Toxic Parents: Identification & Action

Recently I’ve been talking about the caregiving relationship turning toxic. There are many reasons why this can happen. Today I thought it might be beneficial to talk about how or why this can happen as well as how to identify a toxic relationship with your parent.

When Elders Turn On You

So what causes an elder to start abusing their caregiver?


The easiest answer is that you are a known quality and they feel safe with you. Which is great except for when it turns toxic. We went through this with my father not long after he had his stroke. He was kinder to the aides who were there the least than to his own family. He just was afraid of letting them see his weaknesses after the stroke (being the proud man he is).


A change in your mental status is frustrating. It makes it harder to do the things you used to do. It’s also scary. This is another one we temporarily went through with my father. He was (and sometimes still is) so frustrated that he would often get angry when we tried to help him. Sometimes he just needed to be reminded that we weren’t the enemy and only trying to help. This can be a temporary or permanent reason behind a potentially toxic parent.


Your parent may have just been toxic before. Sometimes this is noticeable, but I’ve found that most emotional abuse is far more subtle. Often outsiders will not even see it unless they are spending a lot of time with your family. My boyfriend had trouble pinpointing it for nearly two years. He knew something was off but couldn’t figure out if it was intentional, abusive, or what. We’re still not sure if its intentional, but her behavior looking back now was definitely abusive at worst or manipulative at best.

How to Cope with an Abusive Elder

The most effective and simple answer when it comes to a loved ones abuse it to remove yourself from the situation. However, that isn’t always possible. We love those we care for and there may be no one else willing or able to assist. In my case I’m an only daughter. My half sister could take care of dad, but then he’d have to move across the country to California.

A mix of hope, love, fear, obligation and guilt typically compel the primary caregiver to continue seeing to their loved one’s needs. But to make that relationship work there has to be clear boundaries or it becomes untenable and both parties will leave with hurt feelings. The caregiver has to balance the needs of their loved on with their own well being.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that there is a number of things you can do. Some of them easier than others. The absolute first thing you should do is take a step back. Find some sort of respite care through your local aged and disabled organization or a friend. Get a break even if its a weekend. So that you can clear your head and take a look at whether this is something you can manage, change, or have to walk away from. Make sure that before you take your break you talk with the person you care for. Make it clear that you are doing your best. And that if that isn’t enough then someone else may have to take over.

Other articles that I’ve read say to follow through unless you see an immediate change in behavior, but having been in and out of the healthcare field from both sides, I don’t agree with this advice. If you have a parent that has a personality trait making them toxic they can manage to manipulate you into thinking they’ve changed until the next blow up. Which has been a reoccuring theme with my mother for most of my life.

The Nuclear Option

The nuclear option is to leave. It’s not something I suggest lightly, hence calling it nuclear. However, there are some people that no matter how much counseling, boundary setting, detachment, or respite care, will continue to act toxic. It is unfortunate but true. Continuing to provide hands on care for someone who refuses to respect or cooperate with you will ultimate you jeopardize your health and well being.

It hurts and its hard, but trust me this can be for the best if you’ve gone through every other option. I’m not saying to just drop them off at the nearest home either. I had to place mom somewhere due to an emergency situation, but we spent a good three months going through other nursing homes and assisted living facilities, before finding a group home with adult day services that we like. She didn’t, but I knew they would be good to her there. And they were for the four months she chose to stay before moving in with her sister up north.

Regardless, it is very important to know when to get out. Whether you feel you’ve been roped into doing this for them or do it out of love, you have to take care of yourself first. Or you are no good to anyone else. Finding a good fit in a facility is difficult but will give you the assurance that they will get the assistance that they need while allowing you to choose your amount of interaction with them and their care. It’s not an easy decision to make, but sometimes it is the best option.

But The Guilt

The complaint I had with the entire process the guilt I felt. I was raised to believe that you do everything to help and protect your family. Even at a cost to yourself, but that isn’t entirely true.

Yes, I do feel that you have an obligation to do everything within your power to help your family. To hold your end of the obligation. Especially if your parents went to bat for you. But not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver. Nor does everyone have the time or resources to do so. It is okay to get the best professional help possible if your assistance comes at the cost of other family members and your own well being. As was the case here.

My mother was toxic. She undermined all my efforts to help her in the ways the doctor prescribed. She undermined all my efforts to save money for an emergency or to pay off their debts. My mother made it impossible for my father’s health to improve. She refused to turn off the tv at night (volume set at 50+) so that my kiddo could go to bed at a reasonable time. Heck, some nights she even riled her up right before bed! My personal experience with a toxic parent had her keeping me so stressed that it was easy for her to manipulate me into putting myself more in debt for her own benefit and detriment (in terms of eating bad food and ignoring doctors orders).

This may not be the case in your instance, but if the care of your family member is risking the well being of your kiddo, your relationship, or another loved one, then you also have an obligation to those people. We cannot let our family dysfunction get in the way especially of a child’s well being. The self harm attempt (albeit attention seeking) that my mother engaged in, was my final straw. I could no longer expose my little Valkyrie to her behaviors and even mentioning moving out had made it significantly worse.

It’s Your Choice

I learned the hard way that enabling my mother as a means to get her off my back was a bad decision. One she had been using on my father for a long, long time. It only makes things worse. The same goes for just giving in for any other reason. This process is still teaching me that I matter and that my feelings are important as well. Something I didn’t get growing up. You count in this equation too and you always have options. I made a choice to focus on protecting and caring for my daughter and father who were willing to work with me rather than against me. You have the right to make that or any other choice for yourself as well.

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