Cutting someone out of your life is usually difficult, but if that person is your parent, the process can be much harder. However, if the relationship is too unhealthy, “divorcing” a parent is sometimes the best option.
But how do you even begin to navigate such a messy move? To learn more, we spoke with three experts: estrangements counselor and author Tina Gilbertson; counselor and certified life coach Elvita Kondili, PhD; and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner Anna Cordova.
We like to think that with enough work, all parent-child relationships can be healthy, because on some level, all parents are good parents. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
“We are social beings, and we thrive with community around us, which is why family is emphasized so heavily in our culture,” Cordova says. “However, it’s totally healthy and appropriate for individuals to set boundaries with family members.”
Sometimes, limiting or eliminating contact with a parent is much less damaging than having them in your life. While it’s normal for all parents to mess up their kids in one way or another, sometimes the overall impact on their children is too destructive.
“A toxic parent fails to provide the child with the emotional, physical, and psychological care they need to thrive and be emotionally healthy and independent,” Kondili says. “This looks different for different people, but the result is usually the same: lack of boundaries and emotional drain.”
There’s a strong stigma around maternal estrangement in particular. Our culture holds on to the idea that it’s more normal for men to abandon, abuse, and mistreat their children because fathers are seen as the “secondary parent.”
Because society thinks of men as inherently less nurturing and they’re socialized accordingly (which, sadly, can create a self-fulfilling prophecy), we see it as far more problematic for a child to be estranged from their mother than from their father.
In reality, people of all genders have the same abilities to be incredible, nurturing, supportive parents. On the flip side, they can also be abusive, destructive, or neglectful parents.
Ultimately, it’s necessary to create boundaries with a toxic parent of any gender.
This decision is a big deal, so be sure to prepare as much as you can and get the support you need during the process.
1. Practice ongoing self-care
Dealing with a toxic parent is taxing and often traumatic. Therapy is key if it’s an option for you. Kondili stresses the importance of talking to “someone who is impartial and can help you navigate the decision rationally, with wisdom and compassion.”
Besides counseling, forms of self-care such as yoga, meditation, and journaling can help you continually practice mindfulness and take mental and emotional inventory of how you’re doing.
“The most important boundary one needs to establish is the mental one,” Kondili says. “It doesn’t do much good to stop talking to them if they still occupy a large space in your mind and still affect your life.”
2. Know that you’re not alone
Group therapy, if you can access it, is an extremely valuable resource. In the information age, Google is also your friend. Check out online resources and support groups, or books like these:
- Toxic Parents
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
- Mothers Who Can’t Love
- Will I Ever Be Good Enough?
- Children of the Self-Absorbed
If you know people who are in a similar situation, talking with them can be incredibly helpful. Learning new ideas and discussing problems with your peers can help you recognize common patterns of toxic parents. It can also provide a sense of grounding and validation.
3. Explore your options
Ask yourself, “Is there any course of action I can take that will allow me to maintain some kind of relationship with my parent and still keep my well-being and mental health intact?”
Take time to reflect so that when you come to a decision, you can be at peace with it rather than having to second-guess yourself out of guilt and unease.
4. Clarify your intentions
Make sure you’re not motivated by spite or looking to get a certain reaction from anyone. This is about setting boundaries so you can move forward and live your life — it’s not an act of war or manipulation.
It’s normal for a lot of anger and hurt to come up around these issues. If that’s the case, make it a priority to process your pain so it doesn’t drive your decisions.
5. Allow yourself to let go of guilt
Cordova stresses that an important part of healing is “letting go of guilt or shame associated with letting go.” Often the parent you’re “divorcing” is a person who raised you and provided for you, at least to some extent.
Remember: It’s possible to have gratitude for what they provided for you while simultaneously maintaining your boundaries.
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of guilt in which you think you “owe” this parent your time and attention, but your parents chose to bring you into the world or adopt you, and it was their obligation to provide for and raise you healthily.
“The parent will always be the parent, no matter how old the child,” Gilbertson says. “If reconciliation is possible, it begins with the parent.” It’s not your obligation to stick around if they remain abusive or chronically destructive.
Many toxic parents try to deny their child’s independence or use gifts as leverage, but those things don’t mean you have to have a relationship with them.
Now that you’ve gotten super clear on where you stand, it’s time to talk to your family about what’s up. Here’s what to remember during that tough talk.
6. Refrain from name-calling and “playing psychologist”
Gilbertson strongly discourages throwing DIY mental health diagnoses at your parent (or accepting any diagnoses thrown at you).
Name-calling, whether in the form of expletives or labels like “narcissist” and “bipolar,” inflames the dynamic rather than helps find clarity and solutions.
While mental health diagnoses are very helpful when properly applied by a qualified professional, they can be harmful when used as a way to discredit or invalidate someone.
7. Let go of the need to make your parent understand
If your parent is toxic enough to warrant estrangement in the first place, they may — either deliberately or unconsciously — try various techniques to keep you from drawing the boundaries you need.
Some of these tactics include gaslighting, guilt, deflection, blame, and invalidation. They may also try to pin all the responsibility on you, no matter how reasonably you articulate why you’re making this choice.
Still, you aren’t obligated to continue fighting this losing battle. You get to let go and walk away. “In my 14 years of practicing therapy,” Kondili says, “I have found that trying to ‘make’ anyone think, believe, understand, or do anything is futile.”
You’ve researched all you can, reached out for support, and refrained from backing down with your relatives. The work’s not done, though. Here’s how to continue the healing process:
8. Embrace the fact that you can’t know the future
Maybe circumstances will change to allow for a healthy and functional relationship in the future, and maybe they won’t. Releasing attachment to the outcome creates space for you to remain at peace, regardless of how the unknown unfolds.
“Go ahead and close the door right now if you must, in order to protect yourself. You have that right,” Gilbertson advises.
“But if your parent ever indicates that they’re working on the way they relate to you, keep in mind that people — yes, even your parents — can change. Especially once they locate the right resources to support that change.”
9. Allow siblings to go through their own process
Each family member’s dynamic with their parent will be different. Maybe your siblings can maintain a relationship, or maybe they need to cut ties as much as you do but need to do it on their own timeline.
Feel free to talk with them and offer support, but make it clear that you don’t want to pressure them to choose sides. The less drama, the better.
10. Accept that others may not understand your choice
“People who choose to cut a parent out of their lives may face societal judgment,” Cordova says. Family, friends, and other folks might have opinions about your choice, and some won’t understand or respect it.
If it feels worthwhile to you, you can talk to people about your choice and explain why you’re making it, but whether and how much you choose to do this is up to you. Also, be mindful of why you feel the need to justify your choice to others.
You aren’t obligated to worry about the opinion of any third party (even your other parent), because it’s none of their business. You don’t have to get anyone else’s approval to set the boundaries you need to be healthy.
11. Create healthy relationships with others
“All of us have a biological, innate drive to connect, and repairing the loss of a relationship requires building healthy, new relationships,” Cordova says.
To do this, she urges people facing familial estrangement to “explore ways of claiming a chosen family.”
Your best friend who feels like a sibling, the mentor who is a positive parental figure in your life, the community or group that feels like a big family — those are relationships to treasure and cultivate.
Sometimes the situation with toxic parents is fixable. With enough therapy and dialogue, the parent-child relationship can reach a consistently healthy and functional state.
In some cases, the relationship needs to be minimal, distant, or superficial to maintain that basic, healthy functionality, but it can still exist.
Other times, even that isn’t possible. If that’s the case with you and your family, we hope our steps can help you navigate this tricky process — and take your power back, once and for all.