To be fair, wanting to avoid those awkward talks with your uncle and that cousin whose name you can’t quite remember, that’s normal stuff. It’s right up there along with, “I’d really rather not spend the holidays with the fam,” chat.
But there are other situations where the mere thought of heading home can stir up the kid of emotions in you that fill you with dread. It’s because you know, as difficult as it is to admit, that certain individuals are so toxic, so manipulative and so, so, so draining, you’d rather stay away. Worst of all, is when you realize those “individuals” are none other than your parents.
Yep—you, my dear, have toxic parents. So, how do you cope? Is there such a thing as interacting in ways that preserve your sanity? Is cutting off all contact too dramatic a response? To find out how you can cope with toxic parents, we reached out to two mental health professionals for their advice: Justin Shubert, clinical psychologist and founder of Silver Lake Psychotherapy and Rebekah Tayebi, a clinical therapist and family coach. Here’s what they had to say.
Remember, your relationship with your parents isn’t rosy 100 percent of the time. “All parents and children … come from different places and annoy each other and make mistakes with each other,” Shubert said. “So if Mom says something critical and it really gets under your skin, if Mom questions you, Mom doesn’t like what you’re wearing, Mom tells you not to be too upset when you are, and it’s like this thing has happened a million times and it makes you want to punch a hole through the wall, it’s actually just kind of bad, not toxic,” he added.
What could be toxic, on the other hand, is when a parent’s needs overtake the child’s for an extended period of time. Where there’s extreme difficulty regulating emotions, Tayebi said. There might be difficult communicating those emotions so conversations can quickly flare up. “Things can turn on a dime and it is to the point where it just feels unpredictable and there’s this whole system of walking on eggshells,” she said.
One question to ask yourself, is how “Do you feel like you can breathe when you’re around your parents?” Consider whether you feel constantly suffocated when you’re around them, and whether that’s because you can’t be yourself or you feel like you’re twisting yourself into a pretzel to please them.
“When I look at toxic family systems, one thing that’s also really evident is seeing that the children are more attuned to the needs of the parents,” Tayebi said. That is, the typical parent-child relationship is inverted and there’s confusion about what appropriate boundaries should be in place.
For example, Tayebi explained, a parent might have a really toxic relationship with their co-parent or spouse and argue in front of the kids instead of taking it behind closed doors. As a result, “that starts to involve kids in the parental discourse, which is really inappropriate and that’s where kids again start to take on more parental side roles,” Tayebi said.
Remember, toxic parents are often so self-absorbed in their own dramas, emotional roller coasters or addictions that their child doesn’t ever learn how to be themselves. They’re constantly looking to prop their parents up.
“The hard part for children in these environments is that which is like so many of us, is that we might start to mirror the dysfunction that we’re seeing,” Tayebi said. That’s why it’s really important to start to catch negative patterns in the moment and, whenever possible, redirect the conversation. You can do this by modeling the type of behavior and boundaries you’d like in place.
For instance, Tayebi explained, you can do some emotional validating like, “Okay Mom, I see it, this is really hard for you. I’m feeling pretty escalated right now.”
“And so you validate their feelings and then you would kind of target what your experience is,” Tayebi said. In this way, you communicate that you’re feeling escalated, anxious, and that you need break from the conversation. Practice your responses ahead of time so that you repeat them almost as a mantra to yourself.
“Even if the parent isn’t respecting the boundary, it’s much healthier for you as the child to use the broken record mantra then to follow them into their dysfunction,” she added.
If just the thought of being around your parents is making your head spin, consider staying with friends instead of with family. Give yourself the distance you need so you can retreat into a safe space. Try having an itinerary that’s full, so you can limit your time with any toxic parent. In doing so, you’ll place boundaries on the amount of time you spend, what you give emotionally, and what you give physically with time.
“It’s really important to be intentional about how much you want to give,” Shubert said. He advises asking yourself: How many days do you want to be there? Do you want to stay with them or not? If you’re going to stay with them, do you want to bring someone? How many hours a day do you want to spend with them. Do you have a plan of escape in case things go awry?
Thinking about these sorts of questions ahead of time will help prevent you from falling into an old routine you might regret.
Tayebi also suggests being clear with your support system about how you wan to receive support. It’s very easy to contact a close friend and vent about the situation you’re going through. But that might not be constructive. Instead, Tayebi suggests preparing your friends for what may be coming down the line when you are in the presence of toxic parents. Be clear about what you need from them.
“Ranting to [your friends] and having them fan the flames, that’s probably not going to be constructive, but can I have like a 10 minute venting session with them and then ask them to just encourage me at the end?” Tayebi said. “You do have to be thoughtful around it for it to like actually meet a need.”
“I think the hardest part for kids who grow up in toxic with toxic parenting is that you learn to abandon yourself to be there for your parents,” Tayebi said. To change that behavior, you’ll have to do some work on your inner self. Commit to yourself that you’re not in the wrong for deciding to make space for yourself.
Tayebi suggests telling yourself: “I’m not bailing on myself. If I’m feeling triggered, if I’m upset, maybe I’ll steal away and hang out in the backyard or in my bedroom and just take care of my feelings.”
As cheesy as it sounds, do the self-talk that will help you keep perspective on the situation. It’s okay, after all, to fell all the ~feels~ when you’re with your parents. Remind yourself that your feelings are just as valid as theirs and that it makes sense to give yourself the space you need.
“Take care of your feelings in those moments and then get back to get back to family life,” Tayebi said. “That makes getting through the holidays with difficult families much more doable.”