When to Cut Ties With a Toxic Parent

When Rachel was a teenager, her mother had her future all planned out. Rachel’s mom had decided where she would go to college, what type of man she would marry and how she would live her life.

But of course, Rachel, who asked that her last name be withheld for this article, had other plans for herself. After transitioning to adulthood and struggling to maintain a healthy relationship with her mother, Rachel ended their relationship.

Illustration of a man being stepped on by an extra-large shoe. Rewire PBS Love Toxic Parent
Your relationship with a parent may be toxic if you feel constantly belittled and demoralized.

For lots of us, the parent-child relationship shifted either positively or negatively as we became adults and no longer needed, or wanted, to be parented.

“Times of transition typically bring more stress into the relationship itself, and launching children from the home is one of these big transitions for both kids and parents alike,” therapist Heidi McBain said.

Take some proactive steps

But a transition to adulthood isn’t the only reason parent-child relationships deteriorate. If you feel that your relationship with one or both of your parents is floundering, try these tactics to get it back on track:

1. Set boundaries

Maybe you decide to set limits on how often you see your parent. Maybe you choose not to talk about certain topics (politics, relationships, career choices, et cetera). It’s up to you to establish “rules” that will make you feel comfortable and make it easier to talk or spend time with your parents.

“If boundaries are not put in place, it is common for people to do what they need to do to protect themselves and their own families,” therapist Allen Wagner said. “Cutting off a toxic parent can become necessary when an adult child has their own family,” for instance.

2. Communicate how you feel

As a child, it’s hard to develop your own beliefs separate from your parents’. Maybe your parents had the best of intentions in raising you a certain way, or in a certain type of community, but their beliefs and ideals no longer align with yours. Maybe their plans for you aren’t the plans you have for yourself. Speaking up is key, if you want to prevent estrangement.

3. Seek professional help

Not ready to confront your parents? Consider talking to a therapist about your thoughts and feelings. If you feel it will help, and believe your parents would join you, consider family therapy.

“Parents do make mistakes, and they do not always express themselves in the right ways,” Wagner said. “Many of the things that people find toxic often come from a very good place but (can) feel critical or minimizing.”

If you’re unsure where your relationship with your parent stands, ask a professional for their opinion.

Identifying toxicity in your relationship

All relationships have their ups and downs — and the parent-child relationship is no exception. So how can you tell when your relationship has progressed past normal?

With more millennials living at home, getting married later, embracing their sexualities and abandoning religion, some parents struggle to adjust their behaviors in response to their children’s choices.

Maintaining a healthy relationship is only possible if both sides are willing to be respectful and understanding. So even if you live at home, rely on your parents for financial assistance, or need your parents to help you through a transitional period, know that your parents shouldn’t control your life, criticize your choices or make you feel bad about yourself.

“If there is any type of emotional abuse where the child feels like they are not good enough, they are not worthy enough,” then the relationship has likely become toxic to the child, McBain said.

Many parents have the best of intentions, even when being critical of their children. But not all do. Here are some signs that adult children should look for when identifying toxicity:

  • Your parent minimizes or rejects your feelings.
  • Your parent makes you feel insecure, worthless, or guilty.
  • Your parent tries to control your finances, financial choices, career path or relationships. Even if your parent is still paying your car bills, they don’t get to control where you go or who you go with.
  • Your parent refuses to accept a lifestyle choice that is important to you.
  • Your parent lies, manipulates or rejects your boundaries.
  • Your parent makes you fearful. Maybe they’re fighting an addiction and putting you in harm’s way or maybe they’re watching your every move and making it impossible for you to live your own life. If you ever feel afraid of a parent, of what they’re cable of, or of the situation they’ve put you in, you’re dealing with a toxic relationship.

Cut ties or take a break?

Cutting ties doesn’t have to be permanent, but it’s sometimes necessary to separate yourself from a parent, especially if you’ve both put in effort without success, or your parent has refused to adapt.

If you don’t want to cut yourself off completely, “try to come up with a time when you’d be comfortable having contact in the future, be it a month, at the holidays, on your birthday, et cetera,” McBain said. “But, give yourself permission to keep this contact very short and contained if your parent becomes mean, toxic (or) verbally abusive”

You’re not talking — so now what?

Do you have to skip family gatherings if you’re no longer communicating with a parent? Attending family events is your choice. If you choose to attend knowing the toxic parent will be present, prepare yourself for the discomfort. Let your family members know, in advance, where your relationship stands.

“Be open and honest with your other family members about what’s going on in your life and with the parent you are not currently in contact with,” McBain said. Let them know you’re planning to attend, but that you still need time away from the parent.

Relationship psychologist Laura F. Dabney suggests you come up with an escape plan before you show up to the party. Whether it’s “I’m going to help in the kitchen,” or “I’m going to check on the kids,” or, simply, “I have another event to attend.” If you’re traveling for the event, staying at a nearby hotel is a good option. It allows you space to yourself should the situation worsen.

For Rachel, complete separation was needed. She no longer sees her mother — not even on holidays.

So only show up, and stay, if you feel comfortable doing so. Maintaining your self-worth is more important than filling a seat at the family dinner table.

Sarah Sheppard

Sarah Sheppard is a freelance writer, editor and writing instructor. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is working on her first novel. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter or contact her at sarahsheppardwriter.com.