Setting boundaries with toxic parents
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Someone recently wrote to me asking the following question. I have changed this person’s name to protect their privacy:
When you’re an adult and one of your parents have always made decisions that corrupt the whole circle of the family, and they continue to make the same choices, when is it okay to walk away? I know honor your mother and father is important, but where’s the line when their actions are bad, not just for me but my family? I have found truth in knowing I will never have the daddy I’ve always wanted, but his actions are so bad and downright obnoxious. Signed — Gale
Hi Gale, thanks for writing, and for a great blog post idea. I feel like I have a fairly clear grasp of your question, except for what you mean by “walk away.” Are you talking about cutting off all contact with your father forever, or just choosing not to go over to his house anymore? It is just your father, or is a mom or step-mom involved too? This is a boundaries issue, but the severity of the action you take is, of course, determined by the severity with which his/their choices have affected you and your family.
You can, and should, protect yourself and your family from toxic choices made by others.
No one, however, can tell you exactly where that line is. Being somewhat familiar with your case as I am, I don’t think you’re in any danger of acting rashly, if that helps at all. What is most important is that you are not simply tolerating his destructiveness, and hoping it improves on its own. You need to be proactive, deciding what you will put up with and how much, and then communicating that clearly to your father. How you communicate this is where you keep in mind the “honor your father and mother” thing.
You can take action to protect yourself and people you love, and do it in a loving and respectful way. In fact, being honest, loving, and firm about something like this is what honors toxic parents. It is certainly superior to cutting someone out of your life or severely limiting your contact with them and providing little or no explanation.
The problem we run into when trying to set boundaries with toxic parents is that no matter what they have done, they are our parents and we love them and usually do not want to hurt them. Meanwhile, the toxic parents have no similar qualms and are often willing to hurt us over and over. Often in cases like this the abused child (even when an adult) has over-identified with the abusive parent in an effort to gain approval that is never going to come. You mention in your question that you have essentially made peace with this, and that is healthy.
Setting firm boundaries with toxic parents, then, is essential for the following reasons:
To protect yourself and your family from future hurt, as I have stated above
To honor and love yourself. You would not allow anyone else you loved to be subject to this treatment, and you deserve that same love from yourself. Furthermore, to not set healthy boundaries is to passively and unintentionally take the side of your abusers. What would you think about an adult who had witnessed your father’s abuse when you were a child and done nothing to stop it? You are now that adult with a responsibility to do something to stop what is happening.
To make clear to toxic parents what is and is not acceptable and on what grounds they may choose to have a relationship with you.
Setting proper boundaries with parents is an important part of teaching your children about setting proper boundaries with you. Of course, since you are non-toxic, you will want your children to feel strong enough to do this if there is ever a time they need to be clear with you about something. Your toxic parent(s) will be less excited that you have chosen to do it with them. That is because a large part of being toxic is not understanding or recognizing boundaries.
Reader: Do you have toxic parents, or perhaps other toxic family members, like Gale’s? Have you set boundaries with them, and how so? Have I missed anything that you think Gale needs to know? I’d love to hear from you in the Comments section.