How Toxic Parents Affect Depression

Patient Expert

Growing up with a toxic parent is often at the root of depression. As children we have a need to bond with our parents or caregivers, but this need makes us vulnerable to being parented by people who are damaged, and being damaged ourselves in turn.

What are toxic parents?

Toxic parents are those whose negative behavior inflicts emotional damage on their children. The term "toxic parent" could apply to a host of behaviors, including:

  • The emotionally abusive father who tells his son that he's been nothing but a disappointment, or tells his daughter that she's fat and ugly.
  • The controlling mother who criticizes every decision her child makes, from music preference to choice of romantic partner or job, and everything in between.
  • The smothering mother who doesn't see her child as an individual, only as an extension of herself.

What should you do about your relationship with your toxic parent?

First, find a good therapist if you are not already in therapy. You're going to need professional help to navigate your way through this process, and it will not be an easy one. With the therapist's help, decide whether you're going to confront the parent and try to compel him or her to change the dynamics of your relationship on their side, or simply work on healing yourself.

Learn how to set boundaries

Toxic parents constantly violate boundaries with their children that an emotionally healthy parent would respect. Part of developing a more healthy relationship with your toxic parent will include learning how to preserve those boundaries from your side. For example, if you have a toxic parent who criticizes your friends, decline to answer questions about them. "I don't think we really need to discuss Jerry, do you? Let's talk about something else."

Should you sever the relationship?

If you have tried to set boundaries and assert yourself with your toxic parent with unsatisfying results, or if the situation is extreme and your emotional or physical well being is in danger, you need to consider severing the relationship with your parent, at least temporarily. This will be difficult; after all, what kept you under the toxic parent's thumb as a child was your fear of abandonment. But it may be the only way for you to move on.

Retrain your internal voice

If you grew up with a toxic parent, chances are good that you've internalized many of their lessons without being aware of it. Therapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy, can teach you to recognize and reverse negative self-talk.

Dealing with guilt feelings about being disloyal

It can be very hard to let go of the ideal (since it is an ideal and not a reality for children of toxic parents) of the loving parent who has your best interests at heart. You may feel guilty about your negative emotions about your parent. For one thing, your toxic parent may be wonderful part of the time. And secondly, aren't we supposed to love our parents? You also may be aware of circumstances in the toxic parent's childhood that led to this behavior. Or you may assume that forgiving your parent is part of the healing process. If you and your therapist have examined your reasons for doing so, and feel that it's in your best interests, then it could be a positive step. But keep in mind that you are the one who is at the center of this change, not your parent.