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Some Effects of Long Term Abuse

- Isolation from others
- Low self-esteem
- Depression
- Emotional problems
- Illness
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawal from real life into an Internet alternative reality

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Divorcing Your Parents


Dr. Richard A. Friedman writes:

Granted, no parent is perfect. And whining about parental failure, real or not, is practically an American pastime that keeps the therapeutic community dutifully employed.
But just as there are ordinary good-enough parents who mysteriously produce a difficult child, there are some decent people who have the misfortune of having a truly toxic parent.

A patient of mine, a lovely woman in her 60s whom I treated for depression, recently asked my advice about how to deal with her aging mother.
“She’s always been extremely abusive of me and my siblings,” she said, as I recall. “Once, on my birthday, she left me a message wishing that I get a disease. Can you believe it?”

Over the years, she had tried to have a relationship with her mother, but the encounters were always painful and upsetting; her mother remained harshly critical and demeaning.

Whether her mother was mentally ill, just plain mean or both was unclear, but there was no question that my patient had decided long ago that the only way to deal with her mother was to avoid her at all costs.

Now that her mother was approaching death, she was torn about yet another effort at reconciliation. “I feel I should try,” my patient told me, “but I know she’ll be awful to me.”

Should she visit and perhaps forgive her mother, or protect herself and live with a sense of guilt, however unjustified? Tough call, and clearly not mine to make.

But it did make me wonder about how therapists deal with adult patients who have toxic parents.

The topic gets little, if any, attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature, perhaps reflecting the common and mistaken notion that adults, unlike children and the elderly, are not vulnerable to such emotional abuse.

All too often, I think, therapists have a bias to salvage relationships, even those that might be harmful to a patient. Instead, it is crucial to be open-minded and to consider whether maintaining the relationship is really healthy and desirable.

Likewise, the assumption that parents are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true. I remember one patient, a man in his mid-20s, who came to me for depression and rock-bottom self-esteem.

It didn’t take long to find out why. He had recently come out as gay to his devoutly religious parents, who responded by disowning him. It gets worse: at a subsequent family dinner, his father took him aside and told him it would have been better if he, rather than his younger brother, had died in a car accident several years earlier.

Though terribly hurt and angry, this young man still hoped he could get his parents to accept his sexuality and asked me to meet with the three of them.

The session did not go well. The parents insisted that his “lifestyle” was a grave sin, incompatible with their deeply held religious beliefs. When I tried to explain that the scientific consensus was that he had no more choice about his sexual orientation than the color of his eyes, they were unmoved. They simply could not accept him as he was.

I was stunned by their implacable hostility and convinced that they were a psychological menace to my patient. As such, I had to do something I have never contemplated before in treatment.

At the next session I suggested that for his psychological well-being he might consider, at least for now, forgoing a relationship with his parents.

I felt this was a drastic measure, akin to amputating a gangrenous limb to save a patient’s life. My patient could not escape all the negative feelings and thoughts about himself that he had internalized from his parents. But at least I could protect him from even more psychological harm.

Easier said than done. He accepted my suggestion with sad resignation, though he did make a few efforts to contact them over the next year. They never responded.

Of course, relationships are rarely all good or bad; even the most abusive parents can sometimes be loving, which is why severing a bond should be a tough, and rare, decision.

Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, a trauma expert who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said she tried to empower patients to take action to protect themselves without giving direct advice.

“Sometimes we consider a paradoxical intervention and say to a patient, ‘I really admire your loyalty to your parents — even at the expense of failing to protect yourself in any way from harm,’ ” Dr. Herman told me in an interview.

The hope is that patients come to see the psychological cost of a harmful relationship and act to change it.

Eventually, my patient made a full recovery from his depression and started dating, though his parents’ absence in his life was never far from his thoughts.

No wonder. Research on early attachment, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, shows that we are hard-wired for bonding — even to those who aren’t very nice to us.

We also know that although prolonged childhood trauma can be toxic to the brain, adults retain the ability later in life to rewire their brains by new experience, including therapy and psychotropic medication.

For example, prolonged stress can kill cells in the hippocampus, a brain area critical for memory. The good news is that adults are able to grow new neurons in this area in the course of normal development. Also, antidepressants encourage the development of new cells in the hippocampus.

It is no stretch, then, to say that having a toxic parent may be harmful to a child’s brain, let alone his feelings. But that damage need not be written in stone.

Of course, we cannot undo history with therapy. But we can help mend brains and minds by removing or reducing stress.

Sometimes, as drastic as it sounds, that means letting go of a toxic parent.

Dr. Richard A. Friedman is a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.



thanks so much for this article! i have tried over the 14 years of my marriage to help my husband deal with his mother and her family. his parents divorced when he was 13, and his mother used to take him with her to drive by his father’s suspected lover’s home; she didn’t come to our wedding because his father would be there; she would go without talking to him for years on end, then send a check and want to see him again; she has no relationship w/ our 2 young daughters; her mother - my husband’s only grandparent - died last year and NO ONE in the family told my husband or his oldest brother (their other 2 siblings knew and attended the private funeral w/ all the other relatives). it’s so nice to hear a professional say it’s okay to let go of this person forever, as hard as that may be. i will make sure he reads it.— brooke

2. October 20, 2009 8:53 am

I have terrible parents. I have considered often going no contact. This is a very drastic decision; I prefer to create healthy boundaries that I can maintain and not get involved in a situation I cannot walk away from. This allows me to keep in touch with siblings and relatives who will survive my parents.
I would advise everyone to do this if it is possible. It is difficult but knowing there is some family in your life is precious.
My sympathies to all who are going through this.— tinwoman

3. October 20, 2009 8:54 am

Mental health sometimes comes at a very high price. Biological connections do not always offer happy endings . . .
The child is a victim; the child is not to blame.— Poet Alive, North Andover

4. October 20, 2009 8:55 am
oh, but I do want to say my mother wanted to join my facebook page today. No Way! That’s one of the limits–she does not need to know what I’m doing or saying on Facebook. I hit the “ignore” button and do not feel a bit guilty.— tinwoman

5. October 20, 2009 8:55 am

Fascinating article. We’d like to believe that parents are at their core kind and loving, but that’s not really true for some. Who knows where it starts — their own childhoods, mental illness, just the devil’s spawn — but they threaten to pass it on to their children.
One quibble about the article. All off the toxic parents mentioned here are aggressively hostile. What about neglect? The parents who don’t care. They seem to slip under the radar.— MW, Massachusetts

6. October 20, 2009 8:56 am

Read former psychoanalyst Alice Miller on this subject! The Body Never Lies, among many other books. For a perspective unlikely to come from therapists.— Griffith Feeney, NY

7. October 20, 2009 8:56 am
Thank you for describing my situation.— Eva, Germany

8. October 20, 2009 8:56 am

Inheritance issues aside (more than one kid has kept ties for this reason only), why would one want to put up with such abuse?
In the case of the dying mother, if I were the child, I’d give it one more shot, since dying often softens one’s attitudes. However, the minute she became abusive, I’d be gone.— jack

9. October 20, 2009 8:56 am

This 71-year-old retired university psychology professor, who worked 15 years in early adulthood as a social worker, completely agrees with Dr. Friedman. Over a lifetime of clinical work, I too have seen a few patients who had parents so toxic that only cutting them off helped the patient move toward a healthier life. I also agree that we clinicians find it difficult to assist patients in contemplating such cut-offs because our research and training make us keenly aware that the parent-child tie is incredibly powerful. In fact there is research that indicates abused children removed from their parents grieve more than healthy children who lose good parents. Dr. Friedman did his patient a service by allowing him to consider the possibility of such a cut-off, and helping him in his grief once he had made that decision.— MEP, Milwaukee

10. October 20, 2009 8:57 am

this is so so true… some parents ARE too toxic to tolerate. the best thing i did for my kids, in my opinion, was to encourage and support them to limit contact with their severely mentally ill father - who’s mentally ill as a result of his being sexually molested by his mother. now all four of my children - they’re 29 - 15 - are all happy and healthy and well-adjusted… he, on the other hand, continues to be depressed, miserable and mean— anniek, connecticut

11. October 20, 2009 8:58 am

My girlfriend made the difficult decision to cut off ties to her father after realizing that the pain he brought on her and her siblings was simply too much. An abusive sociopath who hovered between delightful charm and raging anger, he helped create cycles of depression and low self esteem that were simply unsustainable to her well-being. Though she still struggles with her decision, she immediately improved afterwards and is a better person for it. Her bravery in fighting for what was healthy and right for herself is something I find truly admirable.— F.R.S., U.K.

12. October 20, 2009 8:58 am

Often the amputation necessitates harming relationships with siblings, as well. You have to be prepared to lose those ties if you sever the parent/child ties. It is a hard process. Having people understanding or standing behind your decision can give you strength when you feel guilty or sad.— Bradstreet, St. Louis

13. October 20, 2009 8:59 am

One of the smartest decisions I ever made was disconnecting from my ‘family’. If you can’t trust family to be on your team, then you most certainly have a deficit out in the world. Once I ditched the ‘family’ that said they loved me, (and whose actions did something ELSE) I was able to learn and find people who ACTUALLY love me.
It sounds harsh, but you have one shot in this life, and I wasn’t about to let them screw me up to the point where I blew MY chances at a healthy productive successful life.
If your family isn’t taking care of you, YOU need to take care of you. For me that meant ditching people without my best interest at heart.
I dont regret it for a single minute.— 100 Workouts, NYC

14. October 20, 2009 8:59 am

The last comments in the article regarding the “good news” that brains can heal over time drastically minimizes the often debilitating pain and diminished capacities to lead a productive life that can occur when maltreatment is not addressed early. Why should someone suffer a childhood or lifetime of depression, anxiety, etc. when early intervention might change the trajectory well before medication is needed?— CK, Minn.

15. October 20, 2009 8:59 am

Just to tag on to MW’s quibble (or maybe additional observation rather than quibble): I have to say as a person who has heard/experienced such comments from a parent, you have to remember that the parent who makes those kinds of statements that may seem shocking, also likely submits the child to a life, an entire upbringing, steeped in constant, more subtle degradation. That enormously confusing tug in the child’s heart then - between trying to love one’s parent and trying to learn to love one’s self - I think is terribly damaging. Who do you think wins in the child’s mind? It is the parent, of course. When the child becomes an adult, he/she is constantly bound to that parent emotionally then…only having known oneself in the light of that parent who needed, for some reason, to hurt that child. It is so hard to become an individual then, let alone an individual who can love him or herself. Parents just don’t know sometimes, what they hold in their hands. Not because they’re “bad” - just because - maybe they’re still too child-like themselves…— Karen, St. Paul MN

16. October 20, 2009 9:00 am

My father was emotionally abusive and we have not had a healthy relationship since I was 12. We have not had any relationship since I was 14.
I have always felt a bit guilty about it, that I should make some effort to restore a relationship with him, despite the fact that I do not particularly want to because dealing with him is so emotionally taxing. The viewpoint expressed in this article is refreshing.— jc2231, Brooklyn

17. October 20, 2009 9:00 am

This issue extends to the dillemas faced when one through his/her involvement in therapy confronts the same issues after their parents have died. Having had a sexually abusive mother and an emotionally absent father, I still was a good, obedient son until the day they died. Now I am confronted with the issue of how to leave them be and detach without those primordial feelings of obligation. I am halfway there with the help of compassionate and skilled therapists.— Michael Greenhouse

18. October 20, 2009 9:02 am

Some parents abuse their children. Some abuse is physically violent; some is psychological or emotional. And children, while they are children, are pretty much at the mercy of their parents. There is very little that can be done to protect a child from abusive parents, particularly when abuse is not physically violent, and there are very few people who even try–whether because it is more comfortable to look the other way, or because they suspect that any efforts to protect or defend the child will be futile (after all, there are no laws against being viciously mean to one’s own children). This, at least, is the sense I have gotten from many years of listening to college students talk about their family histories. A hope I try to hold out to students whose parents have abused them is that, as they grow into adulthood, they can develop the resources and maturity to see that the abuse they endured is wrong, and that they do not have to put up with it any longer. I regularly suggest to students from abusive families that they seek professional counseling support as they seek to move into a healthy adulthood.

It is alarming to think that many mental-health practitioners may, like Richard Friedman, operate with the assumption that while abuse from a romantic partner can be rejected (which generally requires leaving the abusing partner–since if you don’t leave, the abuse will escalate), abuse from a parent must be endured forever because the parent must not be left.

Don’t these people know that abuse, by its very nature, endures and escalates over time? Do they not know that the victims of abuse cannot change their abusers? Abusive parents do not stop being abusive when their children grow up; it only gets worse. That’s a sad truth, but it is the truth. Abused children deserve better than to be told they must accept abuse from their parents even after they are grown up. They deserve to be helped to healthy adult senses of self and healthy relationships with genuinely loving people who may or may not be members of their families of origin.— Margaret

Terrific article and a welcome perspective on a difficult topic.
In the gay community the disowned son or daughter has become, unfortunately, a kind of cliche. Some continue to maintain a connection to their abusive parents over time, yet I have wondered if that kind of tie does not reinforce a certain pathology. In the effort to normalize–to not separate from the kind of abuse mentioned in this article–an unhealthy pattern of attachment perpetuates. This phenomenon may help explain some of the issues (sex and drug addiction) that are prevalent in the gay community, particularly among young people just coming out of the closet.— Nield, Oklahoma

20. October 20, 2009 9:02 am

Thanks for writing this article. It is an interesting topic. After years of childhood sexual abuse by my father and total denial by my mother, I find myself now caring for the aging parents who were so abusive and neglectful. It is a mysterious process that seems to have spawned a new stage of development, where I find myself becoming even more “separated” from them psychologically. Despite their abuse and neglect I was always “trying to get them to love and approve of me” — even though I did so much to separate myself from them. Everyone needs love and connection. How difficult it is to let go emotionally — despite the intellectual separation. Only now is it really happening that in my 60s I finally feel empowered. Young people who suffer from neglectful, abusive parenting need the support of the therapeutic community more than ever. It is their only “lifeline” to a future of hope.— Marcia Polese, Manchester by the Sea

21. October 20, 2009 9:03 am

Oh, I nearly forgot ~ we need to heal ourselves.
No one else can do it!
Discover your own best life . . .— Post Alive, North Andover

22. October 20, 2009 9:03 am

Agree with MW. There are many forms of this short overt hostility: Guilt peddling. Choosing to interpret everything that happens in the worst possible way. Intentionally, incessantly picking fights (or trying to).
Children can never be grateful enough. If you are a parent of young children and you want to stay on good terms with them as you age, decide this now: that you’ll be okay with it when the day arrives when you don’t think they’re grateful enough.— R.D., Copenhagen

23. October 20, 2009 9:04 am

Wow..that is exactly the conclusion I came to with my parents but I have never seen it written before. I had become a nurse with idea just below the surface that i could help them if I just could do the mysterious elusive thing for them. It finally became clear that even if I were–fill in the blank with the most amazing person who ever lived– they could not be helped and would never stop hurting me. And my mother would be a danger to my newborn. So i cried alot and then I was done. With my wonderful spouse we loved each other and I focused my energy on making my own family whole, happy, safe, sane, caring, reliable, healthy, steady through thick and thin. I helped each parent in the months before they died but no more pain or injury to me. I believe i stopped the cycle.— Susan, Chicago

24. October 20, 2009 9:04 am

Amen, amen, amen!— ak, Denver

25. October 20, 2009 9:04 am

I want to add one thing…as an adult, I knew my parents were neglectful and damaging to me but i never fully realized the depth of their damage until I had a child of my own As we have come to each growth moment, I realize anew and with surprise how continuously my parents left me to fend for myself –medically, hygiene, emotionally, safety, education, socially. i will never understand how they could do this to me and my siblings, but I just don’t think about it anymore. I have been stedfast –not perfect, but stedfast-in my family responsibilities, and I am proud that we have had a loving home and a child who feels loved and supported no matter what.— Susan, Chicago

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