guilty for saying “no”
- drained, angry, or overwhelmed
- like you’re not being respected
- like you’re being manipulated
- the need to change your behavior
- like you’re constantly “walking on eggshells” around them
Noting how your parents make you feel is a good first step. But there are also some toxic traits you can look out for, such as:
- They may be manipulative and controlling.
- They may be critical of you, your choices, and your lifestyle.
- It may be difficult to emotionally separate yourself from them and make your own choices or set your own goals.
- They may constantly judge you and those in your life, such as friends or romantic partners.
- They may seem overly needy.
- They may not see themselves as the problem. They may say it’s you or the other people in your life who are the problem.
If you recognize some of these toxic traits in your parents, there are ways to cope with these behaviors.
Consider trying the following strategies:
1. Stop trying to please them
It’s natural to want your parents’ approval, but it can seem impossible to please parents with toxic behaviors. Remember that this is your life, and you’re allowed to make your own choices and do what makes you feel good.
Living your life according to someone else’s values and goals can leave you feeling unhappy and unfulfilled.
You may find yourself frequently seeking validation from your parents and others — relying on them to determine and validate your self-worth.
- What do you do to please your parents, even though it doesn’t work well for you?
- What do you need to do for yourself even if your parents disapprove?
2. Set and enforce boundaries
Boundaries help us set clear expectations and limits for how others can treat us. They can help create emotional and physical space between you and your parents.
This may not have been something you had as a child, so it may feel uncomfortable to set boundaries and start telling your parents how you want to be treated.
Setting boundaries with people who have toxic behaviors can be difficult. They may not respect limits. But try not to let that deter you.
Boundaries are essential to building and maintaining healthy relationships. Remember that it’s OK to limit contact with your parents, tell them no, come late, or leave early.
It’s even OK to have no contact with your parents. You don’t owe them anything. Healthy relationships are built on respect, and it can be hard to respect someone when they repeatedly treat you poorly.
- What boundaries do you need with your parents?
- What’s one step you can take toward setting those boundaries?
3. Don’t try to change them
Trying to change people who don’t want to change can leave you frustrated and overwhelmed. Instead, try to focus on what you can control, such as how you respond to your parents, your choices, and your behavior.
- How do you try to change or fix your parents?
- How do you feel when you can’t change them?
- With regard to your relationship with your parents, what’s in your control?
4. Be mindful of what you share with them
Trust is a crucial element of healthy relationships, so consider only sharing personal information with those who have proven themselves trustworthy.
Your parents may not fall into this category if they:
- gossip about you
- criticize you
- share things about you without your permission
- use what you tell them against you
You’re not obligated to tell them everything (or anything) that’s going on in your life or answer their questions. Consider sharing only what feels comfortable and safe.
- What feels safe to share with your parents?
- What doesn’t feel safe to share?
5. Know your parents’ limitations and work around them — but only if you want to
If you know that your parents become forgetful, aggressive, or otherwise difficult after a certain time of day, try to plan your phone calls, visits, and family get-togethers earlier in the day to avoid the worst of their behavior.
This can be an effective coping strategy for some, but you don’t have to plan your life around your parents.
You can work around their limitations if that works for you. It’s OK to have your birthday party in the evening and not invite your parents because you don’t want them to ruin it.
- Are there ways you work around your parents’ limitations?
- Do these compromises truly work for you? If not, what changes do you need to make?
6. Have an exit strategy
When things start deteriorating, take that as your cue to leave, or ask your parents to leave. Staying may only escalate the situation and make it worse.
It may be safer to end your time together at the first sign of trouble. You don’t have to stick around just to be polite or to make your parents happy.
- How can you get out of a difficult situation with your parents?
- Do you and your spouse, partner, or sibling have a signal to let each other know when it’s time to leave? If not, would one be helpful?
7. Don’t try to reason with them
It can be hard to reason with someone who exhibits toxic behavior.
Try to be assertive about issues that matter to you, but acknowledge that your parents may not understand your point of view. Try not to get dragged into arguments that degrade into bouts of name-calling and other disrespectful behaviors.
Remember that you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to. You can choose to disengage instead.
- How can you take care of yourself or disengage when your parents can’t see your point of view or aren’t interested in your perspective?
8. You don’t have to be available to your parents
People with toxic behaviors may be overly needy. You can help them if it’s feasible and appreciated.
But you’re not obligated to be their chauffeur, maid, gardener, or therapist — particularly if they treat you poorly the entire time.
You don’t have to be on-call for them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you’re busy or don’t have time at the moment, you can choose to respond to phone calls or reply to their texts later.
- How do your parents exploit your kindness by expecting you to meet their demands 24/7?
- How does it feel to recognize that you’re not obligated to do things for them?
- Can you release some guilt by remembering that you’re setting healthy boundaries and taking care of yourself?
9. You don’t have to spend the holidays with your parents
That’s right! You deserve to enjoy the holidays. That might mean spending them away from your parents.
There’s a lot of pressure to maintain family traditions in some cases, but this often comes at the expense of your own mental health and well-being.
It might be a good idea to consider starting your own holiday traditions or being creative about how you spend the holidays. Perhaps you’d like to celebrate Friendsgiving or go on vacation over the holidays.
- What holiday traditions would you like to change or stop because they lead to stress or family conflict?
- How can you create holidays that are enjoyable to you and reflect what’s important to you?
10. Take care of yourself
Dealing with toxic parents can be stressful. That stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health.
It’s crucial that you make self-care a priority. Start today with the basics, such as:
- eating a balanced diet
- getting quality sleep
- exercising regularly
- connecting with positive people
- acknowledging your feelings and giving them a healthy outlet
- finding support
It may be easier to set boundaries and choose to respond differently or detach when you’re at your best physically and emotionally.
- How do you feel?
- What do you need right now?
- How can you give yourself more of what you need?
Changing the ways you relate to your toxic parents can be scary because it can upset the status quo. But you can make this change.
It’s natural for your parents to resist the changes you try to make.
Transitions are difficult and stressful, but setting boundaries with your parents can help build and maintain a more healthy relationship.
You’re the only one who can change your relationship with your parents, and you can start today.
If you’re not sure whether your parent is behaving in a toxic way, consider speaking with a mental health professional. They may help you get the clarity you need and provide you with tools to help you cope.
Remember that you have choices. You can decide how and when to relate to your parents. You can choose what type of relationship you want to have with your parents, and what’s best for you and your lifestyle.