“My relationship with my family is bad” .. “Why does my father/mother yell at me all the time?” .. “Why do I not feel comfortable with my family” … endless questions that plenty of people ask; perhaps you or I have had the same questions at some point and we may still ask them up until now! Many people really don't understand why they may feel uncomfortable with their parents, even though we’ve been taught that "nobody loves you more than your parents." But do all parents love their children the right way? Do all parents create healthy relationships between themselves and their children? Unfortunately, the answer is no. There are "toxic" parents who create toxic and emotionally abusive relationships with their children. We are here today to talk about them with the psychotherapist, Yasmin Abdel Razek...

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Who is Yasmin Abdel Razek?

The Egyptian-Canadian Yasmin Abdel Razek is a registered psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and is very passionate about helping individuals feel more connected to their relationships. Yasmin helps individuals, couples, and families overcome various struggles by working on their unique strengths. She is an associate member of the Canadian Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and has been trained in multiple treatment models, mostly using attachment-based interventions and focused emotional therapy (EFT) in her practice. Yasmin began her career working with individuals in private clinics and psychiatric facilities in Egypt. Then, she pursued her studies and clinical training in Canada and the United States. Her broad clinical and cultural experience allows her to work effectively with individuals and diverse backgrounds.

- First of all, let's explain what a toxic parent is like?

When describing an individual, the term “toxic” can probably be defined in many different ways for different people. However, when the toxic individual is a parent, they are often described with traits such as abusive or hostile, narcissistic, emotionally dysregulated/lack empathy, or symptoms of personality disorders, mental illnesses, or addiction. Individuals with toxic parents often describe their relationship with the parent(s) as overall “dysfunctional” or unhealthy.

- When we talk about toxic parents, some people get surprised by the concept. In your opinion, why do people feel surprised?

Yes, this is often a tricky subject for many. Growing up, we believe that whatever goes on at home must be going on outside in other environments as well – that is, until we start to explore and learn otherwise. We’re often told that parents are the sources through which we find/meet our needs of love, safety, trust, and security. So when we begin to understand and draw connections with the potentially toxic ways that our parents follow to meet these needs, it can understandably be confusing and surprising. Additionally, some people can at first find it difficult to accept that their parents' ways of showing them love, communicating with them, or overall behavior are actually toxic and unhealthy and are affecting their mental health and wellbeing. Many others may also, unfortunately, deny the toxicity of their parents out of disbelief that the very individuals that are “supposed to be” the most caring and loving can also be the source of pain and mental and emotional stress.

- Do toxic parents love their kids?

Some parents with toxic traits swear that they love their children but unfortunately the reality is that they show it in the most unloving and unhealthiest of ways. Other toxic parents may also show periods of warmth, although often followed by mistreatment, hostility, or control.

- Can you tell us how to know if we have a toxic parent?

One of the single most important signs is how you feel (rather than simply what they do) after an encounter with your parents. Do you come out feeling bad or worse? Do you dread talking to them? Do you experience physiological discomfort at the thought of them? Do painful memories or apprehension about the future come up? Pay attention to how your parents make you feel and notice any consistent triggers or feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or shame.

Some of the most common traits also include: 

- Negative overreactions or being emotionally out of control and can become hostile or verbally abusive (abuse can also take form emotionally, mentally, physically, or sexually).

- Lacking a sense of empathy, demonstrating extreme control over everything and everyone around them.

- Being highly critical no matter how accomplished their children are.

- Blaming others and refusing to take responsibility for any problems.

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- Demanding that their children take care of their emotional/physical needs or reverse roles (i.e. children act like the parents or a therapist).

- Punishing children by withholding affection or presence, competing with the child for attention, playing the victim role, or demonstrating characteristics of mental illness or addiction.

- Now, After knowing the signs, here’s a crucial question: how to deal with toxic parents?

It is important to acknowledge that healing from a toxic relationship begins with the affected person. Oftentimes, toxic parents (even when confronted) do not change or refuse to take responsibility for their actions. It’s crucial to reach a point of acceptance that even if parents don’t work on healing from their own past or challenges, children of toxic parents can heal and work through the pain they’ve endured. Children are never at fault for having toxic parents. It is essential to understand that change will only happen when you consider your own needs. 

Here are some steps we can begin to take:

-Set boundaries: define what it is that you’re willing to accept, then limit direct contact with parents. Boundaries may not be well-tolerated by the toxic parents but remind yourself that you’re taking care of yourself. Be present with your own emotions instead of trying to fix or change your parents.

-Set location for interactions: try to control where you spend time with your parents. If possible, for example, meeting them in a public space can be a helpful way of limiting problematic behaviors while also allowing you to leave if you feel like they’ve disrespected you or your boundaries.

-Self-care: be kind to yourself and your needs. You don’t have to spend every special event or milestone with your toxic family. Make space for what you want and surround yourself with people that encourage you and help you feel good about yourself.

-Seek support: it can be very helpful to learn how to navigate this toxic relationship with a therapist or a professional. This can also help you find any answers you’ve been searching for or get connected to resources for support.

- We wonder if toxic parents know they are toxic or not, especially nowadays after the wave of awareness?

Some individuals seeking therapy, like those in family therapy, learn about what they carry from their past or their own childhood/upbringing into their current relationships, including relationships with their children. This can include unhealthy patterns or toxic behaviors that were potentially learned from their own parents or previous relationships. Once they have this level of awareness and with the help of the therapist or a healthy support system, they can begin to unlearn these patterns and cultivate a healthier relationship with their children. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case though. Many individuals through their own experiences “learn'' that this toxicity is normal - and when this is deeply ingrained, it can be quite difficult to change this mindset or connect with the wave of awareness and take responsibility for the toxic ways in which they interact with their children. In addition, toxic parents are generally more focused on their own needs with minimal empathy for their kids’ needs or consideration of the negative impact on them, regardless of whether what they’re doing is harmful or emotionally damaging.

- If I know someone who has toxic parents, how can I help him/ her?

Believe them, validate their emotions, and ask them how you can support them. It’s important to hold space for them to talk freely and openly, knowing that they’ll find a nonjudgmental and understanding listener. Individuals with toxic parents need a good, healthy support system. Help them get connected to resources and ask if they’d like help finding a therapist.

- Can growing up with a toxic parent make me a toxic person in the future? And how to avoid this?

Our family of origin has a significant impact on our feelings of self-worth, the way we trust and view others, and our outlook or view of the world. They create a level of foundation, so it makes sense that we can find ourselves getting caught or stuck in old patterns derived from childhood or family of origin. Sometimes, this even happens without our conscious awareness: it’s ingrained and normalized, and we just live in and continue to carry out that pattern until we somehow begin to see or feel that this pattern is affecting us or those around us. Prior to this level of awareness, growing up with toxic parents can in turn result in adult children selecting toxic partners or becoming toxic partners or parents themselves. It can also have a significant impact on their mental health. However, this can change. As adults, we can change this pattern of dysfunction and toxicity; it certainly does not need to be carried on for generations to come, simply because “it’s the way it’s always been” – there’s awareness now, resources out there, and lots of professionals ready to help you in breaking free of these patterns.

It’s quite challenging to admit when there’s a problem or when we are responsible for carrying out patterns into adulthood and relationships with our own children. But what we need to realize is that it’s even more challenging to live with the repercussions and emotional damage that will continue to exist if we don’t take responsibility for our part as adults and the impact that we may have on our own children/relationships. If we believe that our parents were toxic and that our families of origin consisted of dysfunctional patterns, it is our responsibility to break this pattern, especially if we see any impact in our present relationships. Seek support, get connected to resources, and know that it is possible to end unhealthy or toxic generational patterns.

- Toxic parents are always toxic or is there something that can make them like that at any stage of life?

There isn’t a single reason why or how a parent becomes toxic – it could be a combination of different factors. There could be an underlying mental illness that was or was not properly dealt with at any particular stage of life, abuse in their own childhood or adulthood, or maybe toxic parents themselves grew up in toxic environments or with toxic parents.

- Finally, if there is one piece of advice you can give to everyone who has toxic parents, what would it be?

If you’re reading this and you identified or realized that there are signs that your parents are/were toxic, please know this: there isn’t a single thing that you’ve done as an infant, child, or adult that has caused your parents to be toxic. This isn’t your fault. It can be incredibly painful and hurtful to go through encounters with a toxic parent or even relive difficult memories. It can also be very difficult to let go of the relationship, despite everything that they may have done. After all, they’re still your parents. So, it’s understandable that you may feel guilty when you think of setting boundaries or trying to let go of the relationship altogether. Please get the support you need. There are trained professionals and therapists that can offer you support and guidance through your healing journey. What you learned growing up in an unhealthy environment regarding love and care can be unlearned and replaced by secure relationships and healthier patterns.

NB: If you feel like you're facing the same issue with your parents and need to get in touch with the therapist, you can contact her on her Instagram account @yasminfortherapy.