Dealing With Toxic Parents in a Christian Way
When I was in my late teens and early 20's, I struggled with a lot with depression, anger, and hurt—in part because of the way I grew up. My parents were emotionally abusive at times and administered painful “spankings.” I was told that I was stupid and unable to do anything right. My parents could also be distant at times. My emotional needs were neglected.
During this time, I was studying the Bible and talking to Christian friends. I faced a dilemma—how do I relate to my toxic parents in a Christian way and heal from the hurts they caused? Here are the steps to healing I learned on my own recovery journey.
How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Toxic Parents
Determine Whether a Relationship Is Possible
Some parents are so toxic that a relationship with them must be limited or are not possible. They may have harmful behaviors such as substance abuse, being controlling and manipulative, being mean, or being overly dependent and clingy. Some parents and caregivers may be sadistic monsters.
Yes, the Bible says we should honor our fathers and mothers (Exodus 20:12, Matthew 5:4, 19:19, Mark 7:10, Luke 18:20, Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:20) because it is the right thing to do and results in us having a good and a long life. It pleases God when we do. However, the Bible also tells fathers not to irritate and aggravate their children (Ephesians 6:4).
God wants above all for us to prosper and be in good mental and physical health (3 John 1:2) because He loves us. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that should honor God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We need to allow ourselves to take measures to protect us from harmful parental behavior. We should not feel guilty if we chose to avoid or to limit our contact with toxic parents to protect our mental health.
Do Not Let Their Words Define Who You Are
Many people allow their parents’ harmful behavior to define who they are. Adult children of toxic parents may identify themselves as ugly, stupid, naïve, lazy weak, and bad because those definitions are the negative messages they heard growing up. For a long time, my parents, in part, defined who I was. I was a lesser human being who was dumb and could not do anything right. I was bad, rude, and deserved constant physical punishment.
When I started studying the Bible and living a Christian life in my early teens, I learned that God has a different definition of who I was. God sees me as I truly am—an intelligent, capable, and wise woman who deserves honor and respect. I rejected the negative childhood messages and stopped blaming myself for how my parents treated me. I no longer saw myself as a stupid, lower species of human who deserved constant punishment. I could deal with my parents as a mature Christian adult.
Recognize Your Parents’ Behaviors as Toxic
I define toxicity as words and actions that do harm to us. I found the book Toxic Parents, Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Dr. Susan Forward helpful in defining and dealing with harmful parental behavior.
Some parents are mean, judgmental, or controlling for reasons we do not understand. There are other more obvious reasons why parents do what they do, such as substance abuse or mental health issues. They may have emotional problems like anger that taint their judgment and make them lose self-control. They may be clingy, overprotective, and constantly interfering in their adult children’s lives. Others may use the “honor” command to control and guilt their adult kids into doing things their kids do not want to do.
Forgive Your Parents
Forgiveness may seem like a given. All Christians are supposed to forgive others, right? Unfortunately, forgiving is not an easy process and can take time. A painful childhood is not going to heal overnight. It is incredibly difficult to admit that the parents who were supposed to love, nurture, and protect us were unloving, mean, neglectful, drunk, high on drugs, abusive, or cruel, let alone forgive them.
Hard as it is, beginning this process helps us to let go of resentment and emotional pain. If we hold on to these feelings, they will poison our lives and our relationships. I experienced anger management issues for several years as a young adult, and sometimes, my rages hurt innocent people. When I decided to forgive my parents, I stopped obsessing about how I had been wronged and began to heal from the hurts. I had to let go of all the things I thought I needed to move forward, such as answers to many questions. I had to leave my parents in God’s hands, pray for them, and move on.
One way to protect ourselves from toxic relationships with our parents or caregivers is to set boundaries in our relationships. Parents do not have the right to put us down, control, and manipulate us, or use us to meet their emotional needs. We can set limits on a needy parent who continually calls during the day by limiting the number of phone calls, for example. We can tell parents that we will not be around them if they are drunk or high. We can demand that topics such as our personal lives are off-limits.
We should demand to be treated with respect, and should not feel guilty if we avoid parents who are critical, negative, or whinny. Another way we can protect ourselves is by not sharing our personal lives and keeping any conversations at a superficial level. That way, parents do not have ammunition to degrade us and put us down.
Sometimes, boundaries are unspoken. As a young adult, I wanted to understand why my parents treated me the way they did. The more I probed, the more my mother would change the subject or shut me down and go into denial. My father was aloof, scary, hot-tempered and unapproachable. I had to accept that one boundary was not being able to talk about the past.
Accept Them as They Are
In an ideal world, toxic parents would realize the harm they had done to their children and feel sorry for it. They would apologize and try to make amends. Expressions of regret often do not happen, however. Parents may be in denial that they have harmed their children, and will not listen to anything that challenges their perception of themselves as good parents.
Do Not Have Unrealistic Expectations of Our Parents
Before I could have a healthy relationship with my parents, I had to let go of certain expectations that they would:
- Acknowledge how much they hurt me and apologize
- Explain why they treated me the way they did
- Not criticize me, mock me, or violate my boundaries
When I brought these expectations into my relationship with mom and dad, I would become disappointed and angry. I risked going through past emotional pain and becoming bitter.
Be Open to the Possibility They May Change
My parents became a lot less abusive after I complained to a child protection agency about their abuse in my mid-teens. The biggest change came when I was 18 years old. My father left my mother for another woman. He was much happier and changed his attitude towards me. He treated me well, and I became his beloved daughter. He wanted to hear about my accomplishments and was proud of me. I loved it! He moved across the country after the separation and we spent a lot of time apart, but we did bond in a somewhat superficial but healthy relationship.
It took some time for my mother to realize that the adult me was not going to tolerate slaps, putdowns, belittling remarks, and ridicule, but she did eventually understand where I drew a line in the sand of our lives. We became close. She lived with my family and me during the last few years of her life.
The Bible, certain books, and the advice of wise friends and pastors have also been helpful on my journey. One book I found helpful is Beauty for Ashes by evangelist Joyce Meyer. She tells the story of growing up with all kinds of abuse and informs readers on how they can overcome their emotional pain and anger.
My parents have been gone for many years now. Looking back, being able to have a good relationship with my parents that enriched my life. Parents do have wisdom and experience that can help us (Proverbs 6:20, 23:22). There were times that I struggled with resentment, but these steps and lots of prayers helped me to forgive my parents and heal.
God wants us to live with everyone in peace (Romans 12:18, 14:19), including mom and dad. For some of us, trying to have a relationship is not possible because our parents are too toxic. There is always hope, however, that things can change and we can reap the benefits that come from having our parents in our lives in a healthy way.
Holy Bible, New International Version
3 Tips for Managing a Toxic Relationship With Your Parents as an Adult, Kimberly M. Wetherell, The Mighty
How to Deal with Difficult Parents, Kurt Smith, Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFC, PsychCentral
5 Survival Tactics You Use to Maintain a Relationship with Your Abusive Parent, Sharon Martin, PsychCentral
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Carola Finch