Toxic parents can make your life miserable, especially if you’re still trying to win their approval or if you think you must see them during the holidays.
Most people can call it quits with bullying lovers, end false friendships and divorce abusive spouses. But stopping bullying by toxic parents seems more difficult. And it’s even harder if there were one or two loving moments or you think you owe them for feeding you.
Too many therapists won’t show their shock and dismay at the abuse and will encourage adult children to keep interacting with toxic parents in the name of something called “family.” See, for example, the article by Dr. Richard Friedman in the New York Times.
I’ve seen adult children put up with continual criticism, hostility and anger; even being told by parents that they wish the child had never been born or would die. Some parents still remind their adult children that they’re never good enough and that they’ll be failures forever. Some parents make it clear that the other siblings are better in every way and more deserving of love. Often, the sarcasm, criticism, harassment and hostility are public, as if there’s a real intention to cause embarrassment and emotional pain.
Even worse for these abused adults is the thought that they’ll have to take care of those rotten parents when they get old and dementia makes them even worse.
Yet many adults accept the negativity, abuse and verbal torture. They endure the stress, discouragement, low self-esteem and depression that usually accompany repeated brutality. Some even internalize those hostile voices and beat themselves even when their parents aren’t present.
I think that a key sign of becoming an independent adult is deciding what criteria you’ll use for who you allow on your island. If you believe that family of birth is crucial because that’s the way you were raised or because you think that will get you a star in your crown in heaven or because you think family will be the only ones to take care of you when you need, then you’ve given up control of your island. You’ve decided to allow your island to be polluted by endless abuse and your spirit to be crushed if someone wants to.
On the other hand, suppose you decide to create an island that supports your emotional and spiritual life. Now you’re in charge of your life. Now you can demand good behavior before anyone gets on your island. Now you’ve created space to find the right people to populate your island. Now you’re a truly independent adult.
Now your tactics with your bullying parents are straightforward. You tell them, as sweetly and firmly as you can, how they must behave and what they may not do if they want to see or hear from you. You follow through with the natural consequences of leaving abusive situations, hanging up the phone, or not walking into the valley of punishment during the holidays. Your toxic parents have free will and choice.
Notice, I haven’t said anything about long-term, in depth psychoanalysis of toxic parents. That’s a secondary consideration. Since these bullies typically think they’re right and don’t need to change, they don’t examine themselves or they stay in therapy forever instead of changing. It’s not about whether they love you; it’s about how they love you.
Usually, I see more change stimulated when children stand up effectively to abusive parents. That may start the toxic parents on a path toward acting more loving.
I’ve seen many parents, when confronted by not seeing their children or grandchildren or when they know that their abused children are enjoying life without them, finally change how they treat their children.
Of course, sometimes toxic parents don’t change. But that’s not the goal of standing up to them. The goal is having an island that’s not polluted by toxic people, but instead is a paradise for your heart and spirit.
As to the fears that you’ll go through life alone and unloved; that’s nonsense. People with wonderful islands attract other people who want to be with them, who make their hearts and spirits sing. And you’ll have more money because you won’t be wasting it on therapy. And you’ll be setting a wonderful example for your children.
If you want the love and approval of older people, accept that you won’t get that from toxic birth parents. Go get it from people who have the good taste to caress your spirit, not to abuse it.
You can also remove toxic siblings, relatives and supposed friends from your island if they don’t change.
Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking. To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).