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What to Do When the Toxic People in Your Life Are (Unfortunately) Your Parents

Dealing with toxic parents is a delicate situation and is undeniably tough. But by remembering that you are your own person will enable you to respect the relationship without falling victim to it.
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Parents: You can't live with them, you feel guilty not staying in touch with them.

We always hear the advice "distance yourself from toxic people" to improve the quality of our lives. But what if those toxic people happen to be the people who raised us?

Take this email I received from a young woman lawyer (let's call her Janine):

My very volatile mother likely has borderline personality disorder. I did reasonably well for myself despite navigating the chaos that was my childhood in her home. Now that I'm married, I want to further distance myself. I've done a good job thus far and mainly find her contact comical if not irritating. However, I've felt guilty about it. My husband and I want to start a family in the next few years, but I want to make sure I'm the best version of myself for my future children and ensure that I can break the cycle of abuse.

Janine's guilt for distancing herself from her mother is pretty common -- perhaps you can relate. Distancing yourself makes you feel bad, yet after being on the phone with your parents (read: being judged for your lifestyle habits and choices), all you want to do is listen to Frozen's "Let It Go" on a 10-hour loop preferably with a glass of wine in hand (check out the 6 Wines That Pair Well With Having Just Gotten Off the Phone With Your Mother).

In all seriousness, it's hard when you don't feel like an adult who can be trusted to make your own decisions. Especially when all you crave is support from the very people who are supposed to love you. It not only can wreak havoc on your self-confidence, but also in your working relationships or even your romantic relationships! This is when the bond with your parents can be toxic and even inhibit your growth as the independent adult you are.

If you feel like you could use a break from the self-destructive relationship with your parents, know that there are guilt-free ways to manage the relationship without cutting it off completely. Here are some tips to help you do just that:

Accept that you are your own person
Yes, you may have inherited some personality traits from one parent or the other, but the rest is you. I myself have a serious side that comes from my dad, and this wacky side that came out of nowhere. Thank goodness for my sister for also having that wackiness that we could share in our adulthood together. Your have your own experiences, your own preferences, your own interpretations of life. Heck, your own formative DECADE. This decade is different from the one your parents grew up in, so your world views are inherently different from theirs. Your own acceptance of yourself ensures that you don't depend on theirs.

Set your expectations for the conversation low
I get it -- sometimes all we want is to have a light, fun, and understanding connection with our parents. We want to feel understood and we expect that conversation from our parents the most. Unfortunately, to our parents, we are always their children, even when we're capable, self-sufficient adults. So we may not always feel externally validated for our choices. Therefore, enter your conversation with the end in mind -- which is, knowing that you're not going to necessarily receive the connection that you want, but you're doing your best to stay in touch.

Conversation diversion tactics come in extremely handy!
Ever been in the situation where your parents start asking annoying or uncomfortable questions about your life? Or worse, start giving you unsolicited advice? Here's a typical conversation with my mom:

"Did you eat your vegetables today? Vegetables are high in calcium and are good for your teeth."


"Are you still working that job?"


"You're paying too much for Internet. Is that the only Internet service provider you can get?"

And so on.

I noticed that when my mom started interrogating me, I used to fall into "victim mode," allowing myself to get strung along the conversation helplessly, grunting monosyllabic responses and hoping that the subject will change and that we'll talk about something more meaningful. But I realized, you can take control! Don't let them hijack the conversation! You can do this by asking a lot of questions about their lives, their day, their plans. For example, if your parents tell you, "You should do [insert unwanted advice]," just say, "Well, I'm happy with what I'm doing now. What are you planning to do today?" Works like a charm. Be prepared to feel like a broken record. This ensures that you are in control of the conversation and that you don't fall into a pattern where you're reacting to what they say.

Gently, but firmly, end the conversation on your own time and terms.
Just as you have the power to steer the conversation topic, you also have control over when to end it! I used to make the mistake of letting myself be interrogated by my mom for hours, and once I was teetering at my emotional breaking point, that was the end. I'd leave the conversation feeling extremely on edge, defensive, and exasperated to the point of tears or anger. I would actually feel worse about myself after a conversation with my parents. This happened to me and my sister so often that we even have a name for it: "Exasperating Experiences." It'd be so bad that I had to replace the exasperating experience by calling my sister just to vent about the conversation.

But you can end your conversation before the exasperation happens! Just say "I'm glad you're doing [whatever it is that you learned they plan on doing for their day], I hope you have a good time! I have to go now, so I'll talk to you later!" And that's it! Be prepared to feel like a broken record. Respect your boundaries by ending the conversation on your own time. Doing so signals to your parents that they don't have unlimited access to your time and allows you to stay emotionally centered.

Dealing with toxic parents is a delicate situation and is undeniably tough. But by remembering that you are your own person will enable you to respect the relationship without falling victim to it. And when you manage your expectations and take control of the conversation, you'll find that you'll remain even-keeled, keeping the toxic energy at bay, while giving you the confidence to move forward in your life!

Now I'd like to hear from you! What are some things you do to deal with difficult parents? Reply in the comments below, I want to know!

Catherine Chen, Ph.D., is a Health Coach who supports high-octane women to achieve with ease, get more sleep, and have the relationships they want. Prior to launching her wellness practice, she worked in the management consulting industry and at one of the leading cancer research biotechnology companies. If you enjoyed this article, sign-up to get work-life balance tips from her at or sign up for a trial session with her here: What's the best that can happen?

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