I’m not sure whether it’s a product of the pandemic, but it seems more and more people around me are dealing with difficult relationships with their parents. As someone who is new to Buddhism, I wanted to explore the topic of Buddhism and toxic parents.
What would someone practicing Buddhism say to a toxic parent? How would they handle their mom or dad? Would they continue to honor their parents as they are? Or is the most compassionate thing to do to let them go?
There are a lot of nuances in the Buddhist religion, but this post is designed to help you decide what path is right for you and how to remain compassionate through it all.
When You Have Toxic Parents
Our parents set the tone not only for our childhood, but for our entire lives.
Toxicity in relationships can look like a lot of different things. In Buddhism, the primary focus is often on understanding suffering, so let’s look at some ways that our parents can cause suffering in us and themselves.
Mental illness can take many forms, such as depression, anxiety, Bipolar disorder, and many more. There is no shame in having a mental illness. But unfortunately, it will still very taboo in our society.
Mental illness should be treated like any physical ailment, but it’s often swept under the rug instead, especially with older generations. So many people do not get the treatment that they need. In fact, “Data show that over 60 percent of older adults do not receive the services they need when they develop a mental disorder.”
When people are not able to get the medications and therapy that they need, it often causes what Buddhists call “unskillful” emotions and behaviors, such as anger, frustration, self-medication, poor coping mechanisms, and more.
When we do not receive the loving-kindness (unconditional love) that we need and are met with hostility and toxicity instead, it can cause addiction like alcoholism or drug addiction, as well as other addictions.
In fact, having a parent who deals with substance abuse can have effects on children physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Having parents who neglected you during your childhood can be just as detrimental as physical abuse. That neglect can continue into adulthood.
Perhaps your toxic parent was a narcissist. Having a narcissist mom or dad is extremely damaging to a child. Children of narcissists may be people-pleasers, have low self-esteem, or deal with poor coping mechanisms. You might even participate in manipulative behaviors that you learn from your parent.
Typically, a covert narcissistic mother passes those covert narcissistic traits to a daughter, while an overt narcissistic father will typically pass those overt narcissistic traits on to his son. (I read this a while ago and I am unable to find the article to cite it. Please give me patience while I search for this article.)
Often, toxic parents will unconsciously train their children to look after their own needs first, while simultaneously making the child think that they are the only source of love. This relationship style is incredibly toxic.
People with codependency issues often have low self-esteem, feel helpless, have control issues, and suffer from an unclear sense of identity.
Physical and Sexual Abuse
Physical and sexual abuse have immediate effects on children that are threats to their physical health and wellbeing. Not only this, but they have long term psychological and social effects as well, like PTSD or adverse developmental effects.
Emotional Abuse, Gaslighting, Fear-tactics
The consequences of emotional and psychological abuse include confusion, anxiety, shame, guilt, and many more feelings that may lead you to feel powerless over your life.
There is even evidence that emotional and psychological abuse can cause poor health and shorten your life-span.
Simple Lack of Compassion
Even a lack of compassion can have detrimental effects on our children. Using “tough love” and toxic positivity might look like:
- “Suck it up.”
- “Life’s a bitch. Get over it.”
- “Just smile. You’ll feel better.”
- “Put on your big girl panties.”
- “It’s not that big of a deal.”
- “You’re so sensitive.”
- “You don’t need me to comfort you.”
These technically qualify as invalidation and could be seen as emotional abuse as well.
RELATED POST: Losing Family to Politics in the Age of Trump
What Buddhism Says About Difficult Parent and Child Relationships
Parent child relationships are challenging even when they aren’t toxic.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Difficult Parent Child Relationships
In a short talk on the Plum Village App, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh discusses exactly this. He says the following things (I’m paraphrasing here):
1. First, we have to look more deeply within ourselves, our parent, and our relationship to begin to unravel why this relationship is so painful.
2. You can never fully remove your toxic parent from you. Even cutting them off from your life, they will continue to influence your life.
3. We need to be willing to break the patterns of toxicity within ourselves. This takes a lot of hard work.
4. When we start working on undoing the patterns of suffering, we start from the inside out. We begin by accepting our mother or father as they are. Change the way you look at your parents in your heart.
5. Remember, talking to them will not change them. When we change what’s in our hearts, we can change our own reactions and outward behavior. And when they see that we have changed, they have the potential to change as well.
How can you say, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while you yourself fail to see the beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
This means that you cannot change someone else without first changing yourself. Everyone has flaws and makes poor (“unskillful”) choices. We are quick to blame our parents for the things that go wrong in our lives.
(I struggle with this one. It’s easy to find the ways our parents set us up for suffering from childhood.)
But we must be able to come to terms with our past and who we are in order to act more skillfully and wise in the present moment. (See the Shang-Chi quote at the end of this article.) Then once we are able to do that, then possibly, just possibly we will be able to help our parents see more clearly as well.
Buddhism and Toxic Parents: 3 Options
1. Work with them compassionately in a full contact relationship
Choosing to maintain a full relationship with your toxic parent is a brave choice and requires a lot of inner work, as mentioned above.
In Buddhism, one of the Eightfold path is the Insight of Interbeing (Right Effort). This means that we see how we are all connected to the nature of life. When we are able to reach this point toward enlightenment, it means that we do not cast aside problems that belong to another person. (1:07:57 in the video.)
We don’t say “My toxic parents are not my problem.” We commit to help, because we are all connected, and our parents’ suffering is our suffering.
Learning to deal with them in a way that is consistent with Buddhist teachings while constantly getting triggered is going to be difficult. You need patience and boundless compassion when dealing with someone who is struggling with their own inner demons. You will also need to be able to let any harsh words or actions against you bounce off you without reacting.
Having a strong foundation of love and compassion within your heart will serve you well. It helps to compartmentalize. If you view your mother or father’s toxicity as a separate part of them, it will help you deal with them impartially.
You can also compartmentalize your inner feelings. You can hold love and compassion in your heart while holding the suffering they cause you separately so that those hurtful things do not permeate your heart.
This is the ultimate destination of our choices, words, and actions as a Buddhist. However, if you are not here yet, there is no shame in that. Our path is a journey, and we can’t take shortcuts.
2. Set strong boundaries
Another tactic to handle your toxic parents as a Buddhist is to maintain contact with them but set very strong boundaries with them to help protect your peace.
Remember, compassion extends to yourself! It is a compassionate act to preserve your own love and kindness. It is NOT compassionate to allow someone, including your parents, to walk all over you. It is not compassionate to enable someone to follow a path of destruction of their own lives.
Here are what boundaries might look like:
- Ending a conversation when they begin to act out those toxic behaviors
- Requiring them to call before coming over to your house
- Taking away their key to your house
- Only seeing them for holidays and birthdays
- Ending a conversation or visit if they start drinking
- Not ever giving them money
You can choose to communicate these boundaries with them or not. But healthy boundaries are there to serve and protect you from the suffering they cause.
3. Cut them out of your life
You might find that you struggle to change what’s in your own heart when you are constantly around your toxic parent. In this case, you may want to separate yourself from them in order to work on finding the love and compassion in your own heart.
There is no shame in being in this category. If you’re not to the point where you can interact with your mother or father without causing suffering to yourself or to them, then this is likely the best path for you.
You might be dealing with guilt and wondering if cutting your parent out of your life is a truly Buddhist practice. In fact, compassion may not look loving from the outside:
Trungpa (1973) argues true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless. Compassion requires prajna or transcendental wisdom – an ability to see past shallow appearances and see true suffering and need. For this reason, compassion may involve giving someone what they really need, not what they want.Jennifer Goetz
If you cut your parent out of your life because your innate wisdom tells you this is what they truly need, this is okay. However, if you don’t follow through with meditation, compassion, and loving-kindness, they will still continue to cause you suffering via their past actions. So remember the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh above.
Reconciling and Healing Your Relationship with Your Toxic Parents through Buddhism
Brother Bao Tang on Plum Village App
In a video from Plum Village, Brother Bao Tang gives four steps to help heal relationships. If you want to maintain full contact and relationship with your toxic parents (#1 above), this would be a good path for you to follow in order to “begin anew”.
Step 1: Recognize the good qualities of your toxic parent
If you have been fighting with your parent or are feeling a lot of anger, seeing the good qualities in them can be difficult. But having compassion for someone means that you’re able to look past someone’s shortcomings to see the humanity in them.
Step 2: Express your regret
Let’s face it: as much as we want to lay sole blame on our parents, the truth is that we probably have said hurtful things out of anger, frustration, or disappointment as well. Looking into your past conversations and acknowledging the unskillful words or actions you took, and then expressing those things to your parents will go a long way in establishing trust with them.
Step 3: Express your hurt feelings
Explain (using “I” statements) how you felt. Perhaps you felt like they weren’t listening to you or it seemed like they were implying you were bad or wrong. Learning to express these feelings skillfully (without anger behind them) will help you communicate why you acted the way you did.
Step 4: Share your needs for moving forward in your parent child relationship
Last, you can share some things that you feel would help prevent these hurt feelings, such as boundaries (“I would appreciate it if you would call before coming over.”) or actions they can take (“I would appreciate it if you would take the time to listen to what I have to say without interrupting.”)
All four of these steps are based in understanding: you understanding your parent more and your toxic parent understanding you more as well.
What these steps do NOT do is require that you have expectations on your relationship moving forward. This is purely about communication, but not about expecting that they will change for you.
(Definitely watch the video. It’s a good one.)
Remember, none of these choices has to be permanent! If you try setting strong boundaries and it doesn’t work, consider giving yourself some space from them in order to truly work on what’s in your own heart.
ALL of these options are predicated on the fact that you will be doing the work inside yourself. If you don’t do the inside work, your toxic parent will still cause you suffering regardless of which path you choose.
If you’re a pop culture type, here’s a quote from Marvel’s Shang-Chi, told to Shang-Chi by his aunt Jiang Nan:
“You are a part of all who came before you.. A product of the good and bad. Stop hiding. It only prolongs the pain.”
Shang-Chi was dealing with a toxic and violent father, but it was only when he accepted the whole of himself and where he had come from (from the inside out) was he able to truly step into his power.
The same goes for you, even if you don’t wield ten powerful rings or summon dragons.
Please feel free to drop me a comment.
Are you Buddhist (or considering Buddhism) and dealing with toxic parents?
Was this helpful? What would you add or take away?