photo of a Mark Rothko painting, courtesy of Sothebys

photo of a Mark Rothko painting, courtesy of Sothebys

You can divorce an abusive spouse. You can call it quits if your lover mistreats you. But what can you do if the source of your misery is your parent?  I’m not talking about having a perfect parent, because there aren’t any. But what if you have a parent who is poisonous to you, one who sabotages your happiness, is dangerous to your self-esteem and may literally be “crazy”?

As a psychotherapist, it’s not always clear how I can best serve clients who have these kinds of parents.  In general, psychological theory recommends that we try and salvage parental relationships, because – after all – they’re not ALL bad. But what about parents who really ARE bad for us, no matter how hard we try and improve the relationship?

If you wonder if your parent(s) are toxic, consider whether maintaining the relationship is really good for you at this point in your life.  As a child, you had no choice: you were stuck with your parents, like it or not.  But now that you DO have a choice, is it best to let your toxic parent go? What would that look like?

Consider this situation (details have been changed to respect confidentiality) : a bisexual man in his mid-30s came to me for therapy for relationship problems and low self-esteem.  He had recently come out as bisexual to his devoutly religious parents, who promptly disowned him.  His father told him it would have been better if he, rather than his younger sister, had died in a car accident several years earlier.

If you’re like me, your jaw hit the floor as you read that sentence. Yes, these families do exist. Read on:

In the course of our work together, it became clear to me that this newly-out bisexual man still hoped against hope that he could get his parents to accept him. During a family session with the man and his parents – yes, miraculously, they agreed to try family therapy – the parents insisted that his “lifestyle” was a grave sin, incompatible with their deeply held religious beliefs.

When I explained that – according to research – their son had no more choice about his sexual orientation than his height or the color of his hair, the parents were unmoved (and quite angry with me). They simply would not accept him as he was.

As a therapist, what would you do with a client who didn’t want to “give up on” having a relationship with parents like that?

Ultimately, after many attempts to connect with his parents and win their unconditional love, the client decided to not continue to pursue a relationship with these overtly toxic, openly-cruel parents.  He needed to protect himself from the psychological harm these “toxic” parents could – and did – inflict.
As a psychotherapist, my intention is to empower my clients to take care of themselves and encourage their growth and development. With toxic parents, this often involves coming up with strategies to protect themselves when they have to interact with their parents. While I can admire a client’s loyalty to her/his parents, what is the price that they’ll have to pay for that? Some clients are traumatized for weeks after a brief visit with their parents. Is it worth it?

Research on early attachment, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, shows that we are hard-wired for bonding – even to those who are cruel to us.

We also know that although prolonged childhood trauma can be toxic to the brain, we have the ability later in our lives to rewire our brains by new experiences, like loving relationships, productive psychotherapy and appropriately-prescribed medication, like anti-depressants.

As a psychotherapist (and former preschool teacher) whose first Master’s Degree is in Child Development, it is clear to me that having a toxic parent is literally harmful to a child’s brain, not just his/her emotions.

The bad news is that we can’t erase our history with psychotherapy, but the good news is that we can help heal ourselves by taking ourselves out of destructive relationships.  And sometimes, no matter how difficult it is, that means letting go of a toxic parent.