How to Manage Family Boundaries When a Parent Is Toxic

Family dynamics are always tricky. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” parent, but when a parent is toxic, that takes a toll on everyone: spouse, children, friends, and even extended family. We talk a lot about healthy boundaries here at TheHopeLine, but it can be incredibly difficult to maintain healthy boundaries with a toxic parent, especially if you still live with them. Let’s talk about how you can determine your way forward in an unhealthy relationship with one or more parents.

How to Handle a Toxic Parent

How Do You Know if Your Parent Is Toxic?

Simply disagreeing with you doesn’t make a parent toxic. Your relationship with your parents can be tense or even strained without having true toxicity involved. Sometimes it just takes a little time and work to heal and strengthen family dynamics, especially between parents and children who have different points of view because they’re members of different generations.

A truly toxic parent will exhibit some or all of the following behaviors:

  • Highly reactive. Your parent explodes suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly instead of responding appropriately to situations.
  • Blames others. Nothing is ever your parent’s fault, and they rarely, if ever, apologize.
  • Lacks empathy. They don’t seem to care about your feelings or the feelings of others.
  • Controls everything. They allow you no privacy or have unreasonable demands of your behavior.
  • Critical and negative. Compares you to others and is never satisfied with your performance.
  • Never listens. They don’t let you get a word in edgewise, or they ignore what you say.
  • Uses guilt trips. They try to make you feel bad about things that aren’t your fault or make you responsible for their emotions.
  • Addiction problems. Even if they’re wonderful when they’re sober, their misbehavior when they are in the throes of addiction makes for a toxic home environment. Inconsistent parenting is a form of toxic parenting, because it leaves the rest of the family without a feeling of stability in the home.
  • Abuse. If you’re not sure whether your parent’s behavior qualifies as “abuse,” check out our article that explains different types of abuse, like physical abuse, verbal/emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

Note: It can be confusing to tell the difference between a toxic parent and an emotionally abusive one. Often, emotional abuse is involved in a toxic relationship, making those terms interchangeable. If your parent’s behavior doesn’t seem to be aimed at hurting you or anyone else, but still creates a negative or chaotic home environment, that’s toxicity and should be addressed in much the same way as emotional abuse would be.

How to Set Boundaries With Toxic Parents

1. Reduce your exposure to them when you can. If you still live with and rely on the toxic parent, this could look like arranging more sleepovers with friends or signing up for more extracurricular activities to keep you busy and away from home. If you’re able to, consider asking another close (and healthy) family member if you can live with them. If you don’t live with the toxic parent anymore, you can limit your contact with them–decide on a set number of times per week or month you are willing to talk to them and for how long.

2. Practice emotional detachment. Your toxic parent relies on the idea that they can control you and your feelings. If you learn to separate your emotions from their toxic behaviors, you can distance yourself from the emotional stress of living with them. They can’t push your buttons if you have no buttons to push.

3. Don’t try to change them. Only they can see and correct their behavior, and it is not your responsibility to try and help them or get them to see their problem.

4. Create your own privacy. Be very selective about how much time and information you share with your parent.

5. Decide whether the relationship is salvageable. Do you feel like once you learned to set boundaries, your relationship improved? Or are you still subject to toxic, emotionally abusive situations?

6. If necessary, consider going no contact with your toxic parent. If you still live in their house, talk to a counselor or another trusted adult about your options for moving out of the home.

How Can You Care for Your Own Mental Health?

Now that you’ve started to set boundaries, it’s time to start focusing on healing. Try some of the following things as you start moving forward:

  • Acknowledge that you’ve been hurt and healing takes time. When you live with someone who is supposed to love you but can only think of themselves, you begin to believe over time that you do not matter. This “loss of self” is one of the most devastating impacts of toxic parenting. You end up either not really knowing your own self or hating yourself. Slowly but surely, having healthier boundaries will give you the chance to learn about yourself, who you are, what you like and dislike, and how special you are.
  • Therapy or counseling - learning to identify, connect with, and accept your own feelings is crucial when you’ve been raised in a household with someone who doesn’t respect you. Growing up with a toxic parent can be a factor in developing mental health issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and CPTSD as well. With the help of a professional, you can get a better idea of what you need and how to heal.
  • Surround yourself with other healthy relationships. Choose friendships that uplift you, make you happy, and support your healing journey. Be careful about getting involved with anyone else who exhibits similar toxic behaviors as your parent does.
  • Turning to spirituality could be another rich resource for you. Learning more about who you are in God’s eyes and your value as a unique creation can be a significant step in rebuilding your self-image. Consider some of these passages that encourage self-acceptance.
  • If you can convince your parent, consider family therapy. Individual therapy is crucial, but family therapy could be an excellent addition to your healing journey. A family counselor can help you and your parent work through the specific problems that make your home toxic and how to improve them.
  • Consider forgiveness–hate hurts you, not them. Though it makes perfect sense to feel hatred toward your toxic parent, ultimately hatred doesn’t hurt anyone but you. It eats away at you and leaves you still in their control. You don’t even have to tell them they’re forgiven! You just need to give your heart total freedom from your toxic parent.

For more ideas, check out another of our articles about how to cope with and heal from a toxic family environment. Remember that you can still love your parents, even if you don’t like them very much. Setting boundaries, maintaining them, and taking care of yourself does not mean that you’re betraying them. It just means that you’re mature enough to recognize the unhealthy dynamic at play and adult enough not to settle for it.

There’s Hope - Break the Cycle

You are not your parents. You don’t have to perpetuate their behaviors. There is a future for you that looks healthier and happier than what you’re experiencing now. God assures us that we can have hope and that there can always be healing. With the Healer, you are never alone, so don’t give up or isolate. If you don’t know who to talk to or what to do about your current situation, reach out to a Hope Coach today. We’re always here to listen without judgment and help connect you with resources that can help with your situation.

For more on signs of verbal abuse from parents, read "My Parents' Verbal Abuse Has Made Me Hate Myself".

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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