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Healthy Boundaries for Adult Children of Toxic Parents

Strategies for changing old, unhealthy patterns.

Key points

  • Some people continue to play out their childhood patterns because they are afraid if they don't, their parents will stop relating to them.
  • A parent who stops relating to their child may simply be trying to regain control in the relationship.
  • One key to setting boundaries with a parent is to be present with one's own emotions even while the parent reacts.

Creating healthy boundaries for toxic parents can be very difficult, because, as adults, we are often still caught in the old patterns of childhood without even knowing it. We just live in the pattern, and the pattern does what it does until somewhere along the way, we begin to see or feel how the pattern is affecting us. Even when we see it or feel it, it may still take us some time and effort to start creating healthy boundaries because we feel guilty, or we don’t want to start an argument, or we fear we will hurt our parents' feelings, or we are just so entangled that we can’t seem to find our way out of it.

The thing we tend to fear the most is how they will react to the news that we have a new boundary we are going to insist upon. We fear they will not be able to tolerate the boundary and their lives will fall apart. We fear they will stop relating to us, or not want us in their lives anymore, or that the conversation will just end in a big fight. The truth is that we have had that fear since it was first placed in us—by them—years and years ago.

But we are adults, and so are they. How they react may be correctly anticipated. Let’s assume that you are correct in your thinking about how they might react, but let’s also assume that you are not responsible for how they react—that belongs 100 percent to them. Let’s assume that their lives will only fall apart if they choose to let them fall apart and that if they ghost us for a time or stop relating, that they are simply trying to regain control of the relationship. Let’s assume that the patterns between you and your parents will show up bright and clear when you start being more authentic in that relationship. Then these patterns can be talked about and perhaps dealt with in a healthy manner. Let’s assume that in any fight, it takes two to tango—and that means you don’t have to join any fight that they start. Most of all, let’s assume that growing up means freeing oneself from unhealthy patterns of childhood.

With all of those assumptions in mind, this post is meant to give us some simple options for boundaries for certain specific types of toxicity.

Toxic parents who try to control us

With these parents, the issue often becomes one of power vs. guilt. We feel that our parents should have some control because they always have and we feel guilty for trying to take back our lives from them. Perhaps they are trying to manage your children, or they want to interfere in your marriage, or they try to control you with money, or maybe they try to guilt you into taking care of them in some way.

At each juncture, you are lost in a miasma of confusion because surely they are doing this because they love you, right? Well, they may love you, or not, but that has nothing to do with their efforts to control. Control is not love.

So, one option is to start realizing what you want—what you desire in this given situation—and then lay that down like the boundary it is. “Mom, I want to do x, y, z, and so that’s what we are going to do here.” “Dad, I want this job, not that one, so I’m going to take it.” When they react, try to be present with your own emotions instead of trying to fix, or change theirs. Sitting with your own emotions prompts you to take care of yourself—which is your only job here.

Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

Toxic parents who are addicted

When we’ve been raised by addicted parents, we might have a tendency to believe that it is our job to fix or take care of them in some way. So, we allow them all kinds of graces that we wouldn’t allow any other normal human being. We might tend toward feeling guilty and responsible for them and that’s a hard pattern to break. So, we might begin by looking at the realities of responsibility in general. Who is responsible for your happiness and well-being? If you answered “me,” you answered correctly. The same applies to them. So, start with something small over which you’ve been taking responsibility and give it back to them. Then grow from there.

Toxic parents who play the victim role

These parents have been demanding through manipulation that you take care of them—for they make it obvious with their behaviors that they cannot take care of themselves.

Perhaps you have played parent all of your life. You’ve listened to Mom as she complains about Dad and vice versa. You’ve paid bills and relieved emotions and just been the overall caregiver. One option, again, is to begin with something small and insist that you will not take care of it any longer—then allow them to stumble their way through it without your help. Then grow from there.

Toxic parents who are rageful or abusive

These parents have literally hurt you, emotionally or physically. And you might even think—because they have raised you to believe it—that their behavior towards you is normal.

But as adults who are free to choose their lives, you have the choice as to how much you are going to tolerate. You might choose to no longer associate with them at all. Or you might just end every conversation that starts to become rageful or abusive. Then grow from there. There are plenty of kind people out there for you to formulate healthy relationships with. You don’t have to tolerate abuse.

The main thing is to remember that your life belongs to you and it is your responsibility to take good care of that life. It is not now and never was your responsibility to take care of their lives. You can be kind to yourself without being unkind to others. Boundaries are not unkind—they are just more authentic than the old unhealthy patterns.

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