Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Stronger for the Breaks – How to Heal from a Toxic Parent

226,696 views

Stronger for the Breaks - How to Heal from a Toxic Parent

It’s one thing to be dipped in venom by those you don’t really care about, but when it’s by the person who is meant to love you, hold you, and take the sharp edges off the world, while teaching you with love, wisdom and warmth how to do it for yourself, it changes you. There is a different kind of hurt that can only come from a toxic parent – someone who is meant to love you. Kind of like being broken from the inside out.

There's a kind of hurt that can only come from people who are meant to love you. 'Healing from Toxic Parents' Click To Tweet

The scarring and hurt that comes from a toxic parent probably isn’t something we talk about enough. None of us are perfect, including our parents, but there is a point at which imperfect becomes destructive, taking away from children the love, warmth and nurturing they deserve and replacing it with something awful.

When children are raised on a diet of criticism, judgement, abuse and loathing, it’s only a matter of time before they take over from those parents, delivering with full force to themselves the toxic lashings that have been delivered to them. 

Toxic parents come in many shapes. Some are so obvious that they can be spotted from space through the eye of a needle. Some are a bit more subtle. All are destructive.

A toxic parent has a long list of weapons, but all come under the banner of neglect or emotional, verbal or physical abuse. Toxic parents lie, manipulate, ignore, judge, abuse, shame, humiliate and criticise. Nothing is ever good enough. You get an A, they’ll want an A+. You get an A+, they’ll wonder why you aren’t school captain. You make school captain, your sister would have been a better one. And you’ll never be pretty like her. They’ll push you down just to criticise you for the way you fall. That, or they’ll shove you off a cliff to show the world how well they catch you. They oversee childhoods with no warmth, security or connection. 

Any negative behaviour that causes emotional damage or contaminates the way a person sees himself or herself, is toxic. A toxic parent treat his or her children in such a way as to make those children doubt their importance, their worth, and that they are deserving of love, approval and validation. If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well yeah, my parent/s did that, but only because it was true – I’m pretty useless at life,’ then chances are that parent was a toxic one. The truth is that you, like every other small person on the planet, deserved love, warmth, and to know how important you were. You’re not useless at life – you’ve bought in to the messages that were delivered by a parent too broken to realise what they were doing. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. 

It is possible to heal from by toxic parenting. It begins with the decision that the legacy of shame and hurt left behind by a toxic parent won’t be the way your story will end.

How to heal from a toxic parent.

Here are some ways to move forward.

  1. It’s okay to let go of a toxic parent.

    This is such a difficult decision, but it could be one of the most important. We humans are wired to connect, even with people who don’t deserve to be connected to us. Sometimes though, the only way to stop the disease spreading is to amputate. It doesn’t matter how much you love some people, they are broken to the point that they will only keep damaging you from the inside out. You’re not responsible for them or for the state of your relationships with them, and you are under no obligation to keep lining yourself up be abused, belittled, shamed or humiliated. Healing starts with expecting more for yourself, and you’re the only person who can make that decision. 

  2. And it’s okay not to.

    Don’t be harsh on yourself if you stay in the relationship. The act of returning to an abusive relationship can set trigger self-loathing. ‘Why aren’t I strong enough?’ Know that loyalty is such an admirable trait, even if it gets in the way of your capacity to protect yourself. Own where you are and give yourself full permission to be there. Accept that for now, this is where you’re at, and fully experience what that’s like for you. You’ll never love yourself enough to change your expectations if you’re flogging yourself for not being strong enough. It takes tremendous strength to keep walking into a relationship that you know is going to hurt you. When you’re ready, you’ll make the move to do something differently. For now though, wherever you are is okay.

  3. Be honest about the possibilities.

    If you’re going to stay, know that it’s okay to put a boundary between yourself and your parent. You can act from love and kindness if you want to – but don’t stay in the relationship unless you can accept that the love you deserve will never come back to you. Ever. If it was going to, it would have reached you by now. See their behaviour for what it is – evidence of their breaks, not evidence of yours. Put a forcefield around yourself and let their abuse bounce off. Love yourself and respect yourself enough to fill the well that they bleed dry. They might not be capable of giving you the love and respect you deserve, but you are.

    You Might Also Like
    Toxic People: 12 Things They Do and How to Deal with Them

     

  4. Be careful of repeating the patterns with other people

    You might find yourself drawn to people who have similarities to your toxic parent. There’s a really good reason for this. All of us are driven to find an ending to things that remain unresolved. Because love, warmth and nurturing are such an important part of child development, yet so elusive for the child of a toxic parent, it’s very normal for those children to be driven to find a resolution to never feeling loved, secure or good enough. They will look to receive what they didn’t get from their parents in others and will often be drawn to people who have similarities to their toxic parent. With similar people, the patterns will be easier to replicate, and the hope of an ending closer to the desired one – parent love – will be easier to fulfil. That’s the theory. The pattern often does repeat, but because of the similarities to the parent, so does the unhappy ending.

    The decisions aren’t conscious ones, so to move towards healing, the automatic thoughts and feelings driving the choices need to be brought more into awareness. If this is something that’s familiar for you, it’s possible that you are being drawn to the wrong people because they remind you of your toxic parent, and somewhere inside you where your wanted things stay hidden, is the wish that you’ll get from them what you weren’t able to get from your parent. Look at the people in your life and explore the similarities they have with your own parents. What do they do that’s similar? What do you do that’s similar to the way you are in your relationship with your parents? Which needs are being met? What keeps you there? The more awareness you have, the more you can make deliberate decisions that aren’t driven by historical wants.

  5. Own your right to love and respect.

    One of the greatest acts of self-love is owning your right to love and respect from the people you allow close to you. You’re completely entitled to set the conditions for your relationships, as other people are to set the conditions for theirs. We all have to treat those we love with kindness, generosity and respect if we want the same back. If those conditions aren’t met, you’re allowed to close the door. You’re allowed to slam it closed behind them if you want to.

  6. Be careful of your own toxic behaviour.

    You’ve been there, so you know the behaviours and you know what they do. We’re all human. We’re all going to get it wrong sometimes. Toxic behaviour though, is habitual and it will damage the members of your own little tribe as surely as it damaged you. You don’t have to be a product of the inept, cruel parenting that was shown to you, and this starts with the brave decision that the cycle stops at you. People who do this, who refuse to continue a toxic legacy, are courageous, heroic and they change the world. We’re here to build amazing humans, not to tear them down. How many lives could have been different if your parent was the one who decided that enough was enough.

  7. You’re allowed to make mistakes and you’re allowed to do it on your own.

    You may have been lead to believe that you’re not enough – not smart enough, beautiful enough, funny enough, strong enough capable enough. The truth is that you are so enough. It’s crazy how enough you are. Open yourself up to the possibility of this and see what happens. You don’t need to depend on anyone and making mistakes doesn’t make you a loser. It never has. That’s something you’ve been lead to believe by a parent who never supported you or never gave you permission to make mistakes sometimes. Make them now. Make plenty. Heaps. Give yourself full permission to try and miss. There will be hits and there will be misses. You don’t even know what you’re capable of because you’ve never been encouraged to find out. You’re stronger than you think you are, braver, better and smarter than you think you are, and now is your time to prove it to yourself.

    You Might Also Like
    Letting Go: How to Master the Art

     

  8. Write a list. (And get yourself a rubber band.)

    Write down the beliefs that hold you back. The ones that get in your way and stop you from doing what you want to do, saying what you want to say or being who you want to be. Were you brought up to believe your opinion doesn’t count? That parents are always right? That you’re unloveable? Unimportant? Stupid? Annoying? Incapable? Worthless?

    Now beside each belief, write what that belief is costing you. Has it cost you relationships? Happiness? Freedom to be? To experiment? To explore? Then, rewrite the script. Thoughts drive feelings, behaviour, what you expect for yourself and what you expect from relationships and world. How are you going to change those beliefs? Just choose one or two to start with and every time you catch yourself thinking the old thoughts, actively replace it with a new, more self-nurturing thought – then act as though that new thought is true. You don’t have to believe it – just pretend it is. Your head will catch up when it’s ready.

    If it’s difficult to break out of the old thought, try this: wear a rubber band (or a hair band) around your wrist. Every time you catch yourself thinking the old thought, give the band a little flick. This will start to train your mind to let go of the old thoughts that have no place in your life anymore. You just need a little flick – you don’t need to hurt yourself – your old thoughts have been doing that for long enough already. There is no right or wrong on this. All the answers, strength and courage you need to do what’s right for you is in you. You just need to give yourself the opportunity and the reason to hear it.

  9. Find your ‘shoulds’ that shouldn’t be.

    ‘Shoulds’ are the messages we take in whole (introject) from childhood, school, relationships, society. They guide behaviour automatically and this can be a good thing (‘I should be around people who respect me’) or a not so good thing (‘I should always be ‘nice”). Take a close look at your ‘shoulds’ and see if they’ve been swallowed with a spoonful of poison. Our ‘should’s’ come from many years of cultivating and careful pruning, so that when that should is fully formed, it direct you so automatically that you don’t even need to think.

    It’s likely that the should that’s keeping you stuck has come from the person who wanted to keep you that way. Were you brought up feeling indebted to your parents? Like you owe them? Like you’ll never cope if you separate properly from them? Were the messages delivered to keep you small? Quiet? Hidden? Believing the messages may have worked when you were younger, steering you way from their foul mood or toxic consequences, but it doesn’t have to be that way now. Don’t pick up from where they left off. You’re older now, with different circumstances, and in a different environment. Bring your ‘shoulds’ out in the open so your actions can be more deliberate. If your ‘shoulds’ are working for you, love them up and keep them, otherwise let them go. 

  10. Nobody is all good or all bad. But don’t be guilted by that.

    One of the things that makes ending any relationship so difficult is that there will be traces of exactly what you want. Even toxic parents can sometimes be loving, warm or nurturing, though it’s mostly, if not always, done to further their own agenda. In the same way that being ‘a little bit bad’ probably isn’t enough to sever an important relationship, being ‘a little bit good’ isn’t enough reason to keep one. Zoom out and look at the big picture. If you feel miserable in the relationship more than you feel good, question your reasons for staying. If it’s because your toxic parent is old, frail, sad or lonely, that might be all the reason you need to stay, and that’s okay. If it is, own the decision in strength and put limits on contact or how much you will give to the relationship. You’re entitled to take or give as much to the relationship as you decide. Just whatever you do, do it deliberately, in strength and clarity, not because you’re being manipulated or disempowered. The shift in mindset seems small, but it’s so important. 

  11. Build yourself up.

    Toxic environments are toxic to the brain – we know that with absolute certainty. The human brain is incredibly adaptive, and in response to a toxic environment it will shut down so as to protect itself as much as it can from the toxicity. When this happens, as it does during prolonged periods of emotional stress, the rate at which the brain produces new neurons (neurogenesis) slows right down, ultimately making people vulnerable to anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, reduced immunity, loss of vitality, reduced resilience to stress, and illness (research has shown that migraine and other pain conditions are more prevalent in people who were brought up in abusive environments, though the exact reason for the relationship is unclear).

    We also know, with absolute certainty, that the damage can be turned around. Diet (omega 3, green tea extract, blueberry extract, reduced intake processed sugar and unhealthy carbohydrates), exercise (anything that increases heart rate), and meditation (such as a regular mindfulness practice) will all help to rebuild the brain and heal the damage done by a toxic environment. Increasing neurogenesis will help to build resilience, cognitive function, vitality and protect against stress, anxiety and depression.

Healing from a toxic parent starts with deciding that the lifetime of messages that have left you hollow or scarred are wrong. Because they are. It means opening a heart that’s probably been closed for way too long, and receiving the love, approval and validation that has always been yours to own. Sometimes, it means realising that parents break too, sometimes irreparably, sometimes to the point of never being able to show love to the people in their life who deserve it the most. Sometimes it means making the brave decision, in strength and with the greatest self-love and self-respect, to let go of the relationship that’s been hurting you. 

Breaking free of a toxic parent is hard, but hard has never meant impossible. With the deliberate decision to move forward, there are endless turns your story can take. Brave, extraordinary, unexpected turns that will lead you to a happier, fuller life. It’s what you’ve always deserved. Be open to the possibilities of you. There are plenty.

Like this article?

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly round up of our best articles

526 Comments

Kay

Thank you for this very important article. I shared it with my husband whose parents are severely toxic and narcissistic.

He has finally, once and for all, cut all ties with his family. Family and friends have been and are still fooled by his toxic parents’ “normal” appearance and their pathological lies to explain why their son is estranged from them.

I give him so much credit for trying to have some form of relationship with his parents, but he always ends up getting hurt and becoming that abused little boy all over again.

The emotional turmoil has nearly destroyed our relationship more than once. He has finally admitted that they are who they are and they will never change or acknowledge the abuse.

His dad is gravely ill, and his mom and sister have been using guilt to try to get my husband involved with his dad’s care. My husband finally stated in writing that he wants nothing to do with any of them and to stay away from him and our home.

Our relationship is stronger than ever and he feels no guilt – finally after more than 30 years!

Reply
Elizabeth

I’m so happy to hear that, Kay. Let those who do not wish to see the truth remain in their illusion. After all, we do not need their approval. Keep moving forward and enjoying your lives’–our narcissistic families have taken enough from us, and we’ve taken enough from them.

Reply
Chris

My step father was extremely cruel growing up, he would belittle me, call me names, make fun of my weight, tell me how weird I looked, tell me I would never be as good as my brothers who were his blood. He always told me I was no different and that he saw me as his son, my father wasn’t in the picture growing up, I diddnt meet him til I was 14. Any time I talked about college he would tell me I wasn’t smart enough. When my mom died, he got even meaner, sometimes growing up he would beat me badly enough to leave welts. As I get older this has left me with feelings of self loathing, thinking I am never good enough. My step father growing up would have some good moments, one time we went fishing, and he taught me how to shave. I always grew up thinking this is how fathers are supposed to treat their children, as I got older I realized this was far from normal as my wife’s family is great. I have children of my own now and would never treat them how I was treated, I try to be as loving and nurturing towards them as possible. I started taking anxiety and depression medication which has helped a little. I graduated college with my bachelor’s and have a great job, but I always feel I’m not adequate. My step father does not call or come around, but considers himself a grandpa. He only shows up at kids bjrthdays, he even came to the last one uninvited, i am upset he does not come around and have talked to him about it bjt he just tells me he forgets.
He has met a new girlfriend and does all kinds of things with her kids like camping frequently and going oit and doing things he neber would have done with myself or siblings growing up, recently he distanced himself from his biological children and barely speaks to them, but will show up to family functions like nothing is wrong and chat like everything is great. I chose to stop talking to him at family functions and do not my want him in my life ad he apparently does not want me in his, trust me I’ve tried so many times. I’ve decided I don’t want to confuse my children and I’m tired of talking to him at family functions like nothing ever happened. My son’s birthday is coming up and as much as it still hurts I don’t want him there, should I tell him?

Reply
Lori

I’m looking for resources. A book to read. Events of this week have me thinking that I may never see my father again. I found this article when searching for advice about how to grieve the loss of a parent who has not died.
A few years ago I read “Will I Ever be good enough?” by Karyl McBride and it really helped my relationship with my mother. While I am emotionally detached I still see her once in a while and it works…mostly. For better or worse I will probably maintain some contact with her until one of us dies, but I have mourned the loss of my mom.
Any tips on negotiating this with my father?

Reply
Ashleigh

This is going to be an extremely long post and I apologize. I’m happy I stumbled upon this page tonight. I have not one but 2 toxic parents. One is my absent father who I have tried and begged for him to be a father and he just does not care to even call me or say happy birthday to me. We have never lived under the same roof and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know where I live. I’ve came to terms that he is my father by blood and that’s just about it.

Now the real reason I’m writing tonight is because I have a TOXIC mother. She is so toxic that when she messaged me tonight I instantly felt the need to cry because I knew her message was going to be negative, and as always it was.

She has this control over me where she can not talk text or message me for 5 weeks and then pop up on my phone with “why are you ignoring me ” …. Well I’m not ignoring her I’m just staying away from any name calling, belittling, being called fat, or I need to wear this kind of makeup or i need more or less of this or that.

When I went to college she did not congratulate me instead she told me that i would never make more than a lousy $15 an hour in front of my whole family and boyfriend.
I had that message in my head allllllll the way to the end of college . WHICH i am super happy she said that because I went looking for the best and highest job that I could find which had nothing to do with what i went to college for. I buried my life in 3 jobs working up to 65 hours a WEEK Just so i didn’t have TIME to see her. I moved out the second i turned 18 and worked ever since.

Now I’m 24 I own my home and i have an amazing career . I don’t even want to share this news with her because i don’t want her to ruin it for me. How sad is it that i cant even tell my mother I’ve moved.
I have been verbally and physically abused by the person who is suppose to love and nurture me .

I honestly could go in depth about what its really like being a daughter to my toxic mother but i cant or else id have to write a book about it. Starting from when she left me as a kid and decided she would rather run around town that be a mother.

I really want to distance myself from her before I have kids, I’ve actually PUT off having kids because I don’t want them to meet her and I could never imagine being called even more names and being pregnant at the same time.

im going to cut this off here.

I just needed to vent and it felt good to do so.

Reply
GA

Kuddos to you and WOW what a strong woman you are. I’m so proud of you! You are searching online for answers and found this wonderful website.
Your mother is miserable and she doesn’t understand it herself (obviously because her abuse of you continues), but wants you to be miserable too. I also continue to search for the answers as to why, and I haven’t spoken to my mom in almost 5 years. The hardest part for me after these 5 years is that she hasn’t even tried to re-connect, my best guess is because she’s the victim in all this. I have come to realize that she will never be able to give me the answers herself, because she is so closed up in her being ‘the victim’.
She has never accepted any responsibility for her choices or decisions in mothering all seven of her children. Her oldest is 58 years old and is solely dependent on her because of her controlling and self serving ways. I believe that my mother was so traumatized by her mother up to age 17, that I do believe that she wanted to do better as a mother, but was only able to do what she knew. When things were bad for me growing up, I told myself I would never forget. I have never forgotten. So, when I became a mother, I made a concious effort to do better and to NOT repeat the patterns of abuse. My hope is to share what I know or have experienced so that you can possibly see other examples as to why she isn’t going to change or can’t change. Happiness and blessings to you 🙂

Reply
Estella

Hey Karen! Thank you for writing this and it definitely resonates so much with me. I’m 30 and still staying with my parents because it’s an Asian thing. I’m getting married next year and I can’t wait for that to happen. I am extremely blessed and grateful that I have a wonderful fiance and an understanding mother in law who respects boundaries and me as a person.

I grew up with parents who condescends, passive aggressive, immature, shuts down…the list goes on but you get what I mean. They would always expect me to do things for them, take care of them etc and recently, guilt tripping me for spending more time at my fiance’s place with a comment “You are not even married yet but you are already spending so much time there. Don’t do that or others would think you are a ‘loose woman’.” and “You don’t like us anymore right? Whenever you come home, you don’t talk to us anymore. You just go into your room and shut the door.” – Oh goodness, Major assumption right there. I close my door whenever I want to, mind you!

So, I’ve been talking to my fiance about it and he encouraged me to just do what I have been doing recently – which is to take care of myself (and I have been!) by eating better, meditate and keep myself busy with life. I really enjoyed that actually and they are definitely not happy about it but decided to stay quiet anyway (until they have a chance to say something).

I just want to say, thank you for this post. I really needed this. 🙂

Reply

Leave a Reply

We’d love to hear what you’re thinking ...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay Connected



Contact Me

karen@heysigmund.com














Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.
















Pin It on Pinterest

Share This