Is Your Relationship With Your Parent So Toxic You Should Cut Ties?
The new book by Nickelodeon child star Jennette McCurdy about the abuse she suffered from her mother is sparking lots of conversation. Mental health experts weigh in.
In the unapologetically titled memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died, the child actor and star of iCarly Jennette McCurdy writes that her mother, Debra McCurdy, abused her physically, sexually, and emotionally until the elder McCurdy died of breast cancer in 2013.
In the book, McCurdy says she’s still processing the trauma she carries from her relationship with her mother, even though she no longer has to deal with her mother’s toxic presence in her life.
The book caught the attention of audiences as soon as it was released earlier this month — it’s currently the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon’s nonfiction chart. Rolling Stone reported that the book sold out on the day of its release on Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble.
And, it’s sparking a lot of conversation about the many different ways parents abuse their children, and how adult children can work on healing past traumas, with or without their parents in their lives.
“We’re biologically wired to have strong attachment needs that are more strongly tied to our primary caregiver (or caregivers) than any other human on the planet,” says Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, a psychologist in Melrose, Massachusetts, and the managing director of the Complex Trauma Treatment Center in Boston. When these bonds are tested and abused, it can certainly lead to trauma and pain long afterward.
I’m Glad My Mom Died also brings to light the fact that it can be difficult for children to acknowledge a parent’s behavior as abusive, especially when the bad behavior happened many years back.
Here, Dr. Spinazzola and other mental health experts break down why it can be tough to address a parent’s bad behavior, how to determine whether your relationship with a parent is toxic, and what to do about it as an adult.
What’s the Difference Between Tough Love and Abusive Behavior?
There are some types of abusive behavior — physical and sexual abuse — that are problematic in any context (more on that below). But when it comes to emotional abuse, the line between a tough parenting style and problematic behavior isn't so cut-and-dried.
Naiylah Warren, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Brooklyn, New York, who consults at the mental health care app Real, says the difference between tough love and emotional abuse often comes down to context.
“Every family system — with the exception of very obvious behaviors like sexual abuse and violence — will have their own view of what toxic is based on various factors like social norms, family traditions, even specific customs,” Warren says. Again, she emphasizes that certain behaviors (sexual abuse and violence) are always abusive, no matter the context.
It’s important to point out that different parents have different parenting styles, and some prefer a tough-love approach.
Strict, authoritative parenting isn’t always toxic, but experts say that it is sometimes used to mask bad behavior. Many parents justify mean-spiritedness under the banner of tough love, says Bruce Bassi, MD, a psychiatrist in Jacksonville, Florida, and the medical director of TelepsychHealth, who has run therapy groups for adults who were abused as children.
There can be overlap, meaning that depending on the context, certain behaviors can qualify in some cases as tough love and in other cases as abuse, Dr. Bassi says. “The line can be very blurry and depends on the intent and mindset of the parent and the situation at hand.”
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), child abuse includes any type of physical violence or sexual acts, as well as child neglect. These behaviors always constitute abuse. The APA counts all the following as acts of abuse:
- Shaking, shoving, slapping, or hitting
- Beating with a belt or other object
- Burning with matches or cigarettes
- Scalding with water that’s too hot
- Pulling a child’s hair out
- Not letting a child eat, drink, or use the bathroom when needed
- Fondling a child’s genitals, or having a child touch an older person’s genitals
- Having intercourse or oral sex with a child
- Having sex in front of a child
- Using a child in pornography, or showng pornography or other X-rated materials to a child
- Not meeting a child's basic needs (food, shelter, adequate clothing, a decent place to sleep)
- Leaving a child unwatched or in an unsafe place
- Not seeking necessary medical attention for a child
- Not having a child attend school
If you experience something that’s not on this list and you’re not sure whether it was abuse, Bassi and Warren say that the following behaviors can also be red flags:
- A parent not showing much empathy unless you’re really sick
- Heavy enmeshment — enmeshment denotes a relationship that prevents individuals from having a sense of personal identity
- A parent who uses coercion to force a child to take sides during a conflict so as not to be punished
- A parent who puts pressure on a child to make money for the family
- A parent who constantly compares their child to others, in front of the child, which can lead to severe insecurity and resentment
Acknowledging Past Abuses Later On — Why It Can Be Difficult
Even in adulthood, when children are no longer dependent on their parents and have a better understanding of abuse and toxic relationships, it can be tough to acknowledge that parents were abusive.
“Recall bias tends to make one remember the most salient events — the really bad and the really good,” Bassi says.
Recall bias means that someone’s reporting of a past behavior or event tends to include both accurate and inaccurate aspects, and that typically people either overestimate or underestimate the frequency with which a certain behavior occurred, according to the APA's definition.
When it comes to remembering a traumatic part of your childhood, that means someone who suffered overt physical abuse as a child will likely remember that abuse as a big part of their relationship with their parents, Bassi explains. But someone who experienced more subtle abuse, like emotional manipulation or coercion, might not count their parents as abusive (because instead, more noteworthy positive memories tend to come to mind).
Plus, it’s natural to give your parents the benefit of the doubt. “A child enters the world trusting this individual who provides food, shelter, and basic necessities,” Bassi says. The child wants to believe that a parent’s behaviors are for their own good.
Deciding to Mend or Cut Ties With a Toxic Parent
McCurdy’s book makes clear that childhood abuse — from a parent or anyone else — can lead to trauma that has long-term effects.
Data suggests that adults who experienced physical abuse as children may be as much as twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety, and are more likely to develop diabetes, cancer, migraines, arthritis, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than adults who were not physically abused as children, according to a study in the September 2022 issue of Aging and Health Research.
Other research suggests that the experience of emotional abuse as a child is associated with greater likelihood of depression and depressive symptoms as an adult, according to a study published in January 2020 in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.
Spinazzola, who is also a traumatic stress researcher and adjunct professor at Richmont Graduate University, says that it’s always up to the survivor of abuse to decide whether or not to mend the relationship with the offending parent.
“Often, parents reach out wanting to mend the relationship,” he says. “It’s never the responsibility of an adult child to assuage the guilt of the offending parent(s) — whether or not to mend the relationship is up to the survivor, who has had choice, power, and safety taken away from them.”
Deciding to Mend Ties
One reason that an adult child might want to mend ties is if the lack of a relationship with their parents has left a void they can’t fill, Spinazzola says. “I’ve worked with lots of clients who spend their lives chasing the wrong romantic partners because, consciously or not, they’re trying to get their primary-caregiver needs replaced, while also getting their romantic needs met, and that’s a setup for failure.”
Healing a relationship with an abusive parent isn’t a guarantee that an adult child’s relational attachments will get healthier, nor is it a guaranteed remedy for other problems, but in some cases it can help.
In order for relationship healing to happen, Spinazzola says the following things are crucial:
- The offending parent must acknowledge the harm they’ve done in the past.
- The parent needs to have addressed (through therapy or other forms of treatment) any other issues that contributed to the abuse, like addiction, depression, or their own intergenerational trauma.
When Are You Better Off Cutting Ties?
Again, it’s entirely up to the adult child to decide whether or not to cut ties with an abusive parent, and that decision might change over time. Bassi and Spinazzola say that if the offending parent is exhibiting any of the following, it’s a sign that it might be best to cut ties:
- Being overreactive and easily irritated when you share your feelings and past experiences with them
- Refusing to acknowledge that they were abusive
- Centering conversations of healing around their own interests, like assuaging their own guilt
- Not respecting your opinion or differences
- Rarely showing empathy for you, or refusing to acknowledge your trauma
- Not respecting your boundaries even after you’ve told them repeatedly how you expect to be treated
It’s also possible that, even if your parent has good intentions and has addressed their own issues, continuing a relationship with that parent may still feel too triggering for you, Spinazzola says. If that’s the case, you have every right to cut ties. If you want to, you can process this in therapy with the help of a mental health professional and consider mending the relationship later (or not).
If you do end up cutting ties with a parent, remember that you’re allowed to reassess this in the future if you want to.
For example, if your parent is in a dire situation or has a terminal illness and you feel pressure to communicate with them, you might enlist the help of a close friend, trusted family member, or therapist to figure out if and how you could do that.
As the adult child of an abusive parent, it can be hard to process past trauma while also deciding how to move forward. Consider seeking help from a therapist, counselor, or other mental health provider if you’re struggling, Spinazzola says. It’s also important to note that even if you decide to neither mend nor cut ties with an abusive parent (whether that abuse was physical or emotional or both), a therapist or other mental health professional can help you work through any trauma you continue to experience, work on personal healing, and ultimately improve your well-being.