How To Know If You Have A Toxic Relationship With Your Parent

The very idea of being in a toxic relationship has permeated our culture, reminding each of us to be on the lookout for red flags or manipulative behavior in our friendships and romances. But many people overlook another potential source of toxic dynamics in their immediate families. Especially when it comes to your parents, it can be hard to keep a clear perspective on healthy behaviors and boundaries.

Unfortunately, having a toxic parent is just as possible as having a toxic friend or significant other, and often manifests in similar ways. A toxic parent may consistently try to control you by creating negative narratives, like a classic guilt trip. They may also seek to manipulate you with fear, shame, or a sense of obligation (via Healthline).

But it can be incredibly difficult to distinguish these patterns where parents are involved. After all, you've known them forever, have had your own ideas shaped by theirs, and are probably caught in the jaws of a unique power imbalance. For some people, acknowledging parental toxicity is clouded by the idea that your parents are always right. Or you may have been raised to forgive your parents' bad habits as healthy or normal. And let's not forget the huge potential to be gaslighted by a parental figure, whether intentionally or otherwise. It's all too easy for a parent to act like they know you better than yourself and leave you doubting your own intuition.

So, how can you overcome all these obstacles toward recognizing, addressing, and — if need be — removing yourself from a parent's toxic behaviors?

Signs you have a toxic parent

One clear sign of toxicity is your parent constantly manipulating you to suit their agenda. If your parent always has the last word — whether about something small like dinner plans or something big like your career path — then that's a sign they're putting their desires and wellbeing above yours. This self-centeredness is a hallmark of toxic relationships (via the Cleveland Clinic). Note, though, that this is different from an involved parent trying to give you caring life advice. If your parent is truly toxic, they won't listen to your opinions on the matter, and probably won't have a reasonable explanation for their own.

You can also detect toxicity by how your parent handles problems or arguments. Rather than apologizing or taking responsibility for mistakes, they turn every hurt feeling into a fault of your character. They may say that you're taking things "too personally" or intentionally twisting their words. But are you? Or are they rewriting the story to cast themselves as the victim? This is a classic technique used by gaslighters to claim the moral high ground (via Forbes).

Every disagreement is also blamed on you. When you get frustrated with your parent's behavior, they may say that you're being irrational, disrespectful, or overreacting, even if there has been a clear string of events leading to the conflict. And if they are the ones having a blow-up, guess what? That's still your fault. A toxic parent might say something like, "You're making me crazy," or, "If you'd just do what I say, we wouldn't have these problems."

If these scenarios ring true to your parent's usual pattern of behavior, you may be dealing with a toxic relationship that's bad for your mental health and well-being. So, how can you navigate these issues?

How to handle relationships with toxic parents

It can be tough dealing with a toxic parent. First, recognize that their behavior and reactions are not your responsibility — or your fault. Because many toxic individuals are driven by narcissism, there is often no way to win. As clinical psychologist Craig Malkin tells HuffPost, "They'll attack, ignore, or dismiss no matter how great a job you do. In fact, they're more likely to undermine your successes." Why? Because your successes make you more self-sufficient and difficult to control.

Once you've acknowledged that their reactions are their problem, civilly but firmly set some boundaries. To keep things amicable, you can try phrasing like, "I appreciate all the guidance you've given me in the past. But from now on, I'm going to be making my own career decisions." And be sure to enforce these boundaries, reminding your parent if they step over the line.

If your toxic parent still refuses to respect your wishes, try limiting contact for a while. This doesn't have to be some kind of ultimatum; if it's easier at first, just plead a busy schedule for the next few months. Getting some space will help you focus on your own needs and priorities. It's up to you whether to eventually let your parent know that you're intentionally seeking distance from their toxic behavior. While this may ramp up the drama, it may also put some things into perspective on their end and help them recognize the need for change. But remember: you don't owe them your time or sanity' even if the day never comes that you can safely reconcile.

Finally, you may want to seek professional support to unpack the toxicity in your parental relationship. You deserve a happier, healthier state of mind.