Struggling with a loved one? 12 clues a relationship with a parent might be toxic

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  • It's more common than you'd think

    If you’ve missed our Royal updates recently, you may not have caught the latest news about Meghan Markle. Her estranged father, Thomas Markle, is reportedly making a documentary about the Duchess of Sussex‘s childhood, covering his part in raising her and using private home movies.

    Seeing Meghan’s private life aired so publically is one thing, but seeing the evident – and clearly painful – rift between her and her father isn’t easy to watch.

    So, how do you handle a rift between a parent, if you’re affected by one? You may be surprised to hear that it’s not uncommon, although specific statistics on family estrangement aren’t easy to come by. One American study found that 17% of young adults had experienced estrangement from an immediate family member, while 12% of older adults were estranged from a child of theirs.

    Keep reading for advice from two psychologists on how to cope if you yourself are dealing with a toxic parent. Trust that you’ll find peace in this: don’t suffer in silence.

    So, how do I know if a relationship with a parent is toxic?

    According to doctor Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, it’s different from family to family. “Toxic family relationships can be very obvious – for example, take the shape of physical assault, sexual abuse or name-calling – or, at other times, be much more subtle – for example, guilt-tripping or over-reliance,” she explains.

    The latter is much harder to identify, she shares, but her below tips may help.

    Doctor Anna Mandeville, clinical psychologist, agrees, adding that patterns from your early childhood can persist into adult lives in relation to our parents. “Often this means you can be triggered into less adult behaviour when you are around them,” she shares.

    How exactly can you identify if your relationship with a parent is toxic?

    They’re overly involved in your life

    Over-involvement often points to a lack of boundaries, explains Touroni. “So if you have a controlling parent who always tells you what to do, or a needy parent who constantly relays every worry to you, it may not be a healthy relationship,” she shares.

    You dread seeing them

    You know that sinking feeling of dread you sometimes get in the pit of your stomach? If you get that before seeing a parent, that could indicate that the relationship isn’t very healthy, according to Touroni.

    You look after them more than they look after you

    “Blurry roles can be damaging, as they generally lead to a failure in meeting a child’s emotional needs,” explains the psychologist.

    They always play the victim

    Does this one sound familiar? Your relationship with your parent may not be the healthiest if everything is – persistently – about them. “If they don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and play the victim card anytime anything goes wrong, it could be a red flag,” she explains.

    They are abusive

    This one’s not surprising. If you suffered at the hands of abuse from your parents growing up, it could trigger a toxic – or at least complicated – relationship later in life. Or, perhaps they started being abusive later in life. Both count as a toxic scenario that could benefit from you seeking professional help to safe-guard your mental health, doctor Touroni stresses.

    You feel like you’re never good enough

    “No matter what you do, what achievements you make, or how you behave, you feel like you’re never good enough for your parents,” explains Touroni. “This might also present as a total lack of interest in your life,” she adds. Sound familiar? You may be dealing with a toxic parent.

    How does this kind of relationship impact your mental health?

    Obviously fairly negatively. Any kind of relationship like this, from a toxic work colleague to a problematic love match, can impact your mental health.

    “Growing up in a toxic environment can leave deep scars that we end up carrying with us through our lives, into our relationships, home lives, professional careers, and even our own parenting paths,” Touroni explains.

    In short, it’ll likely trigger low self-esteem, which, if left unchecked, could lead to low-grade depression, anxiety, or worse. 

    “The relationship we have with our parents also sets the tone for our expectations in life. In other words, it often affects the relationships we have with ourselves and other people. We may find it difficult to set boundaries in our lives, for instance, which can lead to stress and burnout. Or we may struggle to attract the right partners in the first place,” she adds.

    The good news? There is hope. Even if you do have a toxic relationship with your parents, you can heal these scars and break the unhelpful patterns they created, she reassures. 

    5 ways to safeguard your mental health from a toxic parent

    Keep reading for Touroni’s top tips.

    Set strong boundaries

    Boundaries are the rules and limits we set to teach people how we want to be treated, Touroni explains. “They set the tone for our relationships, therefore, they’re a vital tool if your relationship with your parents is toxic,” she shares.

    Top tip: to assert your boundaries, explain what they can and can’t do going forward. And remember that it’s not selfish to prioritise yourself, it’s an act of self-care.

    Surround yourself with positive people

    If being with your family is draining, schedule time with people who make you feel good about yourself. “Reach out, build a support network and create a ‘family’ of friends who you can trust,” she advises.

    Take a step back

    You can try as hard as you can, but sometimes you simply can’t break through to a toxic family member — and that’s okay, Touroni emphasises. “If the dynamic is toxic and you can’t see a way forward, don’t be afraid to take a step back. This might mean taking a momentary ‘break’ or severing ties completely, depending on the relationship,” she shares.

    Remember that whilst family is important, your wellbeing is even more so.

    Speak to a therapist

    Growing up in a toxic family can be challenging, and it will inevitably impact the way you think about yourself and others, she says. “For instance, you might find that you struggle with self-esteem or have relationship difficulties,” she explains.

    If this is the case, don’t be afraid to reach out. Therapy may provide the safe, non-judgmental space you need to explore these dynamics and work through any uncomfortable feelings you may be experiencing. Read our guide to online therapy.

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