Though she didn’t yet know the term “toxic,” Rashawnda James knew something was very off about her relationship with her mother when she was just 13 years old. “I realized that in the conversations at school that they were talking as though their parents were around a lot,” she says.
James’s parent, a crack cocaine addict, wasn’t. “There were times when I had to go search for my mother because I didn’t know where she was,” James says. “I felt responsible for my mom. Once I made that connection, I knew it was unhealthy.”
Common Toxic Traits
Signs you might have a toxic parent include:
- They’re self-centered. They don’t think about your needs or feelings.
- They’re emotional loose cannons. They overreact, or create drama.
- They overshare. They share improper info with you, like details about their intimate lives. They use you as their main source of emotional support.
- They seek control. They might use guilt and money to get you to do what they want.
- They’re harshly critical. Nothing you do is ever good enough. They don’t respect your good traits or achievements.
- They lack boundaries. They might show up unasked at your home, or attack your life choices.
Now an Atlanta-based licensed therapist, author, and self-care expert, James can name her mother’s toxic behaviors. These include manipulation and gaslighting, a technique that makes you question your ability to tell what’s true or really happening. “As a child, I couldn’t avoid my mother. I couldn’t set boundaries,” James says. “The lines were blurred. There was no filter.”
However, her mother managed to involve James in positive activities. “That became my safe haven,” James says. She excelled at track and field. One organization offered free therapy when she was in 12th grade. “It literally changed my life,” she says. That same counselor became her supervisor years later when James decided to become a therapist.
Get Rid of Guilt
“As adults, we have choices that we didn’t have as children, and we’re not required to always do what our parents want,” says Sharon Martin, a licensed clinical social worker in San Jose, CA. She’s the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.
If you were raised to respect your elders, obey your parents, and please them at all costs, setting boundaries can seem foreign. Martin urges her clients to challenge that mindset. "Remember your parents’ inability to love, accept, and value you aren’t your fault, and don't have to do with your shortcomings.
“For example, consider whether you think it’s wrong to set boundaries, ask to be treated with respect, prioritize your or your immediate family’s needs above your parents’, or limit how much time you spend with your parents,” she says. “Would you tell a close friend that they’re wrong to do these things in response to yelling, manipulation, lying, harsh criticism, smear campaigns, or threats?”
Don’t Try to Change Them
A big “aha” moment for James was realizing she couldn’t be the reason for her mom to stop doing drugs. “I became the golden child. I thought, if I do well, she would possibly stay clean. If I graduate from high school … college… .” And on and on.
“I had to start living my life, and let go of it,” she says.
“It’s normal to want to please your parents, no matter your age,” Martin says. “But be realistic about whether it’s possible, and what your efforts are costing you emotionally, physically, mentally, financially, and spiritually.”
“The most harmful thing to do to yourself is to believe you can fix them,” James agrees. “If you know that, you don’t have to stay there and take what they’re giving you. You can choose yourself. It releases you, when you don’t have to fix something.”
Boundaries Are Key
Fifteen years later, James’s mother is clean. The two live 22 minutes from each other and talk about twice a day, though they did take a 2-year break. James stresses that while she chooses to carry on their relationship with her mom, you must do what’s best for you.
“It’s taken me 10 years of me enforcing the boundaries,” James says. “I say ‘No, Mom. I can’t give you money.’ ‘No Mom, I can’t be this for you.’ ‘I can’t go over there where those people make me uncomfortable, but you’re free to come over here.’”
“Just because she’s my mother, her priorities don’t have to outweigh mine,” she adds.
It helps that her mom has become more self-aware over time, and sometimes can catch herself in old patterns.
No Need to Explain
Have a short stock response to questions about why you’re not in contact with your parents, i.e., “I’m not talking to my parents because they’re emotionally abusive.” This can help you remember why you’ve set limits, even if others don’t get it.
“When others judge or criticize your decision to limit contact or set other boundaries with your parents, it’s usually because they assume you have emotionally healthy parents who treat you with respect,” Martin says. “But you’re limiting contact because your parents are treating you poorly. And your parents don’t get a free pass to mistreat you simply because they’re your parents.”
You still don’t owe anyone a reason, though, Martin adds. “You have the right to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”
Children of toxic parents might not be used to taking care of themselves, Martin says. “Use a mantra such as, ‘Self-care isn’t selfish,’ or ‘My needs matter,’ or ‘I’m an adult and have the right to make my own choices.’”
James plans a self-care activity such as journaling or exercising after she spends time with her mother. “I love to journal. It’s a great way to have an internal dialogue, to release my thoughts. I don’t keep my thoughts inside and burden myself with that,” she says. She also loves dance workouts to music from Miami, as Florida is her home state.
Listening to gospel music is another way she keeps grounded. It helps me realize that my struggle isn't just my burden, she says. “It’s a good reminder that my mom is not my responsibility. God can do more than what I could ever do for her.”
Set Up a Support System
“A support system is essential,” Martin says. She suggests support groups, or individual therapy with someone who works in narcissistic abuse, developmental trauma, or codependency.
To find a therapist, call your insurance company or go online and get a list of providers. If you don’t have insurance, affordable online options include Telehealth and BetterHelp.
Change Your Story
“At an early age, I saw what life was, and I made a commitment to myself not to repeat that cycle,” James says. “I didn’t have the road map or the blueprint, but since 12th grade, I’ve gained the tools to live in a more healthy and positive way.”
She’s raising her three children with these in mind. For example, she doesn’t overshare, as her own mother did. “I really try to maintain their innocence as much as possible,” she says. “I don’t burden my children with other people’s problems. I allow them to see my emotions, because I want them to know a full spectrum.
“I follow the principle that my bounds of happiness are not placed in others, places, or things. I can be anywhere, I can have anything, and still find joy. That’s one of my superpowers!”