It is all too common for parents to cause real grief for their adult children. Many of those children find themselves asking, “Should I cut off my parents?” It’s not a small question and not a small step to take. As a family therapist, I tend to recommend taking this major step only in rare situations. How do you know if your situation is one of them?
Here are the circumstances under which you might have to make the drastic decision of cutting off toxic parents:
- Your parents are abusive.
- Your parents refuse to respect the boundaries you have clearly set.
- There is a clear risk of harm to you or your children.
- Even minor interactions cause you major distress.
Even in such situations, there are two more conditions I would suggest:
- You’ve tried maintaining a minimal, detached relationship.
- You’ve tried family therapy/coaching.
Before we elaborate on these points, let’s understand first why this is such a big deal and why a person should not be so quick to cut ties with their parents. (Note that I am just referring to “parents” as a unit in this post, although you may be considering this for just one or the other of your parents.)
Why is it a big deal to cut off your parents?
Cutting off your parents is in some way similar to cutting off your legs. They are integral to who you are as a person, whether you like it or not. Sometimes they might cause you a lot of pain. But you’ve really got to have a pretty darn good reason for cutting them off. It’s not something you do without trying basically everything else in your arsenal!
#1. People need parents
I don’t mean this in the practical sense of helping with babysitting or finances (although sometimes that is true too). What I mean is that our biological and psychological wiring makes us want and need a connection with our parents.
Why do most cultures consider it an offense to insult someone’s parents? Your parents are where you come from. If your origins are rotten, it says something about you as well. You see this very strongly in kids. No matter how awful, abusive, or dysfunctional the parents are, children will do all kinds of mental gymnastics to view them as good and okay, taking blame and guilt for terrible situations upon themselves instead.
Even as an adult, coming to terms with the fact that one’s parents are irredeemable is a painful and difficult process. Cutting them out of your life forces you to contend with that reality or else bury it under the rug and try to ignore it. That takes a lot of mental energy and can be very draining. It’s also not usually all that successful.
The most fundamental argument, then, against cutting off your parents is that it’s not good for you. It’s only when the costs of keeping even a cursory relationship with them are even greater that it becomes a preferable option. In many cases, keeping them at arm’s length to keep interactions at a safe emotional distance without cutting them off entirely is possible.
#2. You never know what the future will bring
Yes, things are bad now. Yes, your parents may never change.
But – it’s also possible they might. Even hardened criminals have had epiphanies that turned their lives around! So while the relationship might be miserable right now, it’s not impossible for things to be different in the future, even if nothing seems to be able to shift at present.
And even when parents don’t make a huge turnaround, they do tend to soften at the very end of their lives, if only out of physical or mental infirmity. After the funeral, many grieving sons and daughters have expressed regret over not having communicated with their parents for years or even decades
It is easier to come back together if some minimal relationship has been maintained than if you have severed ties entirely. If it’s possible to maintain some connection, you keep more options open for the unknown future than if you draw a hard line in the sand.
#3. Gratitude is key
We are all here because our parents gave birth to us, and, except in the case of the most abusive or neglectful parents, because they cared for us and provided food and shelter when we were too young to survive on our own. For that alone, we owe them a debt of gratitude, and certainly all the more so when they did a half-decent job of raising us.
But I am actually not arguing that you “owe it” to your parents to keep up a relationship with them even if they are causing you tremendous grief. That is a moral debate you may want to take up with your clergyperson of choice. The point I want to make is that, once again, it is not good for you to default on your debts.
Gratitude is a fundamental driver of happiness. If someone has done something kind for you, then recognizing that and experiencing gratitude for it is critical for your own personal well-being. To close that out of your mind and convince yourself that you don’t owe gratitude to someone who has done you kindness is to build psychological walls that will hurt you more than anyone else.
It is, of course, possible to feel thankful towards your parents and also determine that the right thing to do is nonetheless to cut them off, but the default position ought to be that our gratitude requires us to push ourselves to do for our parents, within reasonable limitations. Denying that gratitude out of anger for not treating you well is bad for your well-being.
So when should I cut off my parents?
Let’s now take a look at some indicators that this drastic step needs to be taken. This is not a comprehensive list – it’s impossible to conceive of every possibility a family could run into.
But before you decide that your situation does call for a termination of the relationship, I urge you to think long and hard about it and consult an objective professional to ensure you’re thinking clearly.
You may justifiably be angry, and you may be right that it’s time to cut the connection, but rarely is a decision made in anger the best one.
#1. Your parents are abusive
As an adult, you are probably not subject to physical or sexual abuse from your parents, although it’s unfortunately not unheard of. (Note: if you have been physically or sexually abused in the past by your parents or anyone else, please make sure you are getting help healing from that!) Certainly, if either of those is the case, severing ties with them (or the one who is abusing you) might be the safest option.
More likely, though, we are talking about verbal and emotional abuse. If your parents intentionally try to tear you down and make you miserable, it might be necessary to get yourself away from that. This should be distinguished from parents who are obnoxious or genuinely believe their criticism is meant to help you “shape up” or improve yourself. Obviously, their approach might be lacking, but if they genuinely have good intentions, there is probably a way to keep some minimal relationship going without being miserable.
It’s important to check this out with a neutral third party before deciding that your parents are intentionally being abusive or nasty. It’s easy to attribute negative intentions to someone who is hurting you, even when those intentions aren’t there. (There’s actually a name for it – hostile attribution bias. You commonly see this in kids who, for example, flip out when someone bumps into them, insisting it was done on purpose.) As you have already seen, I consider cutting ties a last resort, and it’s important to be sure it’s the only option before going ahead.
#2. Your parents refuse to respect boundaries you have clearly set
There are many ways that boundaries can be violated. It could be as literal as parents that won’t stop walking into your home uninvited (anyone remember the show Everybody Loves Raymond?). It could also be less obvious, like a refusal to stop asking questions about your love life or inserting themselves into your relationships with others (your spouse, siblings, etc.).
Again, this should be distinguished from parents who are just pushy or nosy. In any relationship it’s on you to set boundaries. Maintaining those boundaries allows you to keep most people, including parents, at an appropriate distance. For example, you can change the locks and not give them the key, or change the subject any time your love life comes up. Likewise, you can make it clear that you won’t discuss with them your relationship with your brother.
You should also verify that you have established and clearly communicated such boundaries. Wanting them to butt out and making a clear statement about what they should butt out of, and what the consequences will be if they do not, are two different things. Again, consulting with a coach or therapist can be helpful in determining if you’ve set clear boundaries or in learning how to do so.
#3. There is a clear risk of harm to you or your children
Here I am not referring to a situation of physical or sexual abuse – obviously, if a parent is physically attacking you or if you are concerned that a parent is sexually abusing your child, these are the kinds of situations where you may need to cut off contact for your or your family’s safety.
There may also be situations where there is a risk of harm that your parents do not intentionally perpetrate. For example:
- A parent who has a problem with drug or alcohol addiction.
- A parent who has a mental illness that makes them unsafe.
- A parent who is providing your child with access to things that are unsafe, such as alcohol, cigarettes, guns, or pornography. (Showing a minor child pornography is in fact a form of sexual abuse.)
Again, taking these as reasons to end the relationship with your parents assumes you’ve made it clear to them that their behavior is unacceptable to you. (You may think this should be obvious, but it’s nonetheless a step that should be taken.)
#4. Even minor interactions cause you major distress
If every interaction with your parents leaves you miserable, overwhelmed, and drained, it might be time to break away from that and cease contact. This is true whether your stress is due to how difficult they are or to your inability to cope.
That is to say, it could be your parents aren’t toxic or abusive, just run-of-the-mill difficult, but you have your own mental health issues that make it impossible for you to manage. That is fair. If you don’t have the bandwidth to have them in your life and be able to function normally, then you need to make sure you can survive above all.
But – it’s important in this case that you are attending to your mental health – learning coping skills, mindsets, and tools to manage better. The goal should be to strengthen yourself enough to be able to handle a relationship with run-of-the-mill difficulty and not fall apart (because, let’s be real, there are a lot of those people out there!).
If you are in generally good mental health and are able to get along with other difficult people besides your parents, but your parents are so toxic that they manage to make every interaction into a disaster despite your best efforts at keeping the peace, then cutting the cord might be the best answer.
I suggest two conditions that ought to be met before considering the last resort of ending contact with a parent.
Obviously, these do not apply where there is physical/sexual abuse happening or where there is a clear and present danger at hand. To take an extreme example, if your parent is experiencing a psychotic mental illness and is literally threatening physical harm, you need to protect yourself and your family above all.
However, in less severe situations, I think it is important to try all avenues before cutting off contact entirely for these reasons. Below are two options that should be considered first.
1. Family therapy/coaching
Often people are locked into unhealthy relational patterns simply because that’s what they know and that’s what they’ve always done. But this can change. Families can learn new ways to interact and improve their relationships – and even if you don’t become a close-knit, picture-perfect family, you can certainly move the needle to where it’s actually enjoyable (or at least tolerable) to be around each other.
If you try working together as a family with a professional and there is no improvement (or not enough), or if you ask your parents to go to therapy with you and they refuse, at least then you can say you’ve tried everything you could. To walk away from the relationship without trying to get outside help is selling yourself short. Just as you wouldn’t cut off your legs, diseased as they may be, without talking to a doctor first, so too you shouldn’t run to cut off your parents without talking to a professional.
2. Maintaining an arm’s-length relationship
Sometimes it’s sufficient to keep your parents at a distance without dropping them entirely. Maybe it’s a phone call once a week, once a month, or just seeing them on holidays (and keeping your head down to make it through). You share little about your personal life and nothing about topics that are very sensitive for you; you have a hey-how-are-you call from time to time, chat pleasantries, and move on.
This is usually a healthier option where it’s possible. Of course, truly toxic parents can make even this level of relationship miserable (and if they are the boundary-violating type we discussed above, they may not accede to a relationship at this level anyway).
It’s Up to You
At the end of the day, only you know what you can and can’t handle in your life. That said, you are also not an objective participant in this process, and it’s critical to consult with folks who are before going through with cutting off your parents. I hope that is not your situation, but if it is, know that we’re here to help.