The effects of toxic parents take root in childhood. But, the problems aren’t always identified until well into adulthood. Toxic parents can create situations where a child is overly criticized, devoid of affirmation, explicitly controlled, or put in an unfair role of caring for the adults.
You were hardwired to love the people who raised you. Therefore, it can feel strange to “unlearn” toxic patterns of behavior you absorbed as a child and change the dynamic with your parents.
But, here’s the important key to remember. Removing the effects of toxic parents isn’t just about telling them “No.” It’s equally important to reclaim the child in your soul that was wounded. This means the best way to heal is by learning to say “Yes” to yourself.
I call it the “Yes Factor.” Until you learn how to say “Yes” to your emotional health and wellbeing, saying “No” to a toxic parent will always be difficult.
The first “Yes” you should always claim for yourself is a safe distance to minimize the negative effects of a toxic parent. For example, you could take these proactive steps:
- Limit all communication to email. Respond to any phone calls or texts by email.
- Interact only in a manner convenient for your schedule. For example, send your mom an email or a letter once a month with news.
- Utilize the “buddy system.” Don’t be alone with a toxic parent.
- Leave the room if a parent criticizes you or someone you love.
- Don’t respond to manipulative or guilt-laden emails, phone calls, or texts.
- In some cases, you may need to sever ties altogether.
Start with small steps that give you the space to address the larger issues. As a professional counselor with over 20 years of experience, I’ve helped thousands of women reclaim their lives by taking one tiny step at a time. You can do it, too.
If you need to recover from the effects of toxic parents, such as parentification, criticism, possessiveness, helplessness, rescuing, or unpredictability, I recommend the following five steps.
How to Heal from the Effects of Toxic Parents
As I mentioned earlier, the power to say “No” to others hinges upon learning to say “Yes” to yourself first. Notice how each of the five steps involves addressing the areas where saying “Yes” to yourself matters the most:
1. Rebuild Your Voice
If you’re parents didn’t teach you to express your thoughts and feelings in a healthy way, it’s easy to get lost in the strongest voice around you. How do you rebuild your voice and state your own opinions? The answer starts with saying “Yes” to simple statements of differentiation. Here are several ways to begin the process in a healthy manner:
a. Practice voicing your opinions with a safe person
Start with a trusted friend, counselor, or family member. You might say, “I’m trying to work on understanding what I think. Would you be willing to listen while I process my thoughts on XYZ?”
b. Assert your preferences in small ways.
Instead of agreeing to meet your friends on their side of town or at a place they recommend, practice suggesting where you’d like to meet instead. For instance, you might say, “What if we met at this coffee shop near me” or “I’d love to see this movie. Are you open to that?” (You’ll develop a list of preferences in another step below.)
c. Insert more of what you think into conversations.
Expressing your preferences doesn’t mean you have to pick a fight. But, practice speaking honestly, even when listening to another’s perspective. For example, you might say:
- “That’s not something I struggle with, but I appreciate learning more about you.”
- “I understand where you’re coming from, but I see that situation differently.”
- “I appreciate you sharing. I need some time to think about my opinion on the matter.”
- “Are you open to hearing my perspective?”
d. Take a class to build new skills.
Try taking a class that requires expressing yourself, such as acting, writing, drawing, dance, karate, voice lessons, or kickboxing. Sign up for something that appeals to you and teaches you how to use your body and mind to speak up.
e. Join a support group through your local community.
Support groups, such as Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Alanon are safe places where you can speak your mind with no judgment. These options can be a great place to practice rebuilding your voice.
When you express your voice in small ways, it enables you to advocate for yourself in bigger ways. You’ll develop tolerance for the uncomfortable feelings that surface when you have to tell others what you need. Rebuilding your voice is a huge step to healing from the effects of toxic parents.
2. Reclaim Your Worth
If you were criticized, ignored, or abused as a child, you probably developed some harsh self-talk in your mind. It’s amazing how we pick up on cruel messages from others and internalize them toward ourselves. How do you change your thought patterns? Say “Yes” to self-acceptance. Here are four examples to explain what I mean:
a. Journal your self-talk.
Awareness is the first step toward change. Start noticing the critical voice in your head. Write down what you notice in a journal. Getting curious about this critical voice helps give you distance from it.
b. Reframe the critical thoughts.
Next to the critical voice that you’ve noticed, write down a full statement that reframes that voice in a positive way. For instance:
- “You should be more like her” becomes “I want to be my best self.”
- “If you were better, you’d be where he is” becomes “I’m not where I want to be yet. But each day, I’m going to do my best to take the next step.”
- “You deserve this bad thing that’s happened” becomes “I’ve made mistakes. And, I’m also a beautiful soul made in God’s image.”
- “You’ll never be as good as other people” becomes “No one can take my place.”
- “Nothing you do matters” becomes “My work matters. Every email I write, step that I take, or meal that I make brings joy to God.”
c. Pick a favorite Bible verse about God’s love.
Write it down on a sticky note, post it on your mirror, and read it aloud to yourself every morning and night. Do this for 30 days. Then, pick a new verse.
d. Take yourself out on a special outing once a week.
Visit a favorite landmark, take a walk by yourself in a pretty place, or let yourself take a nap. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it as a treat for yourself. If you notice a critical voice surface in your mind about these activities, meet it with a gentle reframe by responding:
- “I am committed to discovering what brings me joy.
- “God wants to know every hair on my head. He’s curious about the things I like, and He’s delighted to know more about what delights me.”
- “My body is valuable. It’s important for me to get rest.”
Overcoming a voice of criticism in your mind occurs by saturating your thoughts with words of encouragement and acceptance from God and others. If you notice specific vulnerabilities surface, remind yourself that shifting your mindset is a key part of healing from past wounds.
3. Recover Your Individuality
The negative effects of toxic parents can lead you to believe that your interests, emotions, and ideas don’t have any merit. Thus, part of the healing process involves reclaiming your autonomy.
For example, good parents spend time trying to understand who their children are and what they enjoy. If your parents didn’t help you learn these preferences, start with the basics of getting to know yourself better. For instance, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What kind of music do you like?
- What kind of food or restaurants do you prefer?
- Do you like to relax by working out or soaking in a hot tub?
- What makes you feel energetic and alive?
- Do you like your hair long or short?
- What hobbies sound fun to you?
- What topics do you enjoy discussing with others?
Give yourself permission to think about what you prefer, even if it’s hard. As you define your interests and preferences, notice how it feels to let yourself be YOU. Remind yourself that what you like is a reflection of the unique way that God made you. Saying “Yes” to your preferences enables you to clarify saying “No” to the opinions of someone else.
4. Reestablish a Sense of Security
If you didn’t have consistency growing up as a child, you may feel a sense of chaos internally. However, you can teach yourself what consistency and safety feel like. Start by creating small acts of consistency in your daily routine. For instance, try the following steps:
a. Commit to a daily ritual.
Wake up at the same time every day or go to bed at the same time every night. It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised how many women struggle in this area. Start with the simplest, easy task first to get a “win”.
b. Write down a prayer at the same time every single day.
Write down one thing for which you are thankful, and then write down one prayer request. Writing down a prayer each day gets you into a routine and grounds you in a daily check-in with yourself and God.
c. Journal and move for 20 minute each day.
Writing down what you are thinking about each day can help you start to build trust with yourself as you pay attention. In addition, taking a 20-minute walk or some other form of movement releases good chemicals in the brain, helps your body manage stress, and builds trust with your body.
d. Set one daily goal for yourself.
A sense of security comes from knowing you can achieve goals you set out to accomplish. But, start with something simple, such as, “Today, I will eat vegetables” and move toward harder things such as, “Today, I will finish my resume.”
e. Build structure into your week and stick to it.
Consistency helps prevent life from feeling chaotic. Consider scheduling a weekly phone date or activity with a friend. Sign up for a regular book club, support group, or church program.
As you build consistency into your days and weeks, you start to trust yourself. You can do small things each day to create a sense of order and predictability, even when life feels hectic. You will also learn what types of rhythms work for you and what don’t. Remind yourself that learning to regulate yourself in small and big ways is key to setting reestablishing a sense of security.
5. Receive Care from Others
Healing from the damage of a toxic parent doesn’t happen in isolation. You need to spend time with someone who can extend compassion and clarity. If you weren’t guided or cared for as a child, find someone who can help you see yourself clearly.
For example, make regular appointments with a counselor, mentor, or trusted advisor. Whatever source you choose, make sure your goal is clear: get support from someone who will make that time about you.
You might also ask for help from a neighbor or friend. Asking for help is a muscle many of us have to develop. You might feel guilty or ashamed. Or, you don’t want to feel like a burden to someone else. If that is the case, start using baby steps. It could be as simple as asking a friend to keep you company while you organize photos or call you after your first support group meeting. Think of the easiest request you can make, and then challenge yourself to reach out.
As you develop your “muscle” of asking for help, notice how it feels to let yourself receive care. Notice what vulnerabilities surface. Keep in mind that caring for yourself by learning to receive care from others is a critical part of healing from past family hurt.
The effects of toxic parents may start in childhood, but they don’t have to last into adulthood. Healing doesn’t happen simply by saying “No” to your parents. Transformation occurs when you learn how to say “Yes” to yourself.
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