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Forgive your Toxic Parents


Tips to Forgive your Toxic Parents

Forgiving our parents is a core task of adulthood, and one of the most crucial kinds of forgiveness. We see our parents in our friends, in our bosses, even in our children. When we've felt rejected by a parent and have remained in that state, we will inevitably feel rejected by these important others as well.

But letting our parents off the hook, psychologist Robert Karen says, is the first step toward happiness, self-acceptance and maturity. Here are some thoughts to help the healing begin:

      Resolve resentment.

Nursing resentments toward a parent does more than keeping that parent in the doghouse. We get stuck there, too, forever the child, the victim, the have-not in the realm of love. Strange as it may seem, a grudge is a kind of clinging, a way of not separating, and when we hold a grudge against a parent, we are clinging not just to the parent, but more specifically to the bad part of the parent. It's as if we don't want to live our lives until we have this resolved and feel the security of their unconditional love. We do so for good reasons psychologically. But the result is just the opposite: We stay locked into the badness and we don't grow up.

      Develop realistic expectations.

The sins of parents are among the most difficult to forgive. We expect the world of them, and we do not wish to lower our expectations. Decade after decade, we hold out the hope, often unconsciously, that they will finally do right by us. We want them to own up to all their misdeeds, to apologize, to make heartfelt pleas for our forgiveness. We want our parents to embrace us, to tell us they know we were good children, to undo the favouritism they've shown to a brother or sister, to take back their hurtful criticisms, to give us their praise.

      Hold on to the good.

Most parents love their children, with surprisingly few exceptions. But no parent is perfect—which means that everyone has childhood wounds. If we're lucky, our parents were good enough for us to be able to hold on to the knowledge of their love for us and our love for them, even in the face of the things they did that hurt us.

      Foster true separation.

To forgive is not to condone the bad things our parents have done. It's not to deny their selfishness, their rejections, their meanness, their brutality, or any of the other misdeeds, character flaws, or limitations that may attach to them. It is important to separate from our parents—which is to stop seeing ourselves as children who depend on them for our emotional well-being, to stop being their victims, to recognize that we are adults with some capacity to shape our own lives and the responsibility to do so.

      Let your parents back into your heart.

When we do that, we can begin to understand the circumstances and limitations they laboured under, recognize the goodness in them that our pain has pushed aside, feel some compassion perhaps, not only for the hard journey they had but also for the pain we have caused them.

      Commit to the journey.

Getting to a forgiving place, finding the forgiving side of ourself, is a long and complicated journey. We have to be ready to forgive. We should want to forgive. The deeper the wound, the more difficult the process—which makes forgiving parents especially hard. Along the way, we may have to express our protest, we may have to be angry and resentful, we may even have to punish our parents by holding a grudge. But when we get there, the forgiveness we achieve will be forgiveness worth having.


For many, it is a leap to consider that our parents did the best they could with their past, available resources, beliefs, and abilities. Yet to move out of the blame game and see ourselves as victims may require exploring our parents’ reality and giving up resentment and judgment. I feel blessed that my children appear to have done that for me.

This quotation by the psychologist and family counsellor, Dr David Stoop, summarizes why you might want to consider engaging in a process to forgive your parents or caregivers.

“Forgiveness, I have learned, is the key to resolving the pain of the past and breaking generational patterns. Without it, nothing is ever laid to rest. The past still operates in the present.”

My therapist had explained that it didn’t matter if I did the internal work of transforming the father in my head or felt courageous enough to experiment with transforming the actual relationship itself. I was blessed to be able to do both.


If you are ready to do some personal exploration of your relationship with a parent or caregiver, here are some initial steps.

1.     Write down how you feel. You might feel hurt that you were seldom seen and heard. You might feel angry for living in a state of fear or that your parents abandoned you or refused to get their addictions under control.

2.     Write a process letter to yourself. Write out these beginning sentences a number of times until you run out of responses.

      I resent you (parent/caregiver) for . . .

      As an adult I regret participating in this by. . .

      From now on, for my own self-care, I will . . .

3.     Have realistic expectations. The chances of your caregivers healing their past is less likely than your ability to accept them as they were and are. Believe they did the best they could. Accept that we are all flawed.

4.     Put a spotlight on their positive characteristics and deeds. This is not denying your pain. It is a reality check. Every day has a dark night and daylight. Don’t get lost in the dark.

5.     Imagine a healed mother, father, or caregiver. Visualise a different childhood for them with loving care, wise guidance, and abundant resources. Who might they have been?

6.     Find a substitute parent. Some people choose to ask an inspiring role model to be their substitute or fill-in parent. I feel honoured to have been asked by two amazing, younger women to fill that role.

7.     Develop a loving and affirming parent voice and presence for yourself. This part of yourself can give your wounded childhood parts what they need. Many of us need a process to help us grow up again, whole and perfect.

8.     If these healing activities seem overwhelming or simply difficult, please seek a trustworthy and experienced therapist.