How do you reconnect with emotionally abusive parents while protecting yourself?

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By: Thomas GalvezCC BY 2.0
My sister and I have emotionally abusive parents.

They say that they want to be there for us now, but don’t know how to change.

I don’t know how to explain to them how to start building proper parent-child relationships.

I’d really appreciate some ideas on how to do this.

Does anyone have advice on where we can go — books, websites, organizations — to begin to work on our relationships with our parents?

-An offbeat bro
age 21

I really relate to your drive to want to connect with your parents… I grew up in a dysfunctional household too and maintain a good relationship with my parents as adults, but it is extremely frustrating and even heartbreaking at times, because I know that nothing about our relationship now will ever heal the scars of my childhood. I also know that many things about my parents simply will not change, no matter how I explain what I need from them or how much they may want to support me emotionally.

I would recommend reading about Adult Children (which is a term from the Alcoholics Anonymous lexicon, but really applies in a lot of contexts) and read the book The Dance of Anger. These are starting points for considering your role in your family, understanding where your responsibilities begin and end, and asking yourself what your motivations are for change.

At the end of the day, your parents are their own people who have to take responsibility for themselves and the way they treat others and the impact is has on others. As much as you may want to, you cannot confer upon or teach your parents how to parent you. You can only ask for what you want from them, and then allow them to succeed or fail on their own terms, being prepared that having a relationship with them may involve a level of disappointment or acceptance of things you cannot change.

A good therapist will help you work through your feelings and determine how to approach this relationship. I highly recommend finding a local teaching hospital with outpatient mental health services or a sliding scale therapist if you don’t have insurance to cover it.

Finally, I wish you best of luck on this journey

Comments on How do you reconnect with emotionally abusive parents while protecting yourself?

  1. First of all, I am sorry that you were abused and hope you are doing okay now. I don’t have any official resources to recommend, but I would only do this if you feel you are in no further physical or emotional danger and if you truly feel you can get something positive out of the relationship. I would make some very clear ground rules with your parents and start very small on a trial basis. In my experience, even when lots of time passes and you’ve grown, it is often too easy to slip back into old patterns. I wish you the best with it.

  2. Whilst I don’t have any resources to offer, I was in a situation with an emotionally abusive parent – long story short, I had to get myself away and lived on my own from the age of 17 without any contact from either of my parents for about 8 years.

    After my husband and I were married, I got a message from them asking how things were, which shocked me a lot. I decided to try and maintain contact, but on my terms and totally on the understanding that if things didn’t work out, I didn’t have to stay in contact.

    My advice would be to build the relationship up a slowly as you need – take as long as you need to be okay with things. It took a few months of messages backwards and forwards before I was okay to meet up in person and we’ve built on it from there very slowly.

    A couple of years down the line and we’re still on good terms, probably not as close as a lot of other people are with their parents, but better than things had been for most of my time at home.

    I think that has been helped massively by having my own space/support system away from my parents, I know that if things turn sour for any reason, I don’t have to live within the situation.

    Good luck and best wishes for you both, no matter how you decide to move forwards.

  3. First of all, I want to reiterate what other commenters said and extend my empathy to you. As the product of a tumultuous childhood as well, I can understand how difficult it is to realize as an adult how unhealthy your relationship is but still want to connect with a parent. While I don’t have any specific books to recommend, any assistance you can find with setting boundaries will help tremendously. Setting boundaries will help you know what is and isn’t appropriate for them to say/do and assist you in expressing and sticking to them. Counseling can also be helpful. Often times, if you’re able to set boundaries with them, they’ll follow suite even if you don’t talk to them directly about it. I wish you all the best and hope your relationships continue to improve.

  4. I wish I had an answer… I’m muddling through being an adult and figuring out how I feel about my parents, who were emotionally abusive to me growing up and to my three younger brothers, two of which still live with one or the other parents.

    I try to have a good-as-possible relationship with my mom (the main abuser… my dad just enabled it and never intervened) but sometimes it is so hard because she seems oblivious to what she has done. She’s gotten a lot of help in the last year or so, and is now on antidepressants. She thinks her getting a diagnosis of depression, PMDD, & anxiety and seeking treatment makes everything better. It doesn’t. Not when you have 4 kids who also suffer from various forms of mental illness as a result of your emotional/verbal abuse. She’s my mom and I love her, but I know what she’s capable of. I know one minute she is nice as pie and the next she is a viscous, blood thirsty volcano of abuse. My family wonders my brothers and I struggle so much, but they aren’t as familiar with this side of my mom and I was never brave enough to tell anyone about the extent of it until recently. They wonder at the lack of compassion we sometimes have for her.. but they don’t understand.

    I also don’t know what to do with my dad sometimes. Now that they are divorced, he acknowledges that he was wrong to have just stood by and let it happen for so long but I don’t know what to do with that either. I am glad he acknowledges it, but 11 year old me is still so mad he let her treat me the way she did. I still can’t forgive him for it. I can’t forgive either of them.

    I read somewhere on a list online of things to do by the time you’re 25 that you should let go of the feelings you have towards your parents for things they did when you were younger- well I just turned 25 and I don’t think letting go is the best thing to do. Not when I have an 12yo brother (and a 13yo too) still sticking it out with them.

    • I don’t think letting go of years of abuse in a few short years is a reasonable expectation, Rachael, so I’d take that suggestion as coming from someone whose parents were ordinary flawed people doing their best to raise their beloved kids. (Nobody ever gets to tell you when – or if! – to forgive your abuser. That’s 100% your decision to make for you.)

      As far as dealing with your dad, something that really helped me find peace with my non-abusive parent was the realization that she was every bit as much a victim of my dad’s abuse as I was. Obviously I wasn’t in your home and didn’t see it happening, but my experience with abusive parents and partners (I’ve had both) is that nobody in the household is safe.

      • Thank you for this: “Nobody ever gets to tell you when – or if! – to forgive your abuser. That’s 100% your decision to make for you.” Totally true.

    • I’m only four years away from that deadline. That’s ridiculous.

      My mother also doesn’t really realize what she’s done. That’s one of the things that makes it really hard because every time I try to explain what I need, she thinks I’m trying to punish her for something she can’t help.

      • My mom thinks the same thing, that I’m trying to punish her & make her feel bad when I’m only trying to be honest with how it was. The scary part is she either doesn’t remember it, or she is trying to emotionally manipulate me further by making me feel bad for expressing how I feel.

        Thanks @Amber for your words- my dad is also a victim, and was definitely affected by her, but they never got into it. He would do something and it would inadvertently piss her off and she would take it out on us. I’ve never seen my parents get into a fight… but, daily, there was a barrage of nasty things I won’t type here, for us.

        The sad thing is they don’t believe in therapy- my mom got her mental illness sorted out with her regular doctor and the PMDD with her gyno- but refuses therapy. My dad straight up doesn’t support it. So they’re all just kind of muddling through. I’ve gone intermittently… in college, and a few times since but can’t afford it regularly or I would love to follow the advice of others on this thread.

  5. My first piece of advice to you is this: get a counselor. Seriously. You might think it’s not necessary, but a trained counselor can serve as the buffer between you and your parents. They can help guide conversations, shut things down if they get out of hand and do a lot of other stuff as well. If you have insurance, it will often cover the cost of sessions, and many counselors provide free, reduced cost or sliding scale sessions, so they can be affordable. I would start with the AAMFT – it is an organization that helps you locate a licensed family therapist in your area. This would be a good place to start:

    • It might be helpful to look for a therapist who works in a “family systems” model, one of the goals of which is to help you be able to lessen your emotional reactivity to things like your parents’ emotional abuse. You’d find this kind of therapy described using the name of the originator, Murray Bowen (or “Bowenian”), and therapy groups using this theoretical model also exist, which is sometimes a cheaper way to get into it.

  6. I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry, and I totally get where you’re coming from. I’ve tried reaching out to my emotionally abusive mother several times over the last few years, and it hasn’t gone well, but I have learned something that might help: don’t start the relationship-building at emotionally sensitive/nostalgia-inducing/Big Event times (i.e. weddings, births, funerals, etc.). In my case, these events make me want to reach out, but all the other things going on actually undermine the endeavour.

    • I think this is a really important point. It can be extremely tempting to patch things up (in the case of the adult child of an emotionally abusive person, in my experience this typically involves the adult child agreeing to tolerate inappropriate behaviors, lack of apologies, etc) when big emotional transitions are happening. Not only does this often give the abuser an undeserved pass on their behavior, it puts extra strain on people during a time of stress (even happy events come with stress). Then, if they really screw up, you’re open to even more hurt. If they’re willing to change for an event, or some short period of time, they should also be willing to do the real, long-term work. Family therapy sounds good–if you or anyone who would be participating has health insurance (with a mental health benefit, which you can check for by asking for a complete explanation of benefits from the employer, school, or insurance company) then you can even get it paid for, you just have to say that one of the people going to therapy has an issue. In my family of origin, one family member’s depression was what justified the family therapy (both in reality and on paper). Some therapists also suggest “anxiety,” since many of the issues that prompt people to seek therapeutic intervention in a relationship/family system also cause stress and anxiety. Which is not to imply that there aren’t also folks with a diagnosis of anxiety disorder that is distinct from any problematic family issues.

    • There’s a big family thing coming up within the next year and I have been trying to mend things in part before it. The whole family will be at this event and I will not be missing it either. If I choose not to patch things before the big event or if I distance myself further from them before it, what can I do so that everyone will have as peaceful an experience as possible? Last time we had a big event, my parents took advantage of the contact with me in a big way.

  7. They say that they want to be there for us now, but don’t know how to change.

    Oh, OP, I want this to be true for you, but as the former child of an emotionally abusive parent, and the former partner of an abuser, it raises SO MANY red flags. “Oh I want to change but I don’t know how” is one of those things abusers say to keep you close (or pull you back) when you’re threatening to escape from their control.

    My best suggestion is therapy. Ideally, everyone in the family should get it, but particularly your parents. If they genuinely want to change and actually don’t know how, a good therapist will give them tools to work with so that they can.

    If they’re resistant to the idea of therapy, I’d take their expressed desire to change with a VERY LARGE grain of salt. If you want to maintain a relationship, do so with clearly expressed boundaries. Keep visits short/a specified length, and don’t let them convince you to extend them. Establish taboo topics/phrases/whatever (I’m sure they have specific things that make you uncomfortable) that will automatically end the conversation or visit, and stick to them. NO is your power word, and don’t be afraid to use it. Remember that YOU are an adult now (parents are good at making you forget that, even when they’re not abusive) and you deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy, even by the people who brought you into this world/changed your diapers/whatever.

    The root of abuse is power and control, and in order to maintain any kind of relationship with an abuser (who has not put in the work to become a former abuser) you have to take control and keep the power. You have the ability to walk away, and that is your greatest weapon.

    Best of luck.

    • I see those red flags so clearly. It’s all so textbook. And they are terrified that I’m escaping. You’re so right about everything here.
      I’m wondering though, how to establish those topics as taboo. There are certainly several topics which they consistently hurt me with, but when I’ve told them that we can’t talk about these things, they ask me how they’re supposed to treat me like an adult if I’m so overly sensitive. I never know what to say to that, especially since money is one of these topics and that is important to be able to discuss.
      I treasure your words about my power in the situation. Thank you.

      • “they ask me how they’re supposed to treat me like an adult if I’m so overly sensitive”

        Holy gaslighting, Batman! Here, right here, shows that they don’t actually respect your feelings and if this is what they are saying while they are trying to get you to open to a relationship, it will only get worse if you let them ‘reconnect’ with you.

        What is important for you to figure out is why you are considering opening a relationship with them. What are your expectations? Do you feel obligated to do so? Do you believe they can change? Are you willing to have a relationship with them if they do not change?

        Assume that they will not change and figure out under what circumstances you would be willing to have a continued relationship with them. That should give you an idea of what kind of relationship you CAN have with them.

        Once I realized my mother had narcissistic personality disorder, I had to face the hard reality that she would never change. The optimism I had for our relationship coupled with her ability to manipulate me was why I thought otherwise. I made the decision, right before my son was born, to cut her out of my life permanently.

        I have a limited relationship with my father, on the other hand. He isn’t delusional or manipulative like my mother, so I can actually set boundaries with him. I can be honest with him and, even if he doesn’t agree, I know he is at least listening. I see him when I see my grandmother and very occasionally talk to him on the phone. (I cut him off from email contact because of his ranty 9/11 conspiracy, political emails because he now pours his anger into social issues and I am not interested.)

        Not to dissuade you, but I think you need to make sure that you are a very strong person and really know yourself before you decide to let these people into your life and emotional space. They have had your entire life to program you and to learn all your buttons, and you have to be really clear about who you are, what you deserve, and what you are willing to tolerate to have the strength to stand up to that kind of history and established family dynamic.

        Good luck. And if I may recommend, I run a Reddit subreddit called Abuse, Interrupted ( for both abused and abusers. I post as many resources as I can find there.

        • Firsty, “Holy gaslighting, Batman!” is even better than “Holy brisket, Batman!” which had previously been my favorite holy anything, Batman. I can see myself thinking this when things get tough to cheer myself up because a) Batman and b) it’s totally true. I did have to look up what gaslighting was, but once I did, I realized that this is a really common tactic for them. The first time I ran away from home, it was because my parents told me without any subtlety that I was too mentally unstable to make any of my own choices or to be able to trust my own perceptions and that instead I ought to depend wholly on their choices and perceptions. I hadn’t realized that their gaslighting (wooo! I have a word for it now!) went beyond that incident, but it does.

          Your comment was a very informative and mind opening for me. Thank you. In looking things over, I realized that I am afraid of cutting ties. I still think of myself as a child in many ways, which is partly because they always taught me that people were children till about 25 or 30. It’s hard to think of myself as a person who is not dependent on parents because they’ve trained me that way. Having realized this, the situation takes a new shape.

          • One of the most important realizations you can have is that their opinion of you has everything to do with themselves. People who are abusive are even more self-interested than the average person; what they are telling you about yourself has NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU.

            From a great book on communication:

            “The person saying those hurtful words isn’t actually talking about you. They’re talking about their perception of you, filtered through their own issues, paradigm, and opinions… It’s like a little voodoo doll created to look vaguely like you.”

            – from The Usual Error by Pace and Kyeli Smith

            You also may want to check this out – – and see if anything rings a bell for you. (Still applies even if you are not a ‘daughter’ or the parent is not your mother and the website has tons of resources.)

            Good luck!

          • Invah,

            This is an AMAZING WEBSITE. I’ll admit I was a little hesitant over the daughter thing (my mother never wanted to have a son, so it’s a thing with me), but going through even just the list of characteristics of narcissistic mothers is SO EYE OPENING. It’s totally relevant to me and an amazing resource.

      • Im on year 5 of no contact with my abusive parents. Therapy has done amazing things for me. I love that you want to try to be a family, but there is something to be said for cutting of the gangrene, in some cases. I moderate a group on Facebook for elective orphans. Youre welcome there if you choose to go that route or want to consider it.

        BTW, ” how they’re supposed to treat me like an adult if I’m so overly sensitive.” is an extremely manipulative statement on their end. It seems to me the emotional abuse in your family hasnt ended, just changed.

      • There is no topic that you have to “be able to” discuss with your parents. None. You can discuss money with someone else you are comfortable discussing money with. You get to choose anything you share with anyone. This–privacy–is an idea that has been really empowering to me. Good job for saying you can’t talk about those things. When they protest, stick to your guns. “You don’t have to understand it or agree. I’m not discussing it with you.” This is the icky-feeling part for me–I tried to set a boundary, now I have to enforce it. So if it is very hard to do, just know you are not alone and that it takes lots of practice. If it wears you out, take a break. Get some distance from them. You don’t have to climb Everest today. Also, I second therapy–for you (you need support and you can’t make them go), also second the commenter who suggested The Dance of Anger book. It is amazing.

        So much love to you

        • It literally never occurred to me that there weren’t mandatory subjects. I always thought that there were certain things that I just HAD to talk to them about, no matter how I felt or how much I got hurt. This is a very new idea for me and I love it!
          I am in therapy and I will interlibrary loan The Dance of Anger as soon as possible 🙂

          • Check out “Toxic Parents” too if you can, it covers many different types of abusive parents but I think it can help. It also focuses on finding peace and self-assurance even if you can’t have a working relationship with your parents (or, indeed, if they have been dead for years and still hurt you with their past behavior). I’m reading it myself now and it’s been super helpful.

      • This comment. The “how are we supposed to treat you like an adult when…” My parents toed the line of emotional abuse for years. I suffer from an anxiety disorder, and sometimes when I get to the point of extreme frustration with them, I cry. At 24, they seem to think that that’s evidence that I should have my adult card taken away. I try to get them to see that it’s something that I can’t help, to varying degrees of success.

        The biggest thing I can say about dealing with that comment is that it should not be followed up with defensiveness. If I try to interject with all the ways that I AM an adult (happy marriage, steady job, paying my own rent, blah blah blah), they just immediately refocus on the tears and the sensitivity. If I say, “Mom, Dad, this is clearly making us all upset and I’d like to revisit this topic later when we’ve all had a chance to calm down,” the maturity of the words tends to diffuse the percieved immaturity of the frustration. Sometimes I leave the room for five minutes to try to get my bearings. Sometimes I call them back next week. Sometimes we never do revisit the topic, and it becomes taboo (i.e. “Mom, Dad, that made us all very upset last time and I don’t think now would be a good time to bring it up.”). Sometimes it’s even enough to get them to realize they were being harsh and they back off a bit.

        Dealing with abusive parents is of course not a one size fits all conversation, but I do hope that this helps, and all the best moving forward.

        • I am somewhat ashamed to say so, but in the past, I’ve just broken into a fresh bout of tears and felt doubly immature in the face of that comment. Having that phrase and then taking time to cool off sounds like a MUCH better strategy.

          • I don’t know if this is a generational thing but you are entitled to your emotions and to express them (as long as your expression doesn’t harm anyone else). The perception that ‘crying is for babies’ is itself incredibly immature.

            Crying is one way humans express and process their emotions. What your parents are really saying is that you shouldn’t cry because your crying makes them uncomfortable. They believe their ‘comfort’ is more important than your right to your emotions. Their perception that crying is immature is their perception and their problem; you do NOT have to make it yours.

            Ugh, I get so rage-y when I think about what people like this do to their loving, trusting children. I bet they didn’t like it when you cried as a child, either.

          • I know that it makes me feel that way, too- like maybe they’re right; maybe I’m not mature, and so on. It just makes me more liable to say something that they can spin on me. That’s the number one reason I take a breath, take a step back- like Invah says, it’s taking me a long time to realize that crying is a healthy outlet of emotion. My parents told me not to cry all the time when I was a kid, so I didn’t have that as a go to method for release. What do I do when I back away from the situation? I let myself cry. It IS good and it IS healthy and it doesn’t make you any less of an adult.

            For my part, I realized that if I wanted to have a relationship with my parents, awkward, strained and volatile as it can sometimes be, I had to recognize that I had battles which needed to be fought, things that I would love if they could recognize, and things that I knew I’d not really be able to broach with them. I NEED them to recognize that I’m doing the best that I can. I’d like it if they could see me as the responsible adult that I am. I don’t think they’re budging on the crying thing. So I leave, cry a bit on my own, cry to my husband or my friends, rage it through with a therapist, and come at it when I feel I am able to do so in a confident manner. I’ll get more wiggle room from them that way, and I still get what I need.

            That said, you NEED that time for you. You need a support system outside of them while you’re working this through. I’m fortunate enough to have my housemates and my lovely husband, and I’ve had an excellent therapist in the past. I’m not suggesting that our situations are tit-for-tat, but that’s what’s helped me.

            Most of all, realize that your thoughts and feelings are valid. The sheer number of commenters here saying “yes, we’re with you, I believe in you” should be a bit of a buoy. But it’s gotta come from you. You ARE an adult, and as an adult, you can cry when you want, enter or leave a conversation about what you want when you want, be with whomever you want to. I don’t know about yours, but my parents are their most difficult when they feel their power is being threatened. Mine try to push down my notions of agency, so I just have to remind myself that I have that power. I can cry and talk or not talk or talk to someone else.

            OP, you sound like you’re taking the right steps in considering all of this, and I think you’ve got this. Trust in your own power, and surround yourself with people who do. All the best.

          • I don’t see how to reply to the next set of replies, so I’m replying to the last comment that I see how to reply to.


            Good lord. I only cried twice between the ages of five and ten because I was terrified of getting in trouble over it, despite wanting to cry nearly constantly. Both times I (unsuccessfully) tried to hide it by bottling it up till I could be alone. But I didn’t have much privacy, so even then, there wasn’t enough alone time to be recovered by the time a parent showed up. But once I was 11 and coping with middle school, puberty, bullying, etc. I cried every day and fought every day with my parents about my crying. I always had trouble with all this crying because I did think that it was for babies (sidenote: my parents always boast how little I cried as a baby and young child). I can’t even express how liberating it is to me to hear you say that it’s ok to cry and that it’s wrong of them to not be ok with me needing to.


            Your totally right. And I’m working on building a support system. It’s challenging, but some of my friends have become a new family for me. And I do have a therapist who is very helpful. And you’re right that it’s amazing how many commenters have showed up with so many wonderful, constructive things to share! I am very grateful for this experience.
            My parents also are worst when their power is threatened. I started working and gaining other forms of independence very late and it infuriated them, they kept complaining that I wasn’t ready, it was too early, that it wasn’t safe, that I wasn’t ready to cope with the challenges of being a young adult. In order to get where I am, I have begun lying to cover up signs of independence.

      • Regarding your power in the situation: One of the things that’s unclear from your original letter is whether you’re reconnecting with them because YOU want to or because THEY want to. Emily Yoffe (the advice columnist behind Dear Prudence) has a really thought-provoking article on the subject.

        I’ve noticed some of the comments touch on this, but I’d like to say it outright: You don’t have to have a relationship with them if it’s not what you want for yourself. I would echo everyone else who has suggested seeking a counsellor who can help you decide the best way forward. Best of luck.

        • This trying to reconnect is me giving them one last chance. I am afraid that maybe I have no real reason to do this, that I’m one of those adult children who just abandons perfectly well meaning parents without reason. Of course this sounds crazy writing it down and is obviously an effect of the abuse, but that’s why I’ve been afraid to let them go permanently, even in the time since it’s become practical to do so.

          I do have a therapist. She was the one who put the label “abusive” on them an I was shocked. I actually had a multi-month long incident over realizing that she was right. It was tough, but she was able to see and to say what no one else in my life was able to.

  8. I would figure out what you ideally would like, and what you are comfortable with and then begin to work to communicate in concrete ways with your parents how they can fulfill those roles. While not to the level of emotional abuse, I definitely think that some manipulation and other things that happened were not very healthy in my family dynamic.

    So, I realized, as an adult, that I can only stay at my parent’s house for 2 nights. After 3 nights I turn into a 12 year old and there is yelling and door slamming and crying screaming outbursts. Not cool. So, even when my parents press me on staying longer, I give them my firm 2 night rule and explain why. It’s taken years, but they no longer push it.

    • I have similar situations, with suddenly becoming a 12 year old, and my parents use these incidents aas proof that I’m not mature enough to make my own choices, so I love your strategy of a time limit. I think it could help me a lot with phone calls, especially.

      • Glad you found it useful 🙂

        Another thing that could be done, which is something that my parents did with my grandparents (my mom had been physically abused by my grandpa growing up, and he had started to abuse me as a kid) was to set a verbal limit like “if you speak in xyz tone of voice, or if you do xyz in any capacity we will leave. no questions asked, not commentary, we will just leave.” I guess it took several years of doing this at christmas parties and other family events before my grandpa stopped his bad behavior when we were around. I have zero recollection of us leaving parties early, but my parents said it happened. They would just look at each other, pack up the stuff and leave, no fuss.

  9. I highly recommend the book Toxic Parents by Dr. Susan Forward. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. The sections are very clearly broken down into types of toxicity and abuse.

    My husband and I are currently approaching this issue from two different angles – my husband is dealing with trying to build a relationship with his parents, who, like yours, were very toxic growing up and are now desperate to have a relationship with him but are resistant to change; and my own issues with my mother who was a verbally, emotionally and occasionally physically abusive alcoholic and passed away two years ago. I can’t repair any relationship with my mother, obviously… but I still have to work through many things independently so that I can be a good parent myself and in an emotionally comfortable place.

    I second the idea of very limited contact at first. I also know from my husband’s experience that many times, ridiculous though it may seem, the child simply has to be the one to reach out and make the first compromises. He’s found that it has been much easier to get his folks to listen and start to change by initially letting about 90% of his problems with them go. He will address them eventually… but it’s about choosing your battles.

    Good luck!

  10. An article that might be helpful to read is Emily Yoffe’s article The Debt: When abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them?.

    It offers some good advice on how to handle abusive parents coming back into your life. The article also talks about how to explain to people that don’t understand if you do want to keep your parents at a distance. I hope it helps.

    • This article was really powerful and relevant for me. Thank you. I’ve been very afraid of this perspective, worried that it was too harsh, that they deserved better. But I’m beginning to think that maybe it IS ok to think about myself and focus more on building a life that I can live than trying to fulfill the absurd demands that my parents claim it is my duty to meet.

  11. I’m pretty much figuring it out as I go, so I’m looking forward to seeing other responses to this as well. My mother was physically abusive, neglectful, spiritually abusive (like the mum in ‘Carrie’), and is emotionally abusive. The only reason I’m trying to have a relationship with her is because I love her parents and want to make their last few years as pleasant as I can without risking my family being hurt by her abuse.

    The things that I have found to help:
    – Accepting that it was not my fault.
    – Accepting that its okay to be angry.
    – Writing a list of guidelines and bluntly pointing out when something is not okay.
    – Limiting contact (I completely cut contact for a while, then slowly allowed various forms of virtual communication. I’m not ready for anything more at the moment)
    – Rejecting and refuting all victim-blaming.
    – Not showing any weakness, because she tries to use it against me.
    – Calling her on bad behaviour and suggesting therapy.
    – Don’t try to make them happy or proud. You will never be good enough for them. I realised that being happy with myself was more important than gaining her approval, because she will always keep moving the goalposts.

    Things aren’t fixed and I don’t expect that they ever will be, but I’m giving it as much of a shot as I can.

      • You’re welcome!
        The other thing is to remember to take time for yourself and recharge by doing things that you enjoy. Staying emotionally and physically healthy are much more important than trying to make things work.


    Seriously, do not do this alone. If your parents are not willing to involve a neutral third party — a therapist, a counselor, a social worker, hell, even a trusted friend — run screaming. And you’re going to need someone even if they actually have changed and are trying, because there will be feeeeeeeeeeelings. You need a shoulder to cry on. You need a sanity check. And no, you and your sister cannot be that for each other. Someone who does not have the buttons your parents installed is essential.

    Think very very concretely about what it is you want to get out of this. Decide what is “good enough” and what your dealbreakers are. Be kind to yourself first.

    And it’s okay if you try and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean that you failed, it means they did. You don’t have to try to repair this relationship forever. The responsibility for making this work is not on you.

    Also, seconding the vote for Toxic Parents — it’s not jargony, fairly holistic, and talks about several different stages in and approaches to an abusive relationship.

  13. My two sisters and I have completely different ways of coping with our formerly abusive parents. (FYI, there was emotional (from our mother) and physical (from both sides) abuse until we were old enough to defend ourselves.)

    The oldest (married, one child) only has contact to our mother and her husband ON HER TERMS. She dictates everything – if and when they meet, what they eat (food issues due to disease) and what our mother is allowed to bring as presents. No smoking while she and her daughter are around. She and her husband are also extremely outspoken about the things they will and will not allow nd have threatened to discontinue contact if the rules are not obeyed.
    Reaction: Our mother does not like it, but the fear of not seeing her granddaughter keeps her in line.

    The youngest (married, two children) only has contact to our father and his wife – extremely loving contact, with lots of grown-up talking. Our father is a way better granddad than he ever was a father. She discontinued contact to our mother at the age of 16 and has never considered turning back. (She and her husband also have discontinued contact to his parents after some hurtful things were said about their children.)
    Reaction: Our mother really suffers, but has accepted that this is my sister’s reaction. She sometimes asks about them, but our instruction is to tell her as little as possible. Our father is an extremely happy grandfather and doing well.

    Me (not married, no children) – I still have contact with both of them, but not as much. I like both, understand where they have come from and have forgiven them our past. But I am still afraid that I may eventually repeat their mistakes with our own children.

    Conclusion: You have to find out what you want, and what you can bear. Do not necessarily trust your parents. I would say that it is next to impossible to establish a healthy parent-child relation once you’re grown, but you can still become great relatives and friends. My sisters are happy with the way things are, and I am as well. Just remember that if things go wrong once again, you can alway turn around and walk away. Which would be an act of self-preservation.

  14. Here’s what worked for me: getting away from them for years.

    Nothing but intermittent contact for ~4 years allowed me to be able to re-frame them in my mind from being the parents who made me feel I was never good enough (who I wanted to please) to being the flawed people who raised me when I was a child. Now I will say that I’ve mostly forgiven them, but I haven’t forgotten. I wouldn’t leave my dad alone with a child because I know his temper and expectations, and I don’t look to my mom for emotional comforting because I think she’s on the autistic spectrum or just too damaged by my dad’s constant emotional abuse of her to provide it.

    But now I don’t mind talking to them on the phone or seeing them. That being said, I always watch myself and if I find myself wanting what they can’t provide from them, I readjust how much contact we have until I feel fine after talking to them. It’s a process but I’m a happier person now.

  15. I am sorry… Seems like a lot of us have been there.

    I love Boundaries by Dr Cloud & Dr Townsend. Dr Townsend also has one called The Mom Factor and Dr Cloud has one called Changes That Heal… I also like the two that were recommended above The Dance of Anger there is a whole series of these. And Toxic Parents.

    I am in the middle of reading an older book called Unlocking Your Family Patterns This way you won’t roll into similar behavior. I think that is my greatest fear.

    My counselor is awesome in helping with these issues too. It’s hard to get from where you are to where you want to be without outside help. Good that you are reaching out here.

    Finally, it might sound odd, but if you find a holistic acupuncturist who is good at what they do, they can help align your boundaries and give you clarity on how to relate to your parents. I have seen success with this method as well.

    Good luck!

  16. I’ve had difficult relationships with both of my parents. Moving to another state helped; so did therapy. (I can’t recommend either highly enough!) These days, I treat my dad like a friend who makes terrible choices, and my mother like a friend so long as she behaves herself.

    This might sound silly, but I’ve realized a lot of my mom’s worst behavior in the past few years has been related to her diabetes: when her blood sugar is out of whack or she gets tired, she starts throwing temper tantrums. Now when she visits I make sure she has her own room (or make her get a hotel), and we talk about if we’re hungry a LOT. I’m constantly offering food! We make sure to nap in the afternoon or evening as well if we’ve been out and about.

    Finally, I don’t stand for tantrums. She pouts in a corner, I ignore her until she comes to me like an adult. She threatens to leave, I tell her to go ahead. I practice helping her verbalize the same way I do when I teach toddlers. “Are you feeling upset right now? What can we do to make it better?”

    My dad is terrible with money. If my family decides to help him, we make it a gift rather than letting him call it a loan because we know he can’t pay us back.

    I’ve cut contact with both parents over behavior in the past. When I reestablish, they know I mean it for next time, if I need to. If they ever really cross the line, that’ll be it. I’ll be sad, but I care about my health and sanity when they can’t.

    Looking forward to hearing other strategies.

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