How To Cope With A Toxic Parent

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At some point in young adulthood, some people have a revelation: one or both of their parents are toxic. More precisely, they discover their relationship with their parent is unhealthy to the point of being dysfunctional. This discovery may occur during the college years, but much more likely, it may occur as a young adult sets out on their own, establishing a career, getting married, having children.

An older couple

At some point an insightful person might realize they still crave approval from their parents, but their parents are in the habit of subtly manipulating that need. We’re not talking about normal tension that appears in most every relationship. After all, young adults are individuals and, perhaps more important, are members of a different generation. Of course they see things differently. What distinguishes healthy disagreement from dysfunctional conflict is the way in which disagreements are resolved.

Wrting for HuffPost, Kelsey Borresen cites the insights of psychologists who focus on adult-parent conflicts and stresses that “These dynamics between parent and child don’t just surface overnight; there’s often a history of self-centered, controlling, blame-shifting, overly critical or neglectful behavior.”

Wondering if your parent’s behavior crosses the line from being merely critical to toxic judgment? Look for these five signs, says Borresen.

They manipulate you to get their way. Self-centered parents may not care whether your decision is a good one, they may only care about how it affects them. If they feel threatened they may not so subtly hint that they don’t need you or may use a family inheritance as punishment.

They belittle your feelings, often accusing you of being “too sensitive.” Gaslighting is a trendy term, but it accurately refers to a certain behavior. If your parents discount your concern or your feelings, they may make you question your own perception of reality — which is the definition of gaslighting. Ideally, parents — or anyone — should validate another’s feelings even if they disagree.

If you disagree with them, they say you’re being disrespectful. Well-grounded parents recognize that their children are adults with opinions worthy of respect. Watch out for a parent who always thinks they’re right — period.

They constantly criticize not just your actions and decisions, but your character. New parents of young children are often cautioned to point to behavior as wrong, not the child. “You hurt your brother, and that was wrong — and that’s so unlike you because you’re such a kind person.” Some parents can’t follow such simple advice even as their children become adults.

They blame you for their problems and emotions. Watch out, for example, for shifting responsibility for a negative situation. “They’ll say that if you hadn’t done X,” says Borresen, “they wouldn’t have gotten so angry.”

So what do you do if you recognize one or more of these signs in your parent? Try these tips.

  • Set boundaries.
  • Limit contact with your parent, if necessary.
  • Know that your parent’s negative reactions aren’t a sign you did something wrong.

Read Borresen’s full article here, which also contains several useful links for further research into the subject.