The Therapist Is In

What I know about therapy.

Poisonous Parents: Should You Cut Them Off?

When parents are abusive, sometimes it's best to sever ties.

Dr. Richard A. Friedman writes an excellent article in the NY Times called “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate.”    The most valuable point he makes is that therapists have a bias to salvage family relationships, even when the relationship is abusive and hurtful to our patients.   I am a therapist who has worked with many people in this situation as well as having experienced a family rift myself.  Many years ago I was also a therapy patient and experienced exactly what Dr. Friedman is talking about.  “Tell your parents what you feel toward them,” one therapist advised.  I listened.  He was a therapist after all and had helped me in many ways.  Disaster, however, was the outcome and my feelings were responded to with a barrage of invective that was exceedingly painful to hear.  Another therapist suggested that my problem was my own feelings about myself, with the implication that if I had better self-esteem, I would not be so deeply affected by my family’s abuse. 

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Before I go on, I want to point out that there are also toxic adult children who divorce their parents for reasons that are generally related to perceived injustices or simply personality disorders.  I’ve worked with many parents whose adult children stopped speaking to them, and they were the ones who were trying to reconcile even while their child remained obstinately silent.  In other words, it is not always the parents’ fault, and leaving this piece out of the article does a great disservice to those parents whose hearts break every day because they have been estranged by their adult children.

Dr. Friedman also notes, correctly, that this “topic gets little, if any, attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature, perhaps reflecting the common and mistaken notion that adults, unlike children and the elderly, are not vulnerable to such emotional abuse.”  He did not, however, note that there is self-help literature that addresses this very issue.   I wrote about it back in 1993 when my father told me he was never speaking to me again over some imagined insult or injustice perpetrated by me or my wife—probably both of us—which, at the time, occupied the top of his list of injustices perpetrated by other relatives or business associates.  By the way, as I and many of my clients can attest, often toxic parents produce toxic siblings and the process and emotions involved in sibling estrangement can be as upsetting as with parents.

It is true that symptoms of anxiety and depression related to a family estrangement can be debilitating, but at the same time they may be helped by therapy and medication.  That is true, but not everyone has access to therapy and medication, certainly not the 47 million people in the U.S.who have no heatlh insurance..  We all, however, have access within ourselves to spiritual and social tools that can be profoundly helpful.   If we draw upon our inborn resilience and moral fiber, we can find many ways to contend with severing ties with toxic family members. 

Dr. Friedman writes about a patient who was cut off by his toxic parents because he was gay.   He notes that the patient eventually recovered from his depression but “his parents’ absence in his life was never far from his thoughts.”  The issue need not be disposed of with such gloom, however, and I say that out of personal, as well as professional, experience.  It is difficult at first to contend with this level of family dysfunction, but in my experience there are definitely great benefits when you dispose of abuse from a family member.  It most certainly can be a growth experience, but even more than that perhaps, it makes family events and special occasions much more fun when you don’t have to worry about an abusive family member ruining the event.

I did find ways in 1993 to seemingly and temporarily repair the rifts in my family.  Despite my experience and expertise, I thought I could prevent the abuse I’d known most of my life.  In 2000 my family again disowned me and my wife and children, and it put me right back into turmoil.  Like Friedman’s patient, my parents’ absence in my life was never far from my thoughts.  Writing Healing From Family Rifts became my therapy and I noticed that the pain of the estrangement diminished with time and eventually I realized I was much happier without my family of origin in my life.  Time heals.  I’m blessed with a great deal of inborn resilience, but I also went through this trauma with a wonderful support network of my family of creation and choice.  I knew I had made every effort possible to repair the rift and I did all the “right” things to try to make peace.  Ultimately the right thing was the wrong thing. I realized that life without toxic parents can, ultimately, put the “fun” back into dysfunctional.

Mark Sichel is a psychotherapist in New York City and the author of Healing from Family Rifts.

more...

Subscribe to The Therapist Is In

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.