How to Deal with a Toxic Primary Caregiver offers techniques to better understand and cope with caregivers who have a way with words. Oftentimes, the focus of therapy moves into our upbringing and it can begin to sound like our parents are blamed for most of our problems. The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a perfect childhood. There are no perfect parents, there are no perfect children and there is no perfect way to raise children. However, we often are triggered by our parents, and it can happen from the most random and seemingly benign interactions. It can be a simple question from a mother to a daughter – “You’re wearing that?” – and we’re off to the races.
Why is it that when parental figures or primary caregivers say certain things, an emotion takes over and triggers a well of rage that includes memories of all the times that person has hurt our feelings? In this blog I would like to set about discussing how to talk to Moms/Dads/Primary Caregivers – specifically, the hurtful and toxic ones. Using methods to Pause, understand the context in which caregivers learned behaviors, setting boundaries to help curb our reactions, and finally getting to a place where you can laugh at it. Hope this helps maintain some sanity this summer, indoors, wearing masks, and driving each other nuts.
There can be a whole list of things mothers say to daughters, and fathers say to sons, or primary caregivers say to the children for whom they care that can creep under your skin and cause an explosion. Here are some examples:
“You’re wearing that?”
“Well, I would have made a different decision.”
“Your (sibling) doesn’t do that.”
“Maybe we should skip dessert this time.”
“Why haven’t you been promoted at work yet?”
“Don’t mess this up.”
“I don’t have anything to say to that.”
The really important thing to remember when you are in any triggering situation, especially one with a primary caregiver, is to stop before you react. Stop yourself. If you know you will be in their presence in advance, have a talk with yourself. Before you call them to give them news, also have a talk with yourself. Your reaction you have complete control of and managing your expectations is 100% you.
Taking a pause is as simple as ten deep breaths. Before you make a phone call, when you walk into a familiar home, anytime you feel you might be in danger of negative emotions take a pause. This is the best advice I have for just about any scenario. Take ten deep breaths and have a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it is impossible to do either and just a few breaths or pause is a start. Pausing is the key to keeping yourself from engaging in a hurtful exchange. If history has shown you anything, you know that reacting leads to an exchange that causes you pain or discomfort. So change the script. First pause, then proceed differently and more calmly. But pausing gives you more control.
Context is key to communication, but context in terms of ancestry is also key in managing your response to a primary caregiver. Prior to engaging with your loved one, consider their parents, and their parents’ parents, their generation and cultural background, and what they are used to. You cannot change anyone. You can manage your expectations and use the context of their wounds as a starting point for healing your own.
Use this context to develop empathy. Most parents and primary caregivers do the best they can with what they have. And, in some cases, all they have is their own trauma or mental illness. The same way a wounded animal snarls at anyone that comes close to it out of fear and vulnerability, so do many people. Instead of focusing on the anger you have towards your parent’s mistreatment of you, consider them wounded and functioning from their wound rather than them being intentionally malicious for no reason. As you would avoid that wounded animal’s snarl and readiness to bite you by treating them with patience and understanding, so can you treat your wounded parent.
It is all well and good to read articles on your own healing of toxic relationships and then distance yourself completely from your family, but you know what? That does not heal the wound that has already been created. You may still feel all the pain from that wound, even if you no longer interact with the person who created the wound in the first place. If you do not heal, you are likely to recreate similar dynamics in other situations which will only make you feel stuck. Reframe the context, malice becomes pain, and conduct yourself accordingly.
Set boundaries. Enforce boundaries. And maintain boundaries consistently. For example, if you have an overbearing caregiver, insisting on being in your business 24/7 but only to sit back and narrate it with a sad ending, stop sharing so much of your business. Wanting to meddle for the sake of negative judgment is not to be mistaken for closeness or concern. Choose when you will be interacting, what you will tolerate, how much you feel comfortable sharing and take a break if you need to. In other cases, you may have parents who are very uninterested in your life or who are very ego-centric, maybe even narcissistic. Communicate your needs clearly and explain what their part is in your needs. They may not be able to fully show up, but you also do not have to be their crutch. You can place limits on how much those types of parents lean on you, thereby creating space for yourself. With new boundaries, there is often pushback or an expression of rejection. Their perception of rejection may be difficult to bear at first, but boundaries take practice and are healthy for all relationships. It is not your job to make them feel less rejected, especially when that comes at a steep price to you. It is solely your job to protect yourself and keep yourself safe in the dynamic. By trying to appease them through a loosening of your boundaries, you are keeping them safe emotionally at the expense of your own emotional safety. Eventually, when you walk away from your interactions with this person feeling less guilty/attacked, you will start feeling much better about setting and maintaining your boundaries. You will also find that you can use them in other relationships in your life more readily. Having the ability to keep yourself safe is empowering.
If you can suppress the tears and frustration of the often callous and insensitive remark of a primary caregiver, you can laugh at the fact that you may be more woke than that caregiver. You can laugh with gratitude at the fact that your caregiver has gifted you a clear roadmap of what NOT to do and a solid list of goals for the way you want to live and interact with others or with your own children. Most of us have some generational phrases that are used in all families, and when you look at them as an outsider, they may contain some levity. It may be fun to exchange with your friends some of the classic one-liners that are dropped like grenades at your family gatherings, you are likely to find that most people can resonate with these experiences. After all, family puts the “fun” in “dysfunction”.
Feeling like it is too much to try this alone? I can help
Feel free to listen to more here on boundaries as well!