She walks into the room, with a nervous warm smile. First session, always the hardest. Recently, I was thinking about Anne a remarkable woman who came to see me with panic attacks. I look forward to Anne coming to sessions because she works extremely hard to tackle her fears.  She comes in and takes me back with how she tackles her feared environments. When we first met Anne her world had gone small, to such a point that she had not left her house for over a year.  Now she is tackling shopping centres, hotels, buses, trains. Anne came in recently and was worn down. She had made great progress but still felt trapped.  Before I go any further Anne is a wonderful, talented, humorous, kind, open, and intelligent person. I wish Anne could have heard that from her parents.


Answer these questions ……. When you were a child …

  • Did your parent(s) give you little praise or tell you were bad or worthless?
  • Did they put you down or embarrass you in front of your friends or their parents or in public?
  • Did they constantly criticize you, or tell you that you would never amount to anything?
  • Did your parents frequently use physical means to discipline you?
  • Were you frightened of your parents?


Imagine saying yes to these questions and having to care for that parent.  What emerged was Anne was caring for an elderly parent who was toxic.  In Anne’s early life there was little love, hugs and warmth. An absence.  Often when this absence is present as a child or adult, the adult often still seeks recognition from their parent. More often than not this is not forthcoming.


A crunch point happens when the parent gets older and now the adult child is in a position to provide care for a parent who didn’t care.  Anne told me she felt obligated to care for her elderly mother, whom she loved but never really liked.  I have come across these circumstances many times. Often, not always the sons, brothers – men take on fewer carer responsibilities compared to daughters & sisters.  There is often a cost to this type of caring.


Imagine caring for an elderly father or mother, after listening to a lifelong of nasty putdowns, anger outbursts and criticisms. Many times the dynamics in these relationships are that negative behavioural patterns are deeply ingrained because the family enabled the parent for years to be able to behave badly without consequences. This is very common.


Tom who cares for an elderly father said to me “I didn’t know to set boundaries with my father either, so when he pounded the kitchen table (“BANG”) and yelled expletives about something, instead of telling him I would not tolerate that behaviour and getting up and leaving the room, I cowered and walked on eggshells all the time trying not to upset him.”


What a nightmare, Do you suffer in silence, where you ‘implode’ or does the toxicity build up to a point that you ‘explode’ most likely at the people you love not the toxic person. Then it’s time to try these strategies.


Six Key Messages


  1. It’s critical that you put your own needs first, so that you remain healthy to cope with the demands of toxic people in your life.


  1. Family and friends of carers coping with difficult parents need to make sure the carer takes good care, as the risk to their health is even greater.
  2. Remember these feelings are normal as
  • toxic parents are so very different from normal parents;
  • Their toxicity scars their children so that they can sometimes grow into adulthood feeling inadequate, unloved and worthless.
  • Your challenge is to build your self-confidence, inner strength and emotional independence.


  1. Develop a care plan with family members, rota’s, time out, engage external carers, in-home and out of home respite,


6.Use a strategy of “detaching”. Detaching is a method of setting boundaries to protect yourself. Give up the notion that you can control their behaviour, and you stop allowing them to control yours. It’s hard. It takes practice. Detaching with love means that you affirm that you love the person, but will no longer tolerate being treated with meanness or disrespect.


  1. Put an end to this problem by setting clear boundaries, calling in reinforcements, and carrying through by letting others take over the caring role when you need respite, could be vital to you and your parent.


  1. One thing that can help is to realise that the little kid inside of us most likely still wants our parents’ approval. When we can’t get that, even as adult caregivers, it hurts.


Remember Anne, she adopted some of these strategies.  In effect she reduced the toxicity of this situation. She put her own needs front and centre. No miracle happened, the real world is not like that. She found it difficult to say to her mum on occasions when her behaviour was inappropriate – but she did. Anne reduced the dose of the toxicity and was moving towards thriving with other parts of her life, not just surviving. Sometimes you have to face your fears and say what you have been putting off for years in order for things to change.  If Anne can do it so can you.