Divorcing your toxic parents
Children look to their parents to care for them and nurture their physical and mental well-being. In the eyes of children, the parent can do no wrong. If anything, the child blames themselves for any ruptures within the parent/child relationship.
We want to please our parents and to make them proud of us. We internalise any overt or covert messages that are given to us as children, whether they are good messages or bad messages. We bathe in our parent’s praise after winning a sack race at the sports day. Remember running home from school proudly clutching the picture that you had drawn for your mum/dad? And remember how proud you felt when that picture was pinned to the fridge? The message being that we had made them happy and that they were proud of our artistic talents!
What happens if we never had that nurturing?
Trauma is often thought of as events that have happened to us and the meaning that we make from the events. Important to note is that trauma can also be what didn’t happen to us, i.e, we weren’t loved as kids, or we didn’t get that nurturing. In other words, we didn’t feel loved. This can have a hugely detrimental impact on our well-being, confidence, emotional regulation, and physical health; in fact, the impact of neglect is far-reaching into adult life.
Children of toxic parents are starved of nurturing and connection. Instead of the children being the centre of the parent’s world the adults are selfish; it is the adult’s needs and wants that are put first and the child is disregarded.
As adults, we might experience this lack of connections as a feeling of unworthiness, that we are unlovable and this might manifest in addictions or a need to control. Eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and self-harm can often come from childhood neglect.
Adult children of toxic parents often stay connected out of guilt or fear. If you have always been the ‘good girl/boy’ then this will carry on through to adulthood and ‘good children’ don’t leave their parents. They will do whatever they can to stay connected - even if this means continually being hurt or let down.
Toxic parents of adult children will be controlling, manipulative, and judgemental. This will have you questioning your life choices, never feeling good enough, and constantly trying to please them. Feeling like this will have a huge impact on your adult relationships with friends, colleagues, and romantic partners. You may notice that other people begin to take advantage of you because of your need to please.
How to maintain a relationship with parents:
If you decide to maintain a relationship with toxic parents, there are things that can help.
The important thing to remember is that you are no longer a child and that you now have a choice in how you want your relationship with your parents to look. If you grew up around toxic parents, then the first thing to look at in your own growth and healing is boundaries.
Having boundaries is your way to say how it is that you would and would not like to be treated. It is likely that your parents will find it difficult to accept boundaries if it isn’t something that they are used to. If they are always used to being in control, then they will likely not want to let go of that control.
Examples of firmer boundaries:
- “I’m not able to come to tea on Sunday as I am seeing a friend.”
- “I am spending Christmas with my in-laws/friends/partner this year.”
- “Thank you for inviting me to Uncle Tim’s BBQ. I’m unable to come that day as I have other plans.”
- “Thank you for your opinion on my son’s bedtime routine. I find that what we do now works well.”
Do you see how it works? Polite but firm and no excuses. Stick to simple sentences; you don’t have to explain anything more.
If there is a family gathering coming up then it’s important for you to have an exit strategy in case things become uncomfortable or heated. If you drive, then you might feel that it’s easier to get away if needed. Have a friend on hand that can come to collect you if not. It’s important to feel in control of these types of situations and leaving can prevent the escalation of a situation.
Going no contact
Going no contact is a tough decision to make but sometimes it’s important to do this for your own mental well-being. If you find that having contact with your parents is causing you stress and anxiety, then perhaps it’s time to put yourself first.
If you do decide to go no contact, then you may experience a grief process. You might feel as though you are saying goodbye to any hope that you had that the parent may change, that one day they would treat you with respect and love. You might feel at times that you are jealous of the relationships that friends have with their parents, and that’s all OK! Allow yourself to experience these different emotions without self-judgement.
There will be firsts where your parents might have attended; graduation, the birth of your first child, marriage; but remember that you might have idealised how these events would have gone. Reality can be different; there is a reason that you went no contact with your toxic parents.
Self-care is crucial. If you haven’t been taught self-care and emotional regulation as a child, then chances are you don’t know where to start. Beginning to allow yourself to feel emotions and asking yourself what you need is a good start. Showing yourself compassion and nurturing your inner child is all part of the self-care process.